Please don’t ask if my eleven-month old is sleeping through the night. I can’t really imagine what people do with eight hours in a row. Or six.
The introduction of solids has also had its frustrations. From age six to eight months, my little boy trialled a range of methods to avoid eating my carefully prepared purees, from the more subtle approaches such as ducking his head away or poking out food with his tongue, through to the desperately pitiful what-are-you-doing-to-me-Mummy-tears and the rather terrifying gagging, retching and vomiting up the (99% milk) contents of his belly. In fact, our normally cheerful little soul got so cluey about keeping his mouth sealed against substances other than milk, that he actually avoided smiling during mealtimes – quite a feat with his cheeky big sister making ridiculous faces inches away.
Crawling hasn’t come easily, either. At eleven months, my baby is finally on the move, but in an incredibly ungainly style of dragging his left leg curled under him in a manner that has doctors shrieking about ultrasounds, blood tests and specialist appointments.
And yet. And yet I love this kid. And not just in that I love you ‘cause I’m your mum but I don’t really like you much right now kind of way. Nope, this is love, like and the whole bang lot. I understand the biological element: it’s the natural order of things for a mother to love, protect, nurture the child she has brought into the world. Certainly that helps to account for the fierce, sometimes almost overwhelming need to keep this boy safe from all harm. But to be honest, the depth of delight I have had in this baby from the start has taken me by surprise.
I recently watched Thomas Balmès beautiful documentary Babies, which follows four babies from four different countries during the first year of their lives. The film emphasises the universal qualities of babies – and whether from the Namibian desert or the Tokyo apartment – they all play, explore, laugh, express excitement, become frustrated, throw tantrums.
The film got me thinking about some of the things I’ve loved about my two babies during the first year of their lives. That utterly demanding, all-encompassing, nipple-cracking, ear assaulting, back-aching first year that wrings every last nurturing tendency from your bone-tired body and then beams a glaring-bright light on all your selfish inclinations. For there really is nothing like parenting a baby for illuminating your true, unadorned, warts-and-all self.
Tired, frazzled mums of babies say to each other ruefully, “It’s a good thing they’re cute!” It’s said at least partially in jest, but – like any adage – there’s more than a little truth in the statement. It was very clever of God to ensure that people in their most dependent and demanding phase of life are at their cutest. I mean, call me shallow, but I wonder how I would go dragging myself out of bed for the fifth time to kiss my infant’s shrivelled, whiskery, old-man face. It didn’t end so well for Benjamin Button. Yes, I love my son purely because he’s my son. But, let’s be honest, there are adorable things about babies that make it easier. My list is not particularly deep and meaningful and it’s certainly not exhaustive –it’s merely a few random thoughts about the sweet things babies do. The little things that enable you to laugh rather than cry when they wee all over face, clothes and mummy during a 2am nappy change.
1. They see the world with fresh eyes.
We went for a walk one evening when my boy was a few weeks old, and Jeremy said, “I love it when a baby has not been long in this world, and walking under a tree is magical.” Living with a baby can feel relentless and repetitive for the grown-ups, but for the baby every patch of carpet is surprising and each glimpse in the mirror an exhilarating surprise.
My sure-fire trick to cheer up a grumpy baby is to lay him on the bed and gently drift a sheer scarf over his body and face. Utterly thrilled, my boy waves his arms and legs and squeals with excitement as the glistening, spangled substance floats and falls and softly skims his skin.
When I take the time to pause in my busy, rushed state of being a grown-up – when I stop and lie on the floor with my baby and see what he sees – it’s a pretty surprising and awesome world looking back at us.
2. They are excited about life and not ashamed to show it.
An adult may show her excitement with a single smile, gasp or exclamation. Many a teenage boy has managed to distil his excitement down to a barely discernible widening of the pupils. In extreme and unusual circumstances such as watching a favourite sporting team at the Grand Final, two or even three simultaneous gestures may be employed: a fist pump, a foot stomp and a raucous yell, for example.
Babies display excitement with their entire compact little bodies: eyes wide, mouths agape, arms flapping and (my favourite bit, mainly because it’s just something grown-ups don’t ever do) legs kicking up a frenzy. And the most beautiful thing of all is that a baby can slip into this leg-kicking flurry of exhilaration because you’re about to put him in the bath, or because the light switch is just so amazing, or because his big sister started dancing.
3. They laugh.
I bring my baby home from hospital and I’m in awe. I feel optimistic that I’ll be able to cope with anything. But there’s a lot of crying and not a lot of sleeping. And then there’s reflux and screaming at every feed. It’s a tough job, and quite frankly I don’t feel like I’m getting a whole lot in return.
And then my baby laughs.
