Two close friends of mine had a baby around the same time as me. None of us planned it, but our babies were all born over the summer of 2016, each 6 weeks apart. We were good friends before, but what pulled us closer was our shared parenting experiences.
It turned out that we all had a very similar style of motherhood – a dedication to breastfeeding and co-sleeping, a rejection of sleep training and we all deferred childcare as long as we could. (Again, a massive caveat here: no judgement on any other mamas for their choices and paths, this was just what felt right for all of us at the time). Our personalities differed, our babes were beginning to show their own stripes, but what we shared was a fierce, mama-bear like insistence that this was how we wanted to mother.
I held deep seated convictions over how I wanted to mother from the moment I knew I was pregnant – and, unlike many, I knew I was pregnant from the day after I conceived. Luckily/unluckily, I have a chronic condition that recedes with pregnancy, so I knew from how well I felt that a baby was on the way. It also allowed me to associate the period of pregnancy and breastfeeding with a feeling of whole health and wellness. The baby and I were looking out for each other, right from the start.
My friends and I disappeared into motherhood, allowing ourselves to change, probably beyond recognition some days, and slowly came back out seeing the world through new eyes. We were probably slower than most, allowing the intensity of that first year to really make its mark on our bodies, minds, souls, in a way that we didn’t necessarily see in other mother’s around us.
A lot of our peers, fought to regain their balance, to put a routine in place, to automate their days and re-stablise their relationship with their partner. This routine, the return to work, the sense of order needed to get through the week, reduced the sense of chaos and put other carers into the picture. Sometimes I was envious, sometimes it looked like my worst nightmare.
A few years in, I now realise there were two huge influences on how I parent: my own mother and then a book I had read before we tried for a baby.
I can’t speak for other regions, but here in the UK, a 2011 book by child psychologist Oliver James, called “How Not To F*** Them Up” was widely read and made a huge impact on how mothers saw themselves. The core of his theory came down to this: how you parent is less relevant to the child than how comfortable you are as a parent. If you are forever trying to outrun your responsibilities as a parent, if you cannot be consistent in how you relate to your child and if you are not able to be true to how you want to parent (whatever end of the attachment spectrum you are naturally on), you will create an unsettled and confusing environment for the child. One way or another, you need to be honest with yourself so you can then create a stable environment that they can orientate themselves around.
James also introduced new terms to the UK parenting culture; those of Organiser, Fleximum and Hugger, clearly describing each and giving a breakdown of the pros and cons of each.
How easy it was to read before you were a parent! And then how easy it was to judge when you finally were a parent – looking for reassurance that your way was ok, seeing the style of other mums you knew reflected in these archetypes. Before I was pregnant, I assumed that I would be a Fleximum and until my girl arrived, it felt like the safest place to stake my ground.
The Fleximum is adaptive to their child, weighing up situations for what they are, still factors themselves and the broader family in and then, as a slight downside, can rationalise every and any decision to make it feel like their kid will benefit, even if that’s slightly stretching the truth. It sounds logical, rational and the best of both. A safe and stable place to be.
As it turned out, I fell into the Hugger category – a mum who allows their needs to collapse into that of their child, emotionally is tied to their child from the start and often sees the world through their child’s eyes, using that perspective to make their choices. The drawback to this is that these mums often find it hard to bring themselves back into the picture, to understand their needs and find it difficult when their child begins to separate from them as they naturally grow into their opinions and personalities.
Throughout the book, James emphasises that often, the parenting tribe we chose is not of our making, that it’s almost entirely as subconscious reaction, with most women either choosing to do the exact opposite of their own mother or do exactly the same.
I most definitely did the same. It’s now plainly obvious that so many of my convictions came from my mum and as a happy side effect, she has felt recognised and respected by how I have modeled her behaviour towards the younger me. That she is able to understand how I do things gives me this extra reassurance, a foundation and confidence that I badly needed when starting out.
My mum has been the person who has enabled me to feel that my Hugger-ish style and the choices that stem from that are not only ok, they can actually be good for my daughter. Her support through the tough and emotional times were the validation I needed to feel comfortable in my skin and stop pushing against how I assumed parenting should be.
A few weeks ago, arm deep in cleaning up toddler vomit at 3am, it finally dawned on me what a sweaty, full bodied, all encompassing experience parenting is and that I was more than cool with it. I actually I relished it. I’m sure the parents of more than one will read this with a wry smile on their face knowing this already. The blood, the sweat, the tears are exactly what you sign up for, and actually are representative of the magnitude of motherhood. You’re in the experience, fully immersed, for the rest of your life, whether you try to out run it or not.
Our experience as a family is tight, full on, emotionally intense and powerful. We shape each other daily. I influence my daughter and she influences me right back. I’m a stronger, richer, deeper person for being her mama.
But here’s the rub, the question we never expected to waiver on… Can we cope with two? Physically, probably. Emotionally, we’re not so sure.
I didn’t realise until recently, just how much my conviction around parenting has shaped this family and established our rhythms, habits and relationships. It’s completely fair and accurate to say that my husband almost didn’t get a look in. I started doing my thing and it’s only recently that we’ve started to question if all my quirky ways have been the right thing for the family.
Clearly, I think co-sleeping, refusing sleep training and being emotionally expressive is good for our daughter. Except now I’m not so sure that it’s been as good for my partner and I as individuals or as a couple.
The conversation over whether to have a second started at least two years ago and we disagreed: I couldn’t imagine not having another and my husband couldn’t imagine having one. For the last few months, I’ve been assuming that my desire to have a second would prevail, that my partner would change his mind. But then all of a sudden I had my doubts too.
Do I have the emotional capacity to keep guiding this family? Can I take the pressure of raising another small human? Can my body physically take the pressure of on demand feeding and vastly reduced sleep? I will probably never be able to make a logical, rational call; I’m sure it will be pure emotion.
I can’t help but look back over the decisions I made on how to parent, I now wonder if I should have chosen to be a bit less hands on, whether I could have detached more and worried less – might this have led to a less intense, more laid back experience for all of us? Might it have made having a second an easy forgone conclusion?
But I’m in the business of raising a small human as well as I can and if I only get to do this once, I will be glad I did it my way.
All of a sudden, now more than ever, I’m realising she’s mirroring me. I’m a hands on mum, hugging, soothing, sitting together constantly. If she replicates this, I know I’ll look on proudly. Even now when she mothers her dolls, I can’t roll my eyes, mention gender bias or feminism, she’s doing what I’m modelling for her. And how can that be a bad thing?
We may not be able to repeat the experience but at least I have given my daughter a template of strong attachment and emotional literacy to follow. If I could choose any position of power to be in, that feels like the pinnacle. I’m literally laying the ground on which she will base her expectations of other relationships and also how she will mother. That is a responsibility and power that matters so much more than sleep.