This Diary of Motherhood is a series of weekly letters to my first baby, my little son who I call Baby Bird. I know not everyone wants to read about the highs and lows of motherhood so you can read non-baby related posts about travel, writing, freelancing or Amsterdam instead. Alternatively read one of my short stories or check out some book reviews and recommendations.
Dear Baby Bird,
The night before you turned one, I lay in bed, alone, and looked back at those earliest photos of you.
There are a surprisingly small number, and almost all of them are taken by your father or someone else. I don't think I took any, ANY, photos of you in your first week of life and there are only a few more in the second. I was just so busy trying to keep you alive. Holding you to my breast every two or three hours. Swaddling you tightly before I lay you down to sleep, only to pick you up again thirty minutes later when you'd wake and scream until your little face turned red. Then I would bundle you up on my chest and hold you to me until you fell asleep again, or you got hungry, or you didn't stop crying and I couldn't take it anymore so I would then pass you over to your dad. There was no time for taking photos - only time for trying to get through the day on minimal sleep, rest and time to myself, something I now know I need more than I ever thought. Thank goodness your father and others were able to because these are some of the most cherished photos I have. When I look at them I see the baby you were before you became YOU really. If that makes any sense. What I'm trying to say is that you really didn't suit being a newborn. Your roaming eyes and already strong neck in those early weeks betrayed a curiosity that has come to personify you. You are so nosey, and interested, and brilliantly curious about the world around you, wherever that may be. That's why as nostalgic as I felt looking at those photos of a more wrinkled, helpless, frankly alien-looking Baby Bird, I didn't feel the need to cry on the eve of your first birthday. Instead I switched the light off and rolled over, eyes closed, I went to sleep smiling.
Because you are so much better at being a one-year-old. I am so much better at being the mother of a one-year-old.
You are exactly where you need to be, doing exactly what I would wish of you; non-stop exploring, crawling, standing, attempting a few steps with maybe just one hand on a piece of nearby furniture. You speak at least fifty different languages, none of which anyone else knows, and your smiles are like rocket fuel on those days when I really don't know what I'm doing... as opposed to normal days when I mostly don't know what I'm doing. I love your sense of adventure and I've reluctantly been spotting some very early signs that you're really not afraid of anything... That said, you're open to learning and being shown things. Somehow in the last few months I've managed to teach you how to go down the two steps in our kitchen backwards and all I have to say now is "Turn!" and you automatically pivot your body around so your bottom and legs hit the step first. I may not have taught you how to use a sippy cup successfully (don't ask!) but at least I've stopped you breaking your neck.
Somehow, over the last few months, I've convinced myself that our problems with sleep (yours and mine!) would all be better come the time you turned one year's old. This imminent silent deadline is what prompted us to start some "sleep training" and to admit we still had problems rather than accept a manageable life in which your father and I woke and slept at very different times of day, and a diet based mostly on cake and coffee. It wasn't pleasant, it wasn't executed perfectly, but it did achieve some small results, and this week - almost as if by some serendipitous magic - you have slept in big chunks of ten or eleven hours and I haven't needed those magic yellow pills that help me get rid of feelings of anxiety so I can sleep without waking up every few hours. I'm not naive enough to think "This is it!" and that we'll never have problems with sleep (either you or me!) again but I am hesitantly optimistic that we have put those truly harrowing, torturous weeks and months of bad, broken sleep behind us. That is possibly the best gift we were given this week.
Not that you have been aware of gifts this week, even as they were showered down on you from all angles. There were my parents who came to stay just before your birthday last week. There were presents from our friends who arrived from London on your birthday and then there were the gifts from your other grandparents and a whole load of friends who were in town this weekend for your party.
Your party... What a day that was. The morning was dominated by a very real sense of panic and rushing, even though I'd spent much of the preceding days preparing. We were hoping to have your party in the park near our house but the ground was too damp from rain the day before and so we quickly had to transform our house into a party zone. A friend of mine was staying with us and despite her having to leave just before the party started, she spent her morning chopping up fruit and vegetables and the evening before making two of the most delicious birthday cakes. You owe her, for sure.