For some reason today that loud raspberry I’ve been blowing on his belly since day one just spoke to him on a whole new level. Yesterday he gazed back at me blankly, but today I am hilarious. And that’s the real reason why that first awkward, unpractised, squawky laugh is the sweetest music to my ears: it is evidence of connection. No longer am I just boobs and a comforting smell, suddenly I’m interesting and entertaining. There’s something incredibly affirming about making my baby laugh. And before long, my baby is relishing the joyous physical experience of a hearty belly laugh.
4. They seek out your face.
When my baby is being held by an enthusiastic but unfamiliar family friend, cuddled by a rambunctious big sister or poked and prodded by a doctor, his eyes scan the room searching me out. There’s caution in his eyes, the question of am I ok, Mum? Then his eyes rest on mine, reassured. As he grows up, my hope is that I may always be a place of rest for my child.
5. Sometimes they fall asleep in your arms.
There’s a school of thought that insists you should never let a baby fall asleep in your arms, much less take him or her into bed with you. I understand that babies need to learn to settle themselves and I was very strict about this with my daughter. But second time round and a bit more relaxed, I’ve discovered what bliss it is to snuggle my boy as he falls asleep once in a while. To feel the resistance slip away from his little body, to see his eyes grow heavy, to watch sleep gather him up and smooth his chubby face.
6. They dance to music.
A few months ago I put on some music, and – from his sitting position on the mat – my baby started bopping up and down to the beat. How do babies know to dance? From where do they get the knowledge that moving their bodies to music will bring them joy?
Every now and then, we feel the need to have a ten minute family dance party before bath-time. My little boy is always an enthusiastic participant: bopping away in his highchair, flashing wide baby-teeth grins as the rest of the family display for-our-kitchen-only dance moves.
7. They can pull off bunny hats and tiger costumes without irony.
What is cuter than a little chubby baby, than a little chubby furry baby with bunny ears? And surely I’m not the only mum who dresses her baby in his cutest outfit after a particularly rough night?
8. Sometimes only you can comfort them, and that’s pretty amazing.
It can be the most frustrating and lovely thing at once: that there are times when only his mama’s arms will do. He’s overtired or anxious or something is hurting, and he’s inconsolable. Call it a mother’s intuition, or call it trial and error – I sit him on my lap and pat his back until a bubble of gas bursts out his mouth, or I take him to the window and we look across the dark backyard to the bright streak of lights on the horizon, or I just lie with him against my chest until he quietens. There may no longer be a physical cord connecting my baby to me, but a thousand invisible threads still bind us together.
Sometimes it feels draining being The One – especially still breastfeeding my 11-month-old-don’t-ever-try-to-trick-me-with-that-plastic-teat-business-again baby. Sometimes I crave time to myself. Jeremy and I went on our first date in seven months a few weeks ago. It lasted all of an hour (but what a quality hour it was!) before we got a phonecall from my mum with our baby screaming in the background. Mum had been walking around the house with him howling for 40 minutes before she called us. Needless to say, we came home.
Mothering a baby is such an intense physical experience: the weight of responsibility for this tangle of grabbing fists and sucking lips, soft round belly and tiny sharp teeth, kicking legs and milky spews and duckling-down hair. But I try to remember that it is just a time. My baby will never need me as much as he does today. Yes there are days when I crave a future place of unbroken sleep, non-maternity bras and mush-free dinners. But then he buries his face in my neck or goes cross-eyed and giggly as we press our foreheads together, and I want to halt the march of time, bottle his baby-essence, hold him and hold him.
9. They join in family discussions in their own special language.
When he’s in a chatty mood my baby sounds something like this, “Dada dada dada da! Ah dadada?” When he’s really excited it’s more like, “Da! Da!” When he’s upset, it’s “Mama mama muuum!” I try not to take it personally. I just like that my baby has things to say.
10. They don’t hold grudges.
I love my baby more than life but the little knack he has of illuminating my faults can be very uncomfortable. Becoming a mother is far and away the most amazing, fulfilling thing I have done. But it is without a doubt also the most frustrating, and I marvel at the way in which something so small has the ability to push me to the edge of my capacity.
Becoming a mum has brought out the best and the worst versions of myself. I had no idea what it would feel like to be on call every day and every night. I had no grasp of how challenging – and even frightening – the loss of control would be. I am ashamed at the things that have burst out of me in moments of extreme frustration.
There have been countless exasperating, broken nights where I have growled all kinds of threats at a baby that won’t settle, and then been wracked with guilt that I’ve damaged him irrevocably. But morning comes and the moment he sees me, my baby boy is kicking his legs, cooing and giggling in delight.
And I realise a wonderful, miraculous truth: through the grace of God, my little boy holds no grudges. He only ever sees my best version.