Why am I downplaying how much I adore my baby?
I’m all for spreading the unfiltered truth; being a mum is way harder than it looks
“Our artworks festered in the bottom of the school bag, not on the fridge door.” Photograph: iStock
I was raised by the “Sure, who’ll be looking at you?” generation of Irish mammies. We were told to get out of the house and not show up again until teatime, unless a limb was hanging on by a thread.
We petitioned for pretty shoes for school and got clumpy, grey ones instead. We were given bowl cuts whether we wanted them or not. We were to be seen and not heard, and ideally not even seen if we could manage it. Compliments and flattery were the devil. Our lives fitted into those of our parents, not the other way around. We were punished for interrupting an adult conversation. Our artworks festered in the bottom of the school bag, not on the fridge door.
We were reminded, time and time again, that we were not in any way special.
Things are very different now: smallies’ artworks are given the import and attention of Uffizi gallery exhibits. I’ve seen buggies with sheepskin foot-muffs and white noise machines. Parents will go to great lengths to afford their children a great start in life – spiritual, physical, emotional – and will spend a lot of money to help their babies avoid discomfort or boredom.
And yet, oddly, I find myself caught between the two. I’m a “sure who’ll be looking at you” mother, with a white noise machine. And I need to be careful about that.
I noticed it early on when I met an old friend when the baby was a few weeks ago. “Aw, is it pure love?” she sighed. I bristled. “Well, it’s sort of ‘like’,” I responded. Even in the moment, I felt awful. Why did I feel the need to downplay things? I looked down at the sleeping baby and instantly felt awful for her, and for not acknowledging the truth: that I was staggering between punch-drunk love and terror that I was going to mess it all up.
Why am I putting the baby down in front of others, or downplaying how much I adore her?
The compliments kept coming. “How sunny your baby is!” some observe. “She’s so beautiful,” people would coo, and she truly is.
Yet instead of saying this, I swat it away.
“She’s a divil,” I counter. “You wouldn’t think she’s so cute at 4am.” And a stock phrase that seems familiar from my own earliest years: “This one’s getting big and bold.”
On national radio, I made the mistake of calling her, in jest and with genuine affection, that my daughter is manipulative. She is, to be fair: she knows that enough crying will get her lifted out of the cot and into our bed. As sure as night follows day, someone on Twitter called me out for my choice of language, and how I should be careful when choosing a vocabulary to describe my child. If there’s an annoying type of person on Twitter, it’s the person who likes to instruct, pontificate and cut others down to size under the guise of “I’m only thinking of the children”. Initially, I was incensed, but then the exchange gave me pause for reflection.
I’ve been trying to unpack this; why am I putting the baby down in front of others, or downplaying how much I adore her? And, another more unwelcome thought: what damage could I be doing to her in the longer run?
Part of me feels as though it’s a reaction to the cult of parental perfection, writ large on social media and perpetrated by a few smarmy types who seemingly haven’t broken stride with their hairdresser or make-up artist appointments since birthing their baby (naturally). Of all the types of mother I want to be, I know I don’t want to be one that blathers on endlessly as though my voicebox has Vaseline all over its lens; about how blessed and besotted and deliriously happy I am.
The truth is that parenthood offers so many of these moments, but not talking about the other stuff – the harder stuff, the less dreamy side of it – means that so many mums are isolated in their overwhelm. Recently, I met with a friend who is a new mum to a gorgeous and healthy little boy. She is delighted and feels so lucky, but still can’t help comparing herself to the Insta-mums who make it all look so easy. When her child is colicky or sleepless or plain cranky or hungry, she feels like a failure because she’s been led to believe that parenting a newborn is one blissed-out moment after another; all cuddles and coos with a bundle of softness.
Perhaps my “She’s a little divil” comments are a reflex reaction against all of that. I’m definitely all for spreading the unfiltered truth; being a mum is way harder than it looks, and sometimes appearances can be deceiving. The most beautiful baby is more than capable of running you down to your last nerve.
I had to learn to take a compliment without snapping back with a “Ugh, this old thing only cost a fiver” riposte. I now need to do the same for my daughter. She’ll never get a bowl haircut on my watch, but she really is the centre of everything now.
Her artworks will almost certainly end up on the fridge.