SINGAPORE: My eldest daughter is turning ten in a couple of weeks.
This also means I’ve clocked ten years as a parent.
Even as I marvel at how fast (and beautifully) she’s growing up, I sometimes look back at those hazy baby days when I had my first-born, and think:
How did we survive that tumultuous year?
Tumultuous is defined as tempestuous, stormy, and turbulent. These words capture a first-time parent’s experience just right.
AM I MUM ENOUGH?
I can still remember the many sleepless, teary and anxious nights.
In the immediate post-birth days, I wasn’t in the best state of health or mind. Water retention, which is a common problem in pregnancy, led to my facial nerves being compressed and one side of my face paralysed. I could not speak properly, nor close my right eye fully.
Thankfully, the issue resolved gradually over a week or two.
Then I experienced difficulty nursing my child, who was a sleepy baby. The minute I latched her on, she would fall sound asleep, refusing to suckle further. It was a vicious cycle of latching and putting her down, on repeat.
Her sleepiness made it a lot harder to establish a good milk supply, and I had to resort to pumping to stimulate milk production.
Even as I grew more experienced with each passing day, it was never easy to tell whether I had sufficient milk, and naturally the doubts came.
It was as if the milk was a symbol of being “mum enough”. I found myself floundering in the dark.
But there was more bad news – my daughter was born with a congenital heart defect.
For a mother who’s already struggling to process the newfound joys and pains of having a child to call her own, discovering that the child has a medical condition felt very much like the last straw.
Most parents don't talk in detail about their baby-related woes, particularly at work.
They might be trying hard to keep up a still-sane appearance. They might be simply just conserving their energy – for the night feeds.
Or they may not know how to articulate and open up about the issues they’re facing in parenthood.
When everyone else is talking about the latest series on Netflix or Korean drama, all they can do is wish forlornly for just a few minutes of rest.
As a new parent, it can seem like the world travels on at top speed, while you’re left behind, with a cute newborn no doubt, but also with a mountain of laundry and chores.
Time takes on a very different personality.
If you’re working, all you wish for in every fibre of your being is to finish up at work and fly home to your baby. You can feel your blood pressure rising with every minute that a work meeting drags on.
As a stay-home parent, you’re constantly watching the clock too. But it is to see when baby will likely wake from her nap, when you can sneak in a 5-minute speed-shower, or when your partner will return.
With a baby in the house, things that you used to take for granted – like a hot shower in solitude, or tucking into a good book, or even a cup of coffee sipped, not poured down your throat – can feel like a lucky draw prize.
MANAGING THE TRANSITION AS A COUPLE
Every couple has disagreements but for first-time parents, the challenge is how to overcome their personality and parenting differences so they can withstand the stresses of baby’s first year.
According to a Gottman study, new parents tend to experience a drop in marital satisfaction during the first year of their child's life.
With a non-existent sex life, through-the-night feeding and diaper changing action, plus in-laws who may show up unannounced, who would find that surprising?
With a new star in the house, marital dynamics undergo a seismic shift. There tends to be an overwhelming attunement of our senses to the child, to the neglect of one’s spouse.
Couples who are planning for parenthood need to gear up mentally for this major life transition.
One gripe many new fathers have is that their spouse doesn’t seem to see that they’re trying their best to help and make sense of their upheaved world too. They may not nail the diaper change every time, but they also have a desire to be involved and appreciated.
Mothers on the other hand are constantly wishing for more practical help so that they can take catch up on rest.
Prioritising each other’s needs, on top of your child’s, will help the marriage survive the first year of parenthood.
ROOM TO GROW, AS A PARENT
The struggles that I’ve described may turn one off from having kids altogether. But of course, not all the days of parenthood are dreary.
Some come with brilliant surprises, such as the first time baby flashes her toothless milk-drunk grin at you, or when she does her first flip-over.
Or when baby decides to sleep five hours straight in the night, giving you that extra boost of energy needed for the next day.
If you’re still keen on hopping onto the baby bandwagon, it is best to set your expectations low, and enter with your eyes wide open.
Understand that your ideals may not be achieved from the get-go (some may even need to be thrown out eventually), and be open to receive help from family and friends.
In baby’s first year of life, the tears will be plentiful, and a fair share of it will be yours.
It will be normal to feel lost and helpless at multiple points, so give yourself permission to feel those things.
Having a baby is a joy-multiplier in most instances; but the initial experience can be inexplicably sorrowful. However, the post-birth pains will not be without purpose.
As the saying goes, the only way out is through. And as you watch your child grow, recognise and marvel at your own growth too.
The first year will be a time where you carve a new identity, one that makes room for your new role as a parent. It will also be a time of letting go of old and unhealthy habits, and learning new skills for the sake of your newborn.
Soon, often before you know it, the storm will blow over, and you will find yourself face-to-face with a blossoming child, and a different and stronger you.
June Yong is a mother of three, an educational therapist and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.