My first baby was born late at night after a horrific, 21-hour, drug-free (not my idea) labour. When she finally arrived screaming purposefully at the world and I held her for the first time, I wept as much from indescribable relief as from overwhelming love. It felt like we had already walked a long and difficult road together and we were only just beginning. After I was cleared from recovery and we took her back to the ward, her daddy kissed us both good night and we were suddenly alone – a moment I don’t think any mum ever forgets. We looked at each other and I wondered, “What next?” She knew. The dark January night folded itself around us and we both slept.
For hours on end we slept, while the other new babies cried around us. The midwives made me wake her for a feed in the morning, and then again a few hours later, but after making her prolonged and difficult entrance into the world, it seemed like all my baby wanted was to sleep it off. Peacefully and contentedly.
In the days following our return from the hospital well-meaning friends warned us that this theme would not continue, that in a few days she would suddenly “wake up” and the reality of life with a newborn would set in. Of course in many ways they weren’t wrong. Having a newborn baby in our lives was a complete and utter sea change – we were stressed out and exhausted, and overwhelmed at having a little person to keep alive. Breastfeeding was no picnic and if she wasn’t fed at the allotted minute like clockwork, boy oh boy could she scream. But sleep, she did. After the first night back from the hospital (which was so stressful I try not to think about it!) she seemed to relax into her new surroundings and took to sleeping for blissful, if not somewhat disconcerting, long stretches – 3 hours at a time during the day and 7 hours straight at night. And it made everything else manageable.
I would go to the mum and baby groups and hear the horror stories of exhausted new mums feeding every hour or two through the night, and I would keep absolutely silent – nobody wants to be friends with that new mum who was getting 7 solid hours of sleep every night.
As her babyhood went on, the road with our first born remained pretty smooth. She was never ill. When her daddy gave her a bottle of expressed milk for the first time at 7 weeks, she unflinchingly guzzled the whole thing down, gazing trustingly into his eyes. When it was time to introduce solids, she seemed to revel in the new sensations and textures in her mouth. We moved country when she was 6 months old and she took it in her stride, without so much as a break in her sleep patterns. One day she had no teeth and the next she had two, followed shortly by another two. She didn’t seem to notice that she was supposed to cry when teething, and I began to wonder if the whole “teething” thing was a myth. When she did start refusing sleep (in favour of standing up in her cot and playing) at about 9 months we reluctantly tried the controlled crying method, just to see if it would work. It took 14 minutes: she cried for 14 minutes, decided it was too much effort, lay down, and resumed sleeping through the night. She loved new faces and new places; she would smile and hold her arms up to strangers; she laughed all the time. We were clearly doing something right, we thought. Yip – we had this parenting thing completely sussed.
Seriously – a newborn baby: what’s so hard about it? The toddler years (we were soon to discover) – challenging. The preschooler: definitely no cake walk. But babies? Easy.
And then our second baby was born.
It turns out that everything I knew from having done this all before was wrong. Our second baby is the opposite of our first. She arrived into an atmosphere of calm after a heavenly epidural and a manageable 8-hour labour. I held her and laughed and spoke the same “I love you”s to her, and I could tell almost instantly that she was her very own person. I was right: from that moment on with our second, it was baby boot camp.
She didn’t look at the world around her with the “I’ve got this” expression her sister did. She didn’t sleep longer than two hours at a stretch. Loud noises frightened her. Bright lights frightened her. The dark frightened her. Where her big sister preferred to sleep alone in her bassinet, she wanted – needed – constant contact. She got colds – lots of them (the first at three weeks, poor little lamb). She hated the bottle and protested against it so loudly that I gave up on trying to force it on her. She, too, was 6 months old when we moved country again, and take it in her stride she did not – her sleep went up the creek and she once again needed to feed through the night. And the teething! The joke is on me, because a baby’s discomfort and neediness while teething is not a myth, and I have seen every hour on the clock through the night to prove it. Sleep training would not work on her – she will outcry my threshold for being able to listen to a crying baby every time, so I can’t bring myself to put either of us through it. She does not smile winningly at strangers – she is slow to trust and quick to protest. Where her big sister had a worldliness and a confidence from very early on, she has a vulnerability and a sweetness that melt my heart and make me wish passionately that I could protect her from the world around us. She is beautiful, she is sensitive, she is the littlest… Above all, she is who she is.
And thank goodness! I never imagined I would learn just as much about being a mother from my second baby as I did from my first. She has taught me about the capacity to love so much it hurts when I didn’t think I had any more love to give. She has taught me patience in the small hours of the night. She has taught me that everyone is different and everyone is entitled to be absolutely who they are, without apology or explanation. She has taught me humility. Yes – I had an “easy baby” first time round and now I have (what the paediatrician describes as) a “challenge baby”. I have done nothing different – I cannot be congratulated or judged for either one of them, and neither should any other parent be.
Above all, my second baby has taught me that, “easy” or not, babies are delicious and miraculous, and that time steals away the moments we have with them far too quickly. I choose to be grateful for the hours in the night that she needs me, that she gets comfort from our closeness. I choose not to wish them away, but to breathe her in and savour them. Because I need her too, and – as evidenced by my first baby who has turned into a confident little girl before my very eyes – it all goes by in a heartbeat.