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bad mother, no biscuit

The Facade Doesn't Fit, by Luke Chueh

So here's something obvious if only I'd stopped to think about it: an overnight trip with a 4 month old is a bit brutal.

This weekend, Squawk, the pterosaur and I tripped up to Sydney for the Aurealis Awards. We went partly because "First They Came…" was shortlisted, and mostly because I wanted to be part of the scene. To prove to myself that having a child hadn't fundamentally changed my commitment to my writing (even if it has shifted around my writing process, available time, sleep levels, patience, general location, living arrangements, diet, tea addiction, slavish devotion to twitter and all things internet related, ability to think, and just, you know, everything).

I still can't decide whether going was a mistake.

I had a truly fabulous time, and got to catch up with friends I haven't seen in years, and even to meet new friends and to connect in person with people I've only known via the internet before now. After the isolation of the first months of motherhood, being able to frock up and play with the grown-ups was reinvigorating.

But at the same time, the whole experience has left me riddled with guilt. First for disrupting poor Squawk, whose four month old brain hasn't yet learnt the soothing patterns of predictability. For her, nothing is familiar, and sleep is hard to come by because her brain is constantly being bombarded. I mean, a plastic giraffe that squeaks when you happen to push its stomach the right way is brain-bending to a baby. You should see what cellophane does to her ability to control her limbs. The other night I showed her that you could take two cups and tap them together to make a noise, and that revelation was so alarming and world-enlarging that she damn near thrashed herself right out of the bath.

My brain knows how to filter out information it doesn't need, such as the way light bounces off lino, or background babble. Being in an unfamiliar room is no problem, because I know how I got there and how long I'm staying and that I can leave when it all gets too much. I know what's roughly going to happen each day — but Squawk's "days" are usually only 2 or so hours long and they're all pretty varied. Sometimes it's light when she wakes up, sometimes it's not. Sometimes she feeds straight away, sometimes she feeds just before sleep, and sometimes she doesn't feed at all.

She's so little that she's quite simply lost in the detail of this world and its adult-sized patterns.

And this weekend I took her out of her comforting home, threw away all her familiar routines, and dumped her in the middle of a raucous party. One that was four days long, by her reckoning of days, and came straight after a trip that was also four of her days long.

I spent most of the awards ceremony itself mentally kicking myself for what I'd done to her.

To give credit where it's due, Squawk behaved with admirable aplomb. She never once got stroppy with her sleep deprivation, didn't panic at strangers plucking her out of my arms, and she sat through the ceremony without real protest. She did maintain a fairly constant low-grade eerie moaning mutter that had those nearby turning to check whether they were about to die — which promptly had me feeling anxious about spoiling everyone else's ceremony experience into the bargain.

So after the ceremony I left her tucked up in a hotel room with her Nanna, safely away from all the noise. And promptly felt guilty for abandoning her. There she was, needing to tell me what the day had done to her synapses and wanting only something as simple as a cuddle from me or the pterosaur to help her get to sleep, and she had neither. I was downstairs, so worried about her, and so tired myself, that I barely managed a coherent sentence, stuffed up pretty much every conversation I attempted, and didn't manage to find the courage to talk to even half as many people as I'd have liked.

I comforted myself with the thought that I'd be able to catch up with everyone I'd missed at breakfast. But I spent pretty much all of the night comforting poor Squawk, who was so wired that she spent every second of her sleep moaning. Breakfast therefore found me so tired (and hungry — in looking after Squawk I forgot to eat any dinner myself) that I forgot to say hello to people, forgot to say goodbye, I even forgot how to manage my utensils.

I took her because I wanted to be normal, and present.1 To be both a writer and a mother. And mostly, I feel I achieved only an effed-up version of each of them. So busy being a mother I couldn't interact with the writers on a normal level, and so busy being a writer I couldn't be a proper mother.

To everyone who took the time to chat with me, and to put up with my laggy responses as if they were normal, my sincere thanks. To everyone I missed, my apologies. (Or should that be the other way around?) I can see I'm going to have to work on this balance thing.

  1. And because we're both using my breasts. Where I go, she goes. []

14 thoughts on “bad mother, no biscuit

  1. It's complicated and individual. I took my first everywhere. As long as she had her sheepie (lambskin) she'd sleep anywhere as soon as she was tired, no matter the noise level, up until she was 5 years old.

    I had the same expectations of my second child but it was not to be. By the time he'd recovered from his first operation aged 6 weeks and the gastro he caught in hospital, he thought he had a god-given right to be held 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We tended to stay at home. In the first year of his life I only had a few hours away from him leaving him with a babysitter, and he spent the entire time screaming.

    Go easy on yourself. Be flexible, trying to take into account your personality and needs, Squwark's personality and needs, and the family support you have.

    Also remember it's possible to express milk 😉

    1. Expressing seems like a whole other level of logistical pain and wrangling, what with sterilising and whatnot, that I haven't bothered with it, especially since Squawk really is very flexible and adaptable. She comes everywhere and she remains happy even when she can't sleep. Mostly I just can't quite get the hang of this guilt: I feel guilty for dragging her around, but I feel just as guilty if