Jennifer O'Connell: Things I wish I’d known before having babies

If I could go back, there’s lots of advice I’d give myself – not that I’d have listened

“Parenting a newborn is like finding yourself in a Beckett play: you’ve no idea what you’re doing or what it all means or how it’s going to end, so you just turn up and muddle through.”

I must be doing something wrong, because here I am again: back at the GP’s surgery. I was never going to be one of those parents – uptight, overwrought, at the doctor so often they feel the need to start making jokes about loyalty cards and access to the member’s lounge.

But here I am, one of those parents. “Is it the rash again?” the receptionist asks sympathetically. I was here on Monday, or maybe it was Tuesday; I can’t tell any more because the days are careening into one another like bumper cars at the amusement arcade. Then, I was certain that my fully vaccinated child had measles. “No,” I say. “The rash is gone. It’s vomiting. And a temperature.”

She taps at her screen, moving appointments around like Tetris blocks until she can fit me in. My one-year-old is sick again and it is my fault. The doctor in the paediatric emergency department as much as said so earlier this month, when he jerked my baby’s thumb out of his mouth. He was going to go on getting sick if I didn’t stop him sucking his thumb. And why was he so small, he demanded. He was premature, I said. He should have caught up by now, the doctor replied accusingly.


I recount this and the receptionist tells me that one of her children used to have a blanket. He slept with it, and liked to suck the corner until it was nice and wet. At some point he discovered that optimal wetness could be achieved much more quickly by dipping it in the toilet bowl. “I was up and down to the doctor every week,” she says.


“I thought it would never end. But he’s 19 now and he’s never sick. It gets better,” she says, still looking at me, and for the first time in ages I feel that someone sees me.

So I take her at her word, and repeat it to myself like a mantra for the rest of that winter, and the winter afterwards, when the viruses seem to catch viruses and I am in and out the GP’s surgery with the regularity of someone flogging medical devices. There are multiple lung infections. Strange shaking episodes. Lurgies with Victorian-sounding names: hand, foot and mouth, slapped cheek. Bugs and rashes and lots and lots of vomit. When exactly will it get better, I manage to avoid asking her.

Then, one day, I notice that a season has passed between appointments. Then it’s a year. And another year.

And now, 10 years on, it is better. Other than a recent eye injury, my son hasn’t seen a GP in about seven years. He tells everyone he was sick so often when he was little that he has a superhuman immune system.

It’s 13 years this week since I became a parent, and I wish I’d known then that it gets better. If I could go back, there’s lots of advice I’d give myself, not that I’d have listened. Parenting a newborn is like finding yourself in a Beckett play: you’ve no idea what you’re doing or what it all means or how it’s going to end, so you just turn up and muddle through.

Still, there are things that might have been useful to know sooner. Like how newborn babies sound like something between a distressed squirrel and a miniature demon when they sleep. Or how nobody is having it that easy. I had to stop seeing one woman when our babies were tiny because every time I asked her about breastfeeding, or sleeping, or vaccinations, she just smiled glassily and murmured something knowing. Years later, I met her again and told her how envious I was of her. She was stunned. She could barely remember anything about that time, she said, because she was senseless with postnatal depression.


I also wish I had known that newborn babies don’t have to be put in cots; that they’re much happier strapped to someone’s chest. I wish I’d known that “routine” is a marketing term rather than a reasonable expectation for a tiny baby. I wish I’d known that they would get there in their own time, somehow: few children start school still wearing nappies and not sleeping through the night.

I wish I'd known that it wasn't all on us, and that no matter where we were in the world, we would never be alone – my children's lives have been shaped by, at various times, grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, childminders, the friends that became like family, teachers, neighbours, each other. I wish I had known that you don't have to puree your own fruit, since you can buy it already pureed in pouches; that good enough is good enough; and that one day they'd be asking me to take those Instagram photos down. I wish I'd known that being responsible for small humans would make my anxiety much worse, and eventually, as they turned into slightly bigger humans, much better.

Mostly, though, I wish I had known that the annoying people in the supermarket were right, even if, at the time, they’re lucky not to get an organic, sugar-free baby yoghurt chucked at them: it does pass, and when it’s gone, you will miss it. Even if there’s no way in hell you’d do it all again.