When I first brought my daughter home from the hospital, I was full of love. Also full of questions and doubt. But as we navigated the first few days that turned into weeks and eventually months, I got my rhythm. I didn’t know it all but I was learning. I read a lot of articles, books, and blog posts at odd hours with a newborn sleeping on my chest. I asked our paediatrician and my mum about a million burning questions and didn’t always love their answers. I called my neighbour at 2 am even though we’d only met recently, because she had a three-month start on parenthood and I knew she could help me in my hour of need. I wasn’t in a bubble. I was a sponge and I wanted to soak it all up. But I also needed to learn in my own way. I needed to make mistakes.
I needed to arrive at the shops with a screaming 3-week-old in tow and an empty nappy bag in order to reach a point where I had messed up horribly enough to put a system in place for getting out the door. I needed to move her naps around from laps in cars to the baby swing to the cot in order to find what worked for us. I needed to spend 45 minutes alone in my kitchen in the dead of the night, crying and eating ice cream straight out of the carton, with my breasts attached to a machine that looked like a Medieval torture device and only yielded about 100 ml total, to learn I was done with pumping.
You want to know what I didn’t need? The constant, unyielding, aggressive, pitchy, pointed, nagging “advice” from the outside world. And I mean all of it. From the lady standing in line in front of me feeding the parking metre to a close friend whose kids just started kindergarten. In those first few months, I heard it all. And if I had listened to all, I swear my daughter and I would both be lying in a ditch somewhere, still, with no clue how to navigate daily life, because they all contradicted each other.
I was exhausted and felt battered. I knew I had a lot to learn but I also knew that I was a parent, and I was doing a pretty decent job. I felt offended and stressed out when other people hit me with their unsolicited advice, and I never really knew how to respond because verbally disagreeing seemed to bring on only more.
“That baby should be wearing a hat,” while nestled in her mother’s arms in a living room at Christmas time from a woman whose kids are in their 40s? Already contradicted by our paediatrician who had told me to take two days off from infant caps because the baby had a rash and we were using special medication to make the area less irritated.
“Times like these I bet you wish you were bottle-feeding” when I struggled for under three minutes to get my distracted 4-month-old to latch beneath a breastfeeding cover when my husband and I finally braved the real world for brunch after being prisoners in our apartment for months. I heard a little public praise for my choice to breastfeed, but mostly the remarks were nasty on either end of the spectrum. “You shouldn’t be doing that here” and “Cover up” were among my favourites — even though in our entire year-and-a-half run the only people who ever saw a nipple were my husband and a nurse, who was checking my newborn’s latch for us.
Then there were the friends who came down hard on either end of that spectrum. Pressuring me to give her a bottle when my supply dipped during an illness. Pressuring me to “feed through the pain” and “put her first” when a dual diagnosis of mastitis and thrush came knocking on our door. And frankly? I wanted to tell each and every one of them to shove it and leave the decisions about our feeding plan up to me and my daughter, but I was too shy, tired, or broken down. So I just nodded. And then cried when they left.
“That’s a terrible pram — you should turn it in and get one that folds down on its own.”
“We haven’t seen you at yoga in weeks. Try coming at 6 am before the baby’s up, and you’ll feel so refreshed afterward.”
“Are you sure you should be drinking wine?”
On and on and on it went from morning to noon and night. I was spoiling the baby, I was feeding her too much or too little. She shouldn’t sleep in her cot in her room because she’ll never be able to form attachments to other humans. But the one night she slept in bed with me while visiting my mum’s house, I was told I might roll over and crush her.
It turned me into someone spiny and irritated. It made me recklessly defensive. My old skills honed on the commuter train to work came back in full force. I widened my stance to appear bolder and more difficult to approach, using my elbows and darting eyes as don’t-mess-with-me defence tools to keep opinionated onlookers at bay.
I was rude to my mum and mother-in-law in reaction to their annoying advice way more than once. I developed a system of sweeping up the baby in a blanket and storming out of a room without having to unlatch her mid-breastfeed. And the worst part? I didn’t want to be like this! I wanted good advice, when I wanted it. I wanted to know what other mums had tried and what they knew. But I wanted to be the one who decided when to ask. I wanted to feel that the people around me trusted me to take care of my own child. Why couldn’t they just see that?
And then I figured something out. The advice, most of it, was well-meaning. And above that, it wasn’t all about me. A lot of these people — strangers, parents, friends — are not only giving it because they want to help. A lot of it has to do with reliving a certain time in their own lives. Because even though the early days at home with a baby are anything but easy, a certain sense of nostalgia kicks in when you no longer have a baby at home and you see a mum who’s struggling to figure something out with hers — or just doing it differently than you did.
So, I lost the crazy eyes (for the most part) and tucked the elbows away. I stopped being so defensive and instead learned to greet the unwarranted tips with a nod, smile, and move right along (unless it’s downright mean and critical, in which case, game on). I know I can take what I need and leave what I don’t, but as a brand-new mum, the advice overwhelmed and seriously stressed me out.
Now that my baby is a toddler, I know a lot more. I have a new set of ideas for how I’ll deal with certain challenges if we ever have a second baby. I’ve learned some things the hard way, some things the easy way, and others, yes, from great advice. But here’s the thing: Not every method or idea works for every baby or family. Some kids take well to certain things while some parents absolutely cannot handle others. Even if I see a mother doing something that I would never do, and she doesn’t seem happy about it, I keep my mouth shut until asked to open it.
I do know a lot more about babies than I did a year-and-a-half ago when I had one. I do have some tricks up my sleeve that could probably help another mum in a pinch. But unless she asks, I’m not sharing. I remember all too well what it felt like to have the general public (and most of my family and friends) crowding around me, picking apart my every move. I don’t ever want to put another new mum in that situation.
If you catch me on a day when I actually feel like I know what I’m doing, and you have a question about how I navigated a certain challenge, I’m more than happy to help. I’ll also make sure to add a major dose of, “You’re doing a great job,” because hey, you are. But if your baby is screaming and your boobs are leaking and you’re standing in line in Target with a tub of chocolate ice cream in your cart looking frazzled, all I’m going to offer is a smile. Because I won’t assume you need my advice until you ask for it, and either way, you’ve got this. You’ll figure it out. After all, you’re a mum now.
More mum confessions:
- Dear Daughter: I Love You, But I Miss Me
- Why Gender Stereotypes Shouldn’t Exist
- What it Feels Like to Take a Road Trip with a Carsick Child