Living in the gap

I really wanted Sunday to be nice, because it was my husband’s birthday, and 30 is extra special. But I was too tired. Too tired to not be grumpy.

The first six weeks of a new baby is a write-off, you just gotta get through it. The next six weeks, you’re thinking “ok, it’s a bit better, it’s getting better, I can maybe do this!”. Then the baby reaches three months and it’s the cutest cutest cutest stage, they really rock the baby thing, the laughing and the smiles, grabbing toys, kicking their chubby legs, playing peek-a-boo, bless them and their little rosy cheeks. But the cumulative sleep debt and lack of adult time also starts to weigh me down at this point. I know it’ll pass really quickly – in another three months bub might be sleeping a bit better at night (hey, a girl can dream, right?), and three months after that I’ll be back at work! It’ll fly by. So I want to enjoy it, and I don’t want to dwell on the difficult bits. But when you’re tired. So tired. There’s that gap, always that gap, between the parent and partner you know you’d be if you’d had a better night’s rest and more time to yourself, and the one you are here on the ground.

I get snappy at my husband over stupid things that I wouldn’t care about if I had more downtime for myself. (Last night I emerged from bedroom after resettling bub, discovered he had discarded my half drunk cup of tea and put the cup in the dishwasher. Felt… this maybe was unforgivable? Too harsh? Seems like a stupid reason to divorce someone I’ve been with for my whole adult life, but, on the other hand, what sort of monster does that?!)

Meeting the needs of both the baby and the toddler seems like an impossible order. I look at my big boy and I know he would really benefit from more one-on-one with me, and he’s not getting much of that at the moment. Three months is a short period of time in relation to my life, but long for him. On days they’re both at home, I pretty much ignore the baby a lot of the time, but still, I can’t always play with the little dude when he wants me to, and he’s often parked in front of a video while I try and keep the house liveable. On the days the little dude is at creche, the baby is so settled and hardly cries at all.

With motherhood, no matter how much you do, there will still be a gap. That gap is part of it. You can’t meet their every need all the time. Even if you could it wouldn’t be a good idea, because they need to learn that sometimes they don’t come first. They need to learn that not everything can be fixed, and as parents we need to give them space to express frustration and dissatisfaction without always trying to make it better. Sometimes we need to teach them how to be patient instead. Sometimes we need to give them a chance to figure it out for themselves. I believe all of this in theory, but when I’m tired, it’s so hard to put it into action. It’s hard to model patience. And the little dude is really perceptive, so that’s another added layer of angst, he picks up on everything he sees me do, and I want to make sure he’s not seeing me in overtired grump mode all the time. And these years are so crucial, the first three years, blah blah most important blah blah blah (no pressure, right?).

It’s not really guilt, or a sense of inadequacy. That’s going too far. I’m doing an ok-ish job, nothing is falling apart at the seams except my husband’s pyjama pants and he’s a grown man who should just buy some new pants himself. It’s a sense of pressure, of being squeezed. Knowing that some things will slip, and trying to keep hold of all the most important things. Knowing that I have to look after myself too, and seeing that fall to the bottom of the list, then getting shitty and grumpy and dropping the ball because I’m tired, then feeling crap about not holding it together better. Forgetting to buy a friend’s birthday present. Thank you cards for baby gifts still sitting in a drawer, need to get some stamps, need to look up some addresses, haven’t yet, why not?! The little dude’s 2 year old dental check, tried to make an appointment, was on hold for ages, left message, need to try again. Car warrant, overdue, need to book that in too. Hoping people cut me some slack. Worrying they might not. Constant back and forth with my husband – a pointless, never-ending discussion over how much there is to do and how I shouldn’t have to do it all just because I’m the one at home and how I barely get any breaks and never get a full night’s sleep, and so on and so forth and scooby dooby doo. After all of those discussions, I feel like it’s a hundred little things but one big thing: ahhh, this is a tough year, there’s not much we can do about it but get on with it. In calmer moments, I feel my complaints should be directed at the world in general, for the attitude of “enjoy that baby, sucker!”

Then, it’s also feeling like I’m an ungrateful twat because we’re better off than many people and why can’t I just suck it up and get on with it?! My parents are fantastic and are happy to help out on weekends, my brother lives round the corner. We have enough money. It’s just a baby and a toddler, sheesh, how hard can it be?! Feeling guilty for complaining.  That’s my pocket of mum guilt. Feeling guilty for not rising to the occasion with a smile.

I also feel conflicted about feeling guilty. I wonder if I should be straightforwardly entitled to say “it’s tough, the first year is tough, having a husband who’s out of the house for 11 hours every weekday is tough“. Because it is! And lack of social support for parents, especially in the early years, is a major political issue. Saying something like “oh well I’m fine, but other people might need more help”, is at least a half-lie, and worse, it undermines the move to get more support for parents across the board. Those of us who are relatively well-off should use our more secure positions to repeatedly point out how unfair it is that care work isn’t valued, because we can do it with less personal risk, and if we let people think that looking after kids is easy peasy so long as your partner is wealthy then we contribute to the problem. Maybe. I don’t know. I don’t want to complain about our personal situation, but being an at home parent (albeit in a privileged position) means that I take the undervaluing of fulltime carers much more personally. I get so angry when I read those stupid things about net tax and when I see paid parental leave vetoed, and when there are kids who are living in dire conditions while the Finance Minister hints at future tax cuts, and when all of that is justified on the basis that the nuclear family should be economically self-sufficient so far as possible, which is another way of saying that children and people who care for them are an economic annoyance.

