A Mother’s Guilt is Never Done

Before I went to university at the age of 18 I had never eaten an avocado nor tasted pesto but they are now two of my favourite foods. Before I went to piano lessons I had never heard of ‘muscle memory’, but I saw it in action when I played my scales almost perfectly despite not having practised for over 15 years. Before I had Maggie, I had never heard of ‘Mother’s guilt’, but Hell do I know it and live it now. It is one of the less desirable side affects of giving birth, along with saggy boobs and a dodgy pelvic floor and, in my case at least, it permeates every aspect of being a mother.

Now that I am back to work full-time I’m feeling that sickening sensation that all working mothers must endure – guilty that I’m not spending enough time with my precious duck. It definitely helps to know that she is being cared for like a lamb and that she is so happy to be with her childminder, but I do think that the days are too long and a wave of guilt hits me like a brick every day around 3 o’clock. Maggie is what the Baby Whisperer would call a ‘spirited’ child, constantly on a high energy drive especially when she is with other children. Her childminder Louise told me today that she has not yet – in the five weeks of minding her – seen her cry, complain or have a girly moan. Never. She rules the roost, sits in her high chair not eating very much but squealing with delight, happily goes off on her adventures exploring the garden or a new toy or some empty cereal box she has found and looks with dismay when some of the other babies get upset. But we know that what goes up must come down and Maggie’s slump hits as soon as I pick her up from childcare and often she cries with exhaustion all the way home. It’s as if she can’t relax properly or have a good cry until she sees me. I’m not sure how I feel about my new role as Maggie’s ‘downer’ but I know I feel guilty as hell when she’s left in childcare for 10 hours. Jeezus, I’m generally a happy chappy but even I would struggle to keep up such a cheery disposition for such a prolonged period.

But even before I went back to work the guilt was there. I spent the last few months of maternity feeling guilty that I was hanging out with Maggie way too much and she was missing out on the company of others. I also felt guilty that my maternity pay wasn’t adding a significant amount to the family pot and that, even though I was at home all day, the house was still in a mess and the hand washing was never done.

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For months I felt guilty that Maggie wasn’t enjoying the culinary delights that her peers were, and that my love of bland foods and lack of appreciation for anything exotic (see my comment above about avocado and pesto for goodness sake) were the cause. Then the guilt about feeding her mostly bread and porridge because that was all she would eat! I did reason with myself: ‘So what if she doesn’t eat her five a day unless it’s in an Ella’s Kitchen pouch. I never had anything more exotic than peas and carrots when I was growing up!’ I was also so grateful for my regular trips home to my sister and her three kids just to get some perspective on things and realise that doing your best for your precious bundles is about as much as you can do.

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There have been lots of other examples. A friend recently casually remarked how ‘energetic’ Maggie was and then laughed at how funny it was that I was always singing to her. ‘What? Do I?’ I replied, guilt sweeping over me like a rash as I jumped to the insane conclusion that my singing was leading to overstimulation (the worst thing EVER according to the bloody books) and her high energy levels. I’ve felt guilty about not spending enough quality time with Johnny and being wrrrecked and grumpy in the evenings when all energy has been spent. And you can guess how I felt when Maggie caught chicken pox when she was only 9 months old. Or when she knocked her chin against the bed and cut her lip while I watched her climb out of bed. Jeezus!

My sister and her littlest girl Nancy were meant to come over to see us this weekend for Maggie’s 1st birthday, but her middle girl Ella has tonsillitis. Mairead was already feeling the dreaded Mother’s Guilt about leaving her two at home while she came to London, but that guilt is just magnified ten-fold when your baba is sick. After all, all you want when you are sick is your mama. Hell, I caught some sort of bug this week and I found myself whimpering for mummy when I was feeling weak and emotional. I have told Mairead in no uncertain terms that she is not to come, much as she would love to. This guilt thing is bad enough without adding to it intentionally!

The worst thing is that there is no conclusion to this piece – this all-pervading and all-too-frequent feeling of guilt (a mixture of fear and hope?) is here to stay. I’m sure women have been feeling it since time began and that it is a normal feeling for every mother. Society puts a lot of pressure on a woman to do what’s right for the family but I think this pressure often comes from ourselves. The key is to be able to acknowledge the guilt but then let go of it. It’s easier said than done but after all, we know that a happy mummy = happy baby. So, grab the coffee or the glass of wine or do whatever it is that makes you feel relaxed and…. breathe!

