I’ve noticed lately that I’m a very different parent to F than I was when O was his age, and I’m not really sure if that’s down to how different they are (and they really are VERY different) or the fact that I’ve kind of found my motherhood mojo.
I mean, the thing is that everything was so much worse than I expected when F was born. I expected it to be hard having two children. I expected that I would struggle to get them up and ready and out of the door in time to get O to playgroup four mornings a week, but I really didn’t expect what actually happened. I didn’t expect the morning breastfeed to take two and a half hours or to never sleep or to feel every single day like I was going fucking crazy. If I managed to get through a day without crying, it was a genuine miracle. There was none of that swan-on-the-water stuff, no illusion of calm or of me having my shit together; it was all panic all the time.
BUT F had his reasons for being a nightmare and none of them were his fault. He wasn’t waking me up 300 times a night just to be an asshole, and things got better. Which, actually, kind of happened without me noticing. It didn’t particularly occur to me at any point that I wasn’t juggling anymore. The “bedtime hour” just suddenly stopped being awful and settled into a routine of being occasionally challenging. And it really helped when F started sleeping through the night, because after that I was still exhausted a lot of the time, but I wasn’t OMG I’M SO TIRED KILL ME PLEASE exhausted anymore.
I’ve never really had much confidence as a parent, and there are a few reasons for this. Firstly – and I think a lot of parents probably feel like this – half the time I’m not even sure I know what the fuck I’m doing. But aside from that, most of my anxiety around going out alone with my kids comes from the fact that I look much younger than I am. In a couple of months I will be 29 years old, but I’m only five feet tall and I have the physique of a pre-pubescent girl. So people who don’t know me look at me and I can SEE them thinking “teen pregnancy”. Like, somebody actually asked me when I was pregnant with O if I knew how it had happened. No shit. And then there’s the fact that I have quite a lot of tattoos and some of them are very visible. So, once I take my coat off, I can then see the OMG SHE MUST ONLY BE ABOUT 18 folks thinking “and she’s trashy as fuck with it.” So why does this make me feel more anxious? Because, in my mind, these people have already decided that I am a terrible, inadequate mother (notice how I said “in my mind”, meaning I am aware of the fact that it might not actually be true), so if my kids don’t behave impeccably, they will be vindicated. And, to be perfectly honest, I already think that about myself a lot of the time, so I really don’t need a whole bunch of other people thinking it too. And sure, I know they’re strangers and I’ll probably never see them again, but I will have to sit through a meal or finish my shopping knowing exactly how hard they think I’m failing.
Nevertheless, O actually was a difficult child to take out and about. It wasn’t just me being a nervous first-time parent; he genuinely was a nightmare a lot of the time. Before he could walk, he dangled over the side of his pushchair and grabbed at stuff as we walked by in a shop. He once trashed a whole card display in Clintons at Christmas while a bunch of employees glared at me and I muttered mortified apologies and tried to pick everything up. When he started walking, he would shake off my hand, wriggle out of his wrist strap and run off. I probably should have bought some reins, but I’ve always felt vaguely uncomfortable with how much they make it look like you’re taking your kid for a walk. And once he was big enough to sit up at the table with everyone else, the mealtime fidgeting began. Taking him out on errands was exhausting and fraught with grumpy strops and tantrums. But going out with F is easy. A couple of weeks ago, I had to go into town to get a birthday present for my brother-in-law while O was at playgroup and my husband was at work. So we stopped off at Sainsbury’s cafe first for a coffee and a snack. F sat in his high chair, chattered nonsense at me, munched a rice cake and generally behaved perfectly. On the walk into town, he pointed at everything and waved at people. To be honest, were it not for the fact that I was pushing a stroller, I probably would have forgotten he was with me. I had to take him to work with me a couple of times this week too so I could catch up on some paperwork while my manager is off sick, and as long as he had something to play with and a drink, he was perfectly happy to just chill out while I worked.
I’m not saying that it will always be like that. In fact, sometimes he gets pissed off and shouts just like every other kid. Sometimes he throws his cup on the floor, and he is an expert at planking if he doesn’t want to get back into his pushchair/car seat. But, to all intents and purposes, he is a super easy child. After how hard everything was with him when he was a baby, some hopeful and very buried part of me always figured that maybe he would be. And as for O, he’s probably just going through a bit of a threenager stage right now. He was a great sleeper and feeder as a baby, and since I was only 25 when he came along, I’m really very grateful for that.
Maybe none of this really has anything to do with how obliging or otherwise my children are; maybe what it’s actually about is the fact that I feel more equipped to deal with the unpredictability of parenting young children. I feel like I can cope if my kids start acting batshit crazy while we’re out somewhere. I still find it hard to cope with the inevitable judgement of others, but I accept the fact that it is exactly that; inevitable. There’s not much I can do to convince anyone that I’m actually an okay parent if they’ve already decided that I’m not. And does it actually fucking matter what anybody else thinks anyway? Yes, sometimes people will see my parenting fail moments and they will assume things about my parenting in general based on that one snapshot of my life. But they don’t know me and they don’t know my children. I’m only just starting to figure out that their opinions are not important.