I was thirty weeks pregnant, perfecting my waddle, complaining about aches in muscles I barely knew I had and drinking Gavsicon straight from the bottle, like a drunkard desperate for the next claggy aniseed fix. The spare room was piled high with an impressive stash of baby gear passed on from friends, and a long car journey was an opportunity to discuss the names question again. We were heading up to Northumberland for a final relaxing break together – staying in a ‘Retreat’ which ominously didn’t accept children. We were given a warm welcome by the owner who, like so many people these days, fussed in a friendly way over me and my bump. I remember thinking how babies are so welcome anywhere when they’re still contained, any cries muffled within the uterus.
Only too soon we’d be banished to the family friendly chain pubs, where you trip over ice-cream encrusted high chairs on your way in, before ordering from a sticky, laminated menu, exactly the same bland food, “all served with chips”, that you ordered a week ago from an identical pub one hundred miles away, the only difference being the kids in this one are playing hide and seek (or more accurately hide and shout) under your table instead of racing between waiters’ legs like slalom skiers as the ones in the pub last week were doing.
We slowly wandered the gardens at Alnwick – especially slowly on uphill stretches where I’d struggle to catch my breath, and I began a sort of on-going game of pram bingo, proud at my ability to identify one brand from another. I photographed snowdrops in the low February sun: the delicate little white heads that had quietly formed during the depths of winter and bravely battled their way out into the world ready for the spring – just like my baby would. Every time we encountered a small child – a tantrum outside the tree-house restaurant; thigh-high hands pushing past us through the shrubbery of the gardens – we’d spend a while pondering smugly on how much better behaved our child would be. We only half joked about my partner Sally having it ‘well-trained’ (Sally’s a vet). We shook our heads gravely at yet another toddler without reigns and up to all sorts of mischief; back at home the playpen was at the ready and the naughty step identified. After all we’d both been well-trained children ourselves – conscientious at school and polite in company. To this day, we still wrote our ‘thank you’ letters promptly.
Nevertheless, fully aware that we knew very little about child-rearing (save how everyone else should be doing it), we decided to start on the parenting books. Sally began with ‘Sleep Solutions: Quiet Nights For You And Your Child: From Birth To Five Years’ by Rachel Waddilove while I commenced rather a tricky, sciencey one: ‘Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby's Brain’ by Sue Gerhardt. And it was about then we started to realise a few things. Sally, who had had the easier read and was already well on with it, commented that we should be able to get our baby sleeping through the night quite easily with a bit of training. And it sounded ideal: we could have a young baby AND a good night’s sleep. But of course I’d been reading as well, and so it was that I looked at her in horror.
Admittedly I’d got a little bogged down with ‘sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems’ and wasn’t fully confident with the idea of ‘fluctuating inhibitory and excitatory activity’, but I was starting to grasp Gerhardt’s argument that babies don’t have much control over their body systems and might need some help ‘regulating’ them. A stressed baby could experience a flood of the stress hormone, cortisol, and without the swift response of a sympathetic parent, lasting damage could be done to the baby’s brain which could predispose it to conditions such as anxiety and depression – the agonies of which I knew only too well through personal experience and the experience of close family members. I had no idea how I might ‘regulate’ a stressed baby, but I was fairly sure that sleep training it didn’t fit in at all. And that it might require some of this ‘regulating’ during the small hours. But the most distressing fact was that these two books were totally contradictory!
The thing is, Sally and I were well aware that there was good parenting, bad parenting and a range of mediocre parentings out there – you only need to visit the nearest supermarket to enjoy a live performance of all of the above. However, we’d thought there was just ‘conscientious, trying to do the best for your child parenting’ and ‘plain lazy, can’t give a toss parenting’. What came to us as quite a revelation about this time was that the parents who practise ‘conscientious, trying to do the best for your child parenting’ don’t all agree with each other: in fact they are almost ready to tear each other into small parts and mash the bits up into baby puree over certain issues like, well whether or not to puree the baby’s food. And disconcertingly, we were just starting to see some cracks in our tidy plans for a ‘well-trained’ child, a naughty step a playpen and a good-night’s sleep.
I still found it hard to grasp the fact that there was an actual baby inside me (and I’m not sure I even believed there was entirely until it slip-slopped out early one morning – but that story’s for another time). Nevertheless, running my hand affectionately over my tummy, feeling as I did regularly now that subtle, and sometimes not so subtle squirming from deep within, I thought perhaps a few years without much sleep won’t matter much in the scheme of things.