Megan is two month’s old. When I left the hospital after the birth, I handed in some forms at the front desk. The receptionist asked, ‘Are you Megan’s mother?’
‘Yes’, I said. ‘I am Megan’s mother’.
‘Wow’, I whispered to myself. ‘I am Megan’s mother.’ Each word rolled over my tongue like a noble and precious wine. I am Megan’s mother. A mother.
My life has changed. One of the major differences is that I am responsible for a little person who is completely and utterly dependent on me. I am the lioness and she is my cub. I love her fiercely and unconditionally and I always will. I don’t yet know her character, I don’t know the type of person she will become or what she will do in life but who cares about that stuff. I love her just because she breathes, because she exists. I adore her simply because she is my Megan. And that’s that.
Life has also changed in many small ways. I can’t stay awake past 21h00. I am never bored. I don’t miss work and it feels liberating to finally put my energy into a chalice rather than down the drain. I spend less time trawling around on Facebook and I used to wash my hair every second day but now I clean it when it feels itchy.
These are the main things I have learned over the past two months:
1. I must speak fluent French NOW
It was a major personal achievement that I gave birth mostly in French. During my five day stay in hospital, my vocabulary deteriorated and my washed-out brain could eventually only cope with ‘Help me’, ‘Pain’ and ‘Why is my baby crying?’ I am super-chuffed that throughout the night of my induction, while I writhed on my bed in blinding agony, I spoke only French.
I always knew it was important to speak good French but circumstances are now such that it is absolutely, completely and utterly essential to speak it fluently.
Megan has weak hips and must wear a brace for three months. I will make bi-weekly trips to the hospital and although some nurses and doctors can speak some English, sometimes I suspect they are not giving me enough information because they can’t find the words. I feel bound and gagged by my inability to communicate. Nothing must be lost in translation when it comes to my poppet’s health.
Alastair has also realized the urgency and has started French lessons over Skype. I am weary of always taking the lead in important conversations while the man of our house stands three feet behind me, looking like a deer caught in headlights. It will be a while before he can have a conversation but at least he can now count to ten and conjugate a few verbs.
2. There are many ways to skin a cat
In Switzerland, they do things differently to South Africa. Swiss midwives at the hospital advised that it is not necessary to bath Megan everyday and said I shouldn’t use soap (‘Too many chemicals’). They are against wet wipes (‘Too many chemicals’) and, while cleanliness is important, they are not too fussed about sterilising (‘Your nipples are not sterile are they?’). They don’t use bum creams (‘Too many chemicals’) and they recommend you rub olive oil on skin, instead of creams (‘Too many chemicals’). I bought Megan her own bottle of the best quality, cold-pressed, extra virgin olive oil and it just sits in the grocery cupboard. One day I lathered her in it and I felt as if I was basting a turkey. Now I use Johnson’s Baby Oil, which smells nicer anyway.
The paranoia about chemicals is strange given that Swiss doctors are so liberal with medication. Got a problem? Here’s a prescription. They recommended I have a booster shot for whooping cough, tetanus and flu and they said that when I travel to London or South Africa, I must ‘take something for tuberculosis.’ After my first trip to the paediatrician, I left with a bag full of medication for small things such as some special cream (presumably containing chemicals) to treat a teeny weeny scratch on Megan’s face.
My midwife said I should burn all my baby advice books and rely on my built-in, animal instinct. She said lionesses, cats, dogs and other animals take good care of their young and they can’t even read. She said that when I doubt myself, I must remember women in deepest, darkest Africa. They don’t have sterilisers, bum cream, wet wipes, humidifiers, ergonomic prams or electric breast pumps and their kids generally survive.
I use bum cream and soap. I keep dummys clean but I don’t always sterilise them. I don’t use wet wipes but I bath Megan every day. I am using my instinct and doing what I think is best. So far, Megan seems to be turning out ok.