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Maggie driving her truck at The Macs last weekend, completely oblivious to her ma’s insane guilt trips

The Crying Game

For most of us, the first six weeks with our new little bean is one of the most physically and emotionally challenging experiences of our lives. Just before Maggie was born my sister and mum-of-three warned me about those 6 weeks when the ‘fog’ would descend; a time that was likely to be quite hellish. For this reason I was more prepared than perhaps I should have been for the challenge that was to come. I expected to feel wretched, to not leave the house, not to be ready to see visitors, to not shower for days, and probably be in pain. I was in awe of the first-time mums I met during antenatal classes who told us how the birthing experience was difficult, sure, but they had still been out for dinner on Day 4. Day 4? I didn’t think the tears would have dried by then, and dinner would be frozen pizza for at least another fortnight yet. But as it turned out, it wasn’t quite as hellish as I had thought. The rush of hormones; the overwhelming sensation that this little being was YOURS, she was your responsibility, she was finally here; the absolute and all-encompassing exhaustion that hits you like a brick on the third or fourth day; the constant demands on you and your body and your brain; the sense of detachment you feel to your own body: this floppy, alien thing you can hardly bear to touch; the pain, the pain – all these still happened and tears were duly shed. But…I had half expected this (as much as you can, anyway) so I could cry and move on.

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That’s not to say that those first 6 weeks weren’t foggy, distracted and difficult. You are landed slap bang in a cyclone of nappies, feeding, nappies, tears, feeding, more nappies, feeding, (not much time devoted to cleaning or cooking then) while you function significantly below par on lack of sleep, cracked nipples and ‘baby brain’. I can’t even imagine doing all that with an unsettled little baby who cries constantly.

My friend Kelley’s wee girl had a really tough first 6 weeks; for her first fifty days on earth she was either crying or sleeping, after crying herself to sleep. Persistent criers have a hard time dealing with the world around them. And it is often a vicious circle – once they are upset, it can be hard for them to calm down. Coping with this at any stage in your life is tough, but try doing it when your body has just been through the most intense physical workout it is likely to face. Kelley was beside herself. The constant crying meant that her baba couldn’t really keep down her food, so also suffered from reflux. What was even more frustrating and alienating was that her doctor didn’t really take her anxiety seriously and she was left to get advice from pharmacists and other mummies. A constantly crying baby is a very real situation, whether it is diagnosed by a doctor or not.

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‘Colic’ is a term used to describe uncontrollable crying in a healthy baby. It is generally accepted that this is caused by abdominal pain, but we still don’t know what exactly causes colic; scientists have been trying to figure it out for more than 50 years. One theory suggests that half of all babies suffering from colic is caused by lactose intolerance. This is when babies, particularly premature ones, don’t produce enough enzymes in their guts to break down lactose into the more absorbable sugars, glucose and galactose, and so suffer from colic conditions such as wind and bloating, abdominal discomfort and crying. Because of the ambiguity around its cause, there is no real cure for colic and so it can be easy for doctors to be dismissive.

Kelley tried lots of remedies without success – from the Dr Brown’s ‘anti-colic’ bottles to ranitidine to help control the reflux. Her situation only improved around six weeks after another mum heard of her plight and suggested Carobel powder (carob seeds) to add to her baby’s bottles to thicken the milk. This helped to control her reflux and almost immediately her baba calmed down and smiled for the first time.

The first thing all new parents get used to is that crying is the only means a baby has to communicate, so it’s not a bad thing in itself. But it can be very overwhelming if you are recovering from a traumatic experience of childbirth. Crying usually only means that she is hungry, she is tired, she’s too hot or too cold, she has a dirty nappy or trapped wind. If it is none of these check to see if she is ill. Invest in a good digital thermometer and act straight away if she has a high temperature or if it just feels like something is amiss. Remember, your instincts are usually right so if it feels wrong, get it checked out straight away. Try every colic ‘cure’ you hear of or read about, and you hopefully will hit on the right one. One friend whose baby suffered terribly from abdominal pain went to a woman who had ‘healing hands’ and claimed to have the cure for colic. It worked for her little boy, whose knees visibly lowered and the pain in his belly seemed to dispel right in front of her eyes.