I also feel guilty for not figuring out better ways to more unobtrusively look after myself, to make sure I meet all my own needs without putting demands on other people to help; then I feel irritated that I feel  guilty about that for the same reason – why should it all be on me anyway? My kids aren’t my expensive hobby, they’re little individuals who form part of our society. For society to function, some people have to bear and birth and raise the kiddies, and yet… some of the discussion around the paid parental leave veto, you’d think that having kids was like, I dunno, playing the trombone. Intrinsically rewarding, a harmless pursuit so long as you don’t bother the neighbours with the early morning noise, possibly even of marginal benefit to the world in a sort of abstract way, but ultimately a frivolous extra that doesn’t produce any tangible results for the economy. And it makes me so livid, when you’re in the midst of hand-on parenting, to see that attitude flaunted constantly by so many commentators.

I really wonder what they think it involves, being at home all day with kids. I want them to describe it to me in great detail, and then I’ll describe the reality back to them. Ask them for tips on how to talk a toddler down from a hysterical breakdown because you served spaghetti instead of pasta spirals (“me don’t yike dis one, dis one noodles not pasta!”). Ask them their considered opinion on whether to change a poo-explosion baby nappy first or to put the overtired toddler down for a nap first. That sort of thing.

It’s not relentless drudgery, but it’s relentless… stuff. Relentless engagement. So much mental work too. With a three month old baby, you’re basically three months into a new job, and that adjustment is taxing. We’re not fully in the groove yet of a four person family. It might be a year or more before we get there, I’m not sure. Probably not until I’ve been back at work for a few months and we settle into that new arrangement. We’re still figuring out the boundaries of this new life, we have to keep testing and trying and failing and learning and fracturing and rebuilding and holding it together.

Sometimes I attempt an activity or an outing and it all turns to custard and I realise it was too ambitious, and then I’m tempted to think I shouldn’t bother next time. Living in the gap means realising that both are right. Sometimes you shouldn’t bother, you should stay at home and let the kid watch a whole lot of videos, and let him eat his lunch on the couch, and let the baby sleep on you all day. And sometimes you should take them both out and go into town on the bus and let them get overtired but at least we had an adventure. Hopefully it all balances out.

And children are so smart about living in the gap between reality and aspiration too, so that helps. They don’t see it as a gap, it’s just their life. A child might throw a bizarre tantrum because a banana broke in half as he was removing it from the peel, might be inconsolable when you turn the laptop off because it’s time for them to make a trip to the potty and you don’t want yet another accident on the couch. But they also kinda get on with life. Their imaginations are unbounded, so they come up with off-the-wall stuff about what they want to do, but they don’t know enough about the world to have the overall vague dissatisfaction borne of real or imagined comparison. They don’t reach the end of the day and parse the bad bits, figuring out where they could do it differently next time. Not all adults do this to the same extent either. There’s a sweet spot somewhere there where you think about it without stressing about it? Maybe?

I remember being a kid and not getting it when adults complained about general things. About six years old, with my grandmother in her local Four Square, she was chatting with the woman behind the counter about the weather, how she hated the heavy grey Auckland winter days where rain threatened but never came. I thought: but that’s not a thing to talk about, weather happens how it happens. As a six year old, I might complain when someone put butter under peanut butter on toast (because that is a travesty), but I wouldn’t be so foolish as to complain about something over which we have no control, like an overcast day. Now, a few rainy days in a row and I’m all moan moan moan stupid winter, argh I hate rain and cold. Another memory: my dad was in a grump one weekend and mum said something about how she hated the (occasional) sulky moods, I thought but that’s just dad, it never lasts long. As a child, I didn’t expect things to always go well. I kept bloody injuring myself, and I was fairly stoic about it. Oop, well, another broken arm, that’s just the price I pay for being a combination of adventurous and uncoordinated. Mum didn’t take me to the doctor until the following day, fair enough, she figured it was just bruised, no worries. Now I think: hmmm, Mum at the time probably was a bit less zen about her failure to take me to the doctor immediately than I was.

My parents were people so of course they weren’t perfect, but as a child I didn’t expect them to be either. And my mother definitely inhabited the tension I describe above, sometimes railing that she shouldn’t have to do everything, sometimes trucking on with it, critical of her own expectation that her life be easier or nicer when it was already pretty easy and nice, aware of how important it was not to let the concerns of well-off professional women dominate feminism, and so on. It is really such a tension though. To what extent should we reconcile ourselves to our lives as they are, and to what extent try and change them? We might be happier if we shut up and put up and focus on the positive. But, if we always do that, are we forgoing the chance to make it better? It’s especially difficult when the source of complaint has broader political implications. Which it always does in any complaint about the amount of work expected of mothers.

So I dunno. Try and do both I s’pose. Getting better at living in the gap is probably key to happiness, but discontent is legitimate too, and is the fuel for impetus to social change. Maybe it’d all make more sense to me if I had a bit more sleep.

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