3. Men especially find babies difficult to understand
Solutions-focussed men struggle in the first few months as they learn that a baby is not an equation. Newborns are not black and white, debit or credit, true or false, yes or no. They operate in a mysterious grey area and, as we know, there are almost 50 shades of grey so sometimes it is hard to figure out what the hell they are crying for. One time, when Megan was red and quivering with rage, I thought her head might explode in one sharp bang, like a popcorn kernel. Alastair looked at me helplessly and said, ‘Julie is it going to be like this for the next 20 years?’
At first, Alastair was bright eyed and bushy tailed at the thought of a new baby. He enjoyed the novelty of a wife and daughter, his two girls at home. He was enthusiastic and eager to please. When there was a problem, he would riverdance into the room, ready to save the day.
Men can feel lost and sidelined in these early days and I’ve realised they crave assurance that they don’t need to fix everything. Al has had to learn that it is ok if Megan cries for it is the only means she has to express herself. Her cries don’t come in varying degrees – she is either on or off, like a blender. It doesn’t mean she is unhappy or thinks that we are useless parents.
Both Alastair and I have had to reconcile extreme love with extreme frustration. We feel guilty that we get exasperated with someone so tiny, so helpless and so adorable.
One of my friends described a day when she needed timeout and her husband agreed to babysit. Before she left the house, she tiptoed down the passage and peered round the kitchen door. She saw him gloop spoonfuls of formula into the bottle until he reached what he thought was a suitable creamy consistency.
‘Bob!’ she cried. (Let’s call him Bob). ‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘Making a bottle.’
‘Bob. This is baby formula, not some sort of cordial. It’s not orange squash or Lecol Squeeze n Drink.’
She told me she then left the house to resist the overwhelming urge to bop Bob over the head with a judge’s gavel. Like, duh! How could he not know how to mix the formula?
We women must take care not to sideline men. They spend all day at work and we assume we know more than them. Simple tasks become instinct to us because we are with the kid 24/7. We forget that men don’t know what we know. What is logical to us may not be logical to them.
Anyway, I’ve learned that some aspects of babies are illogical. When Al first tried to quieten Megan by whispering ‘SHHHH SHHHH’ down her ear lobe, I wondered what on earth he was doing. In hindsight, I am glad I didn’t say anything because his technique often works temporarily.
Alastair has more stamina than me when putting Megan to sleep at night. He is also a better singer than me and Megan finds it calming when he sings, ‘Megan had a Little Lamb.’ I’m beginning to understand that just because I spend all day and every day with Megan, it doesn’t mean I am better than Alastair at everything baby-related.
4. Don’t judge a person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes
I used to judge people who didn’t breastfeed. I scoffed at women who said things such as, ‘I don’t have enough milk, I need to top up with formula’ etc. Now I am more tolerant. I watched women in the maternity ward struggle. Breastfeeding is not as natural and easy as I imagined. It is hard work and takes perseverance. You don’t just pop a baby on the breast, like a puppy, and off you go.
My roommate in the hospital had no milk at first. Her baby was bellowing and screaming because it had nothing to eat. She was in tears, the baby was in tears and her husband was in tears. She desperately wanted to breastfeed but she was dry. Eventually things came right but I realized that, while I will always think breast is best, I cannot judge people who opt for formula. Not until I’ve walked a mile in their shoes.
On the learning curve
I have learned loads of other things such as babies have a built-in clock that makes them operate in 45-minute cycles. They like to bounce and want to be comforted while you are standing up. They cry as soon as you make a cup of tea or need the toilet. If you have to make an important phone call, a baby will start to cry during it. Having a child requires muscles of steel because car seats and prams are jolly heavy. I’ve also learned that, Murphy’s Law, now that I have to put a baby in the back seat, other cars park so close to me so that I can’t open the back door.
Every morning, at about 6am, I put Megan in our bed and she lies between us. She rests on her back and coos at the ceiling while we are on our sides. We talk to her and blow our hot, morning dog’s breath into her face. I look at my daughter and I realize I have never been this exhausted in all my life, but I have never been this satisfied. I may have finally found the to-the-core-fulfilment that I have been craving in my career all these years. I am so grateful for my girl. Thank you God for this special gift, the gift of my lovely little Megan.