But if you have done all this and she’s still crying you just might have to ride it out with her. She might just be a ‘touchy’ baby or a ‘grumpy’ one, as Tracy Hogg the Baby Whisperer suggests, and you’ll soon learn what she likes and doesn’t. Those first foggy (and difficult) weeks don’t tend to last forever, but it is usually impossible to believe that things will improve when you are in the middle of your storm. For most babies, after six to eight weeks they settle into the world and become much happier little souls.

In the meantime here are some bits of advice I have been given or have since learnt to help you get through those first mad weeks:

1. Some babies are just über-sensitive little souls, and balk at loud noises, harsh lights, or strong smells. You will soon learn what elements annoy them, so try to avoid them if you can until your baba is a little older.

2. For some sensitive babes, low stimulation (soft lights and quiet) is best; for others, lots of repetitive stimulation like noise or a walk outside works well. The Sleep Sheep I recommended in my first post ‘Top 10 Things’ plays lots of white noise, or you can stick on the hoover or hairdryer, which lots of babies love. All Maggie needed in those first months was to get outdoors to calm her straight away. Even now just opening the front door is usually enough to do it. You’ll learn very quickly what level of stimulation keeps your baby happy.

3. Help your baby find ways of self-soothing, like sucking on her hands or snuggling with a soft muslin or toy. Controversial as it may be, sometimes nothing beats a good old suck on the dummy.

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4. Cranky o’clock in our house starts around 5.30 and lasts until bedtime. Many babies have a fussy time between 4 and 6 pm which is apparently caused by an overload of sights and sounds of the day as the babas try to unwind. This is the time to have a relaxing wind down to the day, put their jammies on and have a bath or chilled out playing.

5. Lots of babies react well to baby massage, which can be a calming way to chill out for both of you!

6. I have read that once your baba gets upset, don’t try ten things to calm them, stick with one thing for several minutes before you try something else. But often, stopping shaking the rattle or bouncing them up and down altogether is all that’s needed. I do think that over-stimulation can cause many babies to get annoyed when all they want is to be left alone.

7. I made the mistake of changing Maggie’s nappy at night every time she woke up as I just couldn’t imagine how she could go back to sleep with a wet bum. But now that she sleeps all night, it’s quite amazing to see how much liquid those nappies can hold. After all they are designed to keep baby’s bum dry. So, from the very beginning keep night feedings as sleepy and brief as possible. When baby bean cries, go to him immediately so he has no time to get into a wakeful misery. Don’t play or talk while you feed him. And do try to settle them as quickly as you can so they don’t have time to make themselves wide awake.

8. A very wise, wonderful, Irish mammy once said that what every child needs is a good sleep. Gosh, such wisdom in such few words. Maggie is only ever cranky and upset when she’s tired, and my older nieces are the same. Hell, you know yourself how good you feel after a decent sleep and how wrrretched you feel when you are wrrrecked. This is why I do agree with the mantra of never waking a sleeping baby.

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9. Don’t forget to take care of yourself so you don’t start crying too! Remember, as my friend Suzy says, happy mummy = happy baby.
Having a crying baby while you are recovering from childbirth is horribly stressful. Ask friends, family or good neighbours to help you out, do your laundry, or babysit for a little while. Taking time out will help keep things in perspective. Don’t worry about home cooking for a while; honestly, frozen pizzas are really very tasty nowadays. (Just don’t forget to stick it in the oven first). Do as much prep as possible before bambino arrives – enrol in antenatal classes, either through the NHS or NCT (or both!) so you know what to expect during those first weeks. After all, you won’t have the time, energy or inclination to look up information when you are right in the middle of the storm.

10. The good news is, the madness will end and your precious bean will grow into a bubbly little person who isn’t as needy or emotional as they had been during those first few weeks and months. That, or you’ll just get used to living on 6 hours sleep a night with a baby who is a bit grumpy most of the time. That’s when the coffee and wine come in handy.

Good luck, and remember – even in the dark moments, in the middle of the night when you and baby bean are both crying – you’re not alone!