Of all the phrases parents tell me they dislike, “cherish every moment” is the winner. When you care for small children, time is something that is very strange. I keep coming back to this phrase. It’s the idea that by feeling any negative emotion, you are somehow squandering time. I have been told by parents with postnatal mental health issues that this unrealistic phrase – often said by older people – has made them feel deep shame. It is a waste of time to not be happy for your child.
I don’t feel shame, but I’ll confess that the occasional suggestion that this column is overly negative has wounded me. I’ve been writing it in real time these past eight months – I wrote notes for my first column while in hospital, the sounds of women in labour all around me – and though there have been struggles, there have also been immense, intense highs. To me, my son is still miraculous. Writing is about real, authentic feelings that land on the page. There’s no time to try to temper reality in retrospect to make it seem like it’s always plain sailing.
When I see parents with newborns out and about, I feel solidarity as well as a strange mixture of emotions. He was once so small and curled like a bug – how could that time have passed so quickly? How could I have not known how short these days would be? The days felt inexorable at the time. I couldn’t stop watching them go by, in the endless cycle of sleep, feed and sleep. I would never be able to see the end of my baby. He would open his eyes and see beyond me and give me a new stage while also mourning the one that came before. The shock at his premature birth was overwhelming. arrival left little room for reflection – but had you asked me, I’d have maybe said that I felt that the time in the third trimester, when the baby should have still been safe inside me, had been lost, or even stolen. Now, I can say that I got five more weeks of him. This time travel is a wonderful gift.
When you are raising a child, it isn’t that the hard parts aren’t hard, but that time marches on so indefatigably that they almost mystically fade. Older people, I think, understand this, which is why they often can’t remember when you ask them about specific aspects of parenting, such as my mum not recalling when she moved on from giving me purees, or how they coped with certain difficulties. (In case it sounds as though her memory is going, she just recited TS Eliot to the baby: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I could measure the last year of mine in formula scoops, I thought.)
This amnesia is thought to be evolutionary. Women tell me they think it’s because of this reason why they don’t want another child. Time makes you sentimental, and pain fades in the memory, with sleeplessness rendering whole stages – where the passing of time felt like treacle – a blur. I’m starting to understand that. It was exhausting to set up breastfeeding. I doubt I’ll ever fully forget it, but thinking about it now is like watching a film about someone else, while sitting a great distance from the screen.
Some older people will also advise you not to give solid food to babies until they are four months old. That’s the other thing about time: the official recommendations around parenting change so often that sometimes older generations might be made to feel that their input is irrelevant. However, this is not true. While safe sleeping science may have changed, my mother still seems to know instinctively how comfort and entertain babies. I am so grateful for her hard work and wisdom. The letters I’ve had from older readers that say this series brings it all back to them vividly have been some of the most moving to me.
If you let it, time can get to you. On a tough day, you can find yourself staring down the barrel of the next 18 years, wondering if you’ve got what it takes. But then you find yourself excited about showing the baby The Wizard of Oz for the first time – and of all the joys to come.
Time is also a valuable commodity. It can be used to your advantage, work time, or to think. My husband and me are always trying to find the time. When he isn’t working, he’s with the baby, trying to give me a break. Meanwhile, I’m working while the baby sleeps. Should I be watching the flutter of his long eyelashes, his cupid’s-bow mouth slightly opened, instead? I wonder. He will only be this exact way once, and I’ll have missed it typing this.
So I place this column down and take a few minutes to look at him and to stroke his fine tufts of hair. I may not cherish every moment – some of the nappies I have changed render that impossible – but I am taking a little time every day to look and to feel and to try to remember, to set it all in amber: the sound of his breath, the curve of his head, his smell, his fat little fingers curled around mine. Perhaps this – finding moments to cherish – is what those well-meaning people mean.
I don’t know where the time goes, but I know that one day I’ll be glad I wrote it down.
In the past few weeks we have found a whole new world of bus travel, which has allowed us to explore the city. We love the children’s-only park at Coram’s Fields, on the site of the old foundling hospital, where my dad said he also took me as a baby. “We have been keeping children safe and off the streets of London for 300 years,” said the woman in the cafe.
Another week, another sickness. According to the NHS, a child under eight years old will contract eight different viruses each year. “They missed a nought off that figure,” one parent grumbled. “Actually it’s two,” said another. “One from September to December and another from January to March.”