parenting

The ‘best years’ myth

Last year I wrote about how much I dislike parents who delight in telling you that, whatever struggles you’re currently facing with your kids, there’s even worse to come. I’m sure there’s probably a technical psychological term to describe these people, but I’m tired and can’t be bothered researching, so I’m just going to call them ‘dickheads’.

In writing this blog I’ve sometimes been worried that my tales of toddler high-jinks will put the frighteners up parents with babies, but I’ve hoped readers will always remember that all little kids are different: things that have been challenges for us, with our children (*cough*picky eating*cough*) might scarcely register in your family’s experiences. This is obviously no reflection of our relative merits as parents – I’m not a crap mother because my kids are vegetable refuseniks, just like I’m not an awesome parent because my kids go to bed with no hassle every night and sleep for eleven untroubled hours. Some choices and attitudes might contribute to how our children turn out, but I’ve learned that 99% of my kids’ preferences, temperaments, and development should be credited to their essential natures, and the 1% contribution of ‘nurture’ amounts to little more than teaching a few social graces, like how to be a nice person, and why you should cover your mouth when you cough.

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Anyway, I’ve been inspired to write a rare blog post while on study leave today because I’ve just realised something that I wanted to share. Here it is: the baby years are not the ‘best years’.

The context of this realisation? I was telling a uni mate about how much fun four year olds are (because there’s nothing 21 year old blokes love more than listening to a woman twice their age talk about kids). And it made me remember how, when Hattie and Joe were babies and I was struggling and it was all like a horrible nightmare existence, and I’d post some pitiful status update on Facebook about how hard it all was, some well-meaning but clueless friend or acquaintance would invariably tell me that I’d miss the baby stage one day.

Four years later, I’m ready to call bullshit on this theory, for me at least. Seriously, what’s there to miss? Granted, I had cute babies – but I also had two of them at once, and naps out of sync for what seemed like forever, and six or seven breastfeeding sessions every day, and very limited conversation, and a post-pregnancy body that looked like a slowly-deflating bouncy castle. And I was so tired and stressed, pretty much all the time. I was so tired and stressed that I ended up really run down, with a hideous painful eye complaint called iritis that could have sent me blind if it hadn’t been treated promptly. I was so tired and stressed that the prospect of continuing to be at stay-at-home-mum filled me with horror, and drove me to enrol in a degree which is possibly taking years off my life, because it’s making me so tired long after parenthood stopped being relentlessly exhausting – how’s that for irony?

Babies are so lovely – especially when they’re not crying, or keeping you awake all night. It’s cute how they often seem to save their biggest, poo-filled nappy for when you’ve just put them into their capsule and are ready to leave for a doctor’s appointment or something – it’s good to challenge yourself regarding how quickly you can extract a now-stinking baby from said capsule and change their nappy, while they wail in your ear. The burst of adrenaline trying to pacify a disconsolate baby gives you can keep you feeling alive when the sleep deprivation has got you almost ready to give up. And hey! Having a baby means you learn to catch a nap at any opportunity: like when you have two breastfeeding babies latched on, or while sitting bolt upright in the driver’s seat, in at supermarket car park, after having driven senselessly for an hour in order to convince your overtired infants to fall asleep in their capsules.

After the first few weeks babies can bestow upon their weary parents the most adorable gummy smiles. However, to get to that point you first have to survive all those weeks when they look at you like you’re a piece of shit. My sister recently had a baby, and in his very first photo, straight after being born, his face suggests an interior monologue along the lines of “what the HELL just happened? I was SO HAPPY AND COMFORTABLE, and now I’m here, and it sucks. I didn’t ask to be born! Damn you all!” When she was tiny, Hattie used to look at me like she was a very grand member of the nobility – I always thought of Maggie Smith’s dowager countess from Downton Abbey – and I was a scumbag house maid who had really disappointed her. So yeah, little babies aren’t great when you’re craving positive feedback. Thankfully, Hattie and Joe started smiling just before I snapped and left them in a cardboard box on the steps of the local church.

Most small babies are terrible sleepers. And yes, I totally understand that it’s normal for them to want to wake up all the time, get fed and cuddled, and generally be with their parents – but seriously, it sucks when you’re very tired and just want to be undisturbed for a while. I know that sleep training isn’t for everybody, but I honestly believe that it changed my parenting life: I really didn’t feel like I enjoyed much about being a mother before we got some help when the kids were nine months old, and sorted out their nap schedule.

However, babies are quite easy to feed, and this is a huge thing in their favour. My early nursing issues are well documented on this blog, but once we got the milk flowing, breastfeeding worked well for all three of us. And the transition to solids was pretty easy as well, although I should have put my fears of mess aside and used baby-led weaning to introduce them to a wider range of food. I spoon-fed for too long, which might be why I now have two four year olds who are super fussy eaters.

In summary, babies are cute, and some elements of babyhood are easy, but the early days are so tough (especially when multiplied by two), and unless you have the good fortune to sort out fundamental issues like sleep, or get magical amazing sleep-all-night babies, that first year can be a real grind.

I’ve found my parenting groove more and more with every passing twin-filled birthday fiesta. I love the fact that my two children are strong, unique personalities who surprise me every day with their views of the world. I could live without the fussy eating, and I’m well and truly done with four year old temper tantrums (quite different to two year old emotional meltdowns, as these tantrums are driven more by deliberate bad humour, with a side order of wearisome sulkiness), but I do appreciate the fact that we can discuss problems with said tantrum-thrower, set consequences for poor behaviour, and follow through on it. And thankfully the two year old tantrum thrower grew out of it, so hopefully the same will soon apply to the four year old tantrum thrower. Everything about children, good and bad, is just a phase.

And here’s the thing: without blowing my own trumpet (remember: it’s 99% nature and 1% nurture, as far as I’m concerned), we’ve ended up with a couple of really nice little kids. They are kind to each other, they are respectful to us and other grownups, they place nicely with others, and they are curious, good-natured, convivial little souls. I may have many faults as a parent and as a person, but half of my genes made these people, and their awesomeness makes me so proud. And I do know that the 1% nurture bit involves living in a house where people are always kind and respectful to each other, where everybody uses their manners, where nobody says mean things about people they know, or about strangers, Mummy and Daddy work hard at uni and the office every day, and where we are tolerant and accepting of everybody. I feel good about the environment in which we’re raising our kids, and the example we’re setting them.

So if you’re in the throes of babydom and have been subjected to any of that unemphatic talk about how you shouldn’t take these precious, bloody endless baby days for granted, and feel like a freak because you pretty much hate this stage, take heart. You might just be like me: a slightly crappy mother of babies, but a pretty decent mother of little kids. It will get better, I promise. And if you are loving the baby stage, just you wait – the next stage is even more fun!

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