I also did something for your party that I would never have imagined I'd do; I hired a photographer. I'd always thought it so cheesy or over-the-top to have a photographer for a seemingly small occasion like a child's birthday, but that was before I became a mother and realised not only how hard it is to take decent photos when you spend half of your time chasing after your child or wiping up its messes, but I had already realised how few photos of your earliest days we had, and I didn't want that to be the case on your first birthday. So I found someone through a friend of a friend and in addition to some posed family shots with your dad and I, plus your grandparents, she hung around for an hour at the party. It was worth it not to have to worry about picking up a camera or trying in vain to get you to stay still or smile, let alone do both at the same time. Instead, you spent your party doing what you do best. You crawled around, you explored, you played, you shouted, you cheered, you waved, you clapped, you ate cake, you got carried around by your Amma and your Afi and by almost everyone else.
And then at around six o'clock, a good half an hour or so before you usually show signs of tiredness in the evening, you held your arms up to me and once perched on my hip, a spot you slot so perfectly into, you began to rub your eyes.
"He's tired," I told your dad and we slipped away as a family of three and ran you a bath. You had a few visitors whilst you did your usual gymnastics in the bath, and once you were wrapped up in your towel we went back out again to kiss everyone goodnight. Then you and I slipped away and we followed your usual bedtime routine. As I nursed you, I watched your face that is still so baby-like with your chubby cheeks and your puckered out latch on my nipple. Your hand was absent-mindedly playing with the fabric of my dress, and without thinking my own hand went to your feet and I stroked and squeezed them as I always do. In the background I could hear the rumble and laughter of our friends and family and I took stock of how much love and happiness and great, great fortune I felt.
I was also very aware of how the stress and panic of the morning had all but melted away. Now, as I write this, I see how fitting a metaphor that is for the first year of your life. There has been so much discomfort, so much stress and yes, moments of panic, in which I wished what was, wasn't. Most of this came at the very beginning but I'd be lying if I said these minutes, hours, and days haven't resurfaced in recent months. I'm in awe of how much of a struggle being a mother can be. Sometimes it's the sheer amount of things I have to do. Other times it's the innumerable list of roles I have to play. And occasionally it's just the heart-stopping realisation that I am responsible for another little, fragile life, which is something that still hits me between the eyes on a regular basis.
And all of these things feed my demons; self-doubt, guilt, anxiety, uncertainty, fear. Despite my best efforts, they still show themselves in frequent, persistent ways. Even though you've been sleeping better for some weeks, I still feel my body temperature alter as nine o'clock approaches and I'm not yet in bed. When you decide to throw all of the food I cook for you on the floor and I end up making you porridge instead, just so you are full and are more likely to sleep well at night, I feel like I'm failing you. And there is always a little (or big) shift in my stomach when I take you to daycare three mornings a week, and I will often spend much of the following eight hours batting away swinging sensations of guilt and disappointment in myself that you are not with me.
But while all of this goes on, I realise that we survive and actually most of the time, we thrive. I am getting stronger, less anxious, more confident every day, even if I don't see or feel it. And you, I hope, are oblivious to it all as your smiles and your laughter multiply and you focus on playing, exploring, moving, talking in your own little languages, having fun, just BEING.
That night, after stories and singing Twinkle Twinkle to you, I placed you in your cot and you reached for your favourite toy before rolling over into your favourite sleeping position, your arms tucked under you and your bottom up in the air. This is behaviour I would have dreamed of three or four months ago, but better late than never, you have now finally learned that sleep is a good thing, that you need it, and how to do it.
I suppose I must accept that I will always need to learn new things as your mum, and that this will take time too...
But that night, after you were asleep, and just a few of our friends remained, I rejoined them, accepted a glass of Prosecco and I said an inner toast to myself for all that I'd achieved in my first year of motherhood. And then I thought about the photos the photographer would send through to me at a later date and I realised all over again just how flipping lucky I am.
Then I laughed at a friend's joke, poured myself some more bubbles and suggested we order pizza, which we did. I stayed up way past my bedtime that night laughing at more jokes, having fun and just BEING...
Your slightly-hungover-now, totally-exhausted-too, incredibly-proud, crazy-in-love mother x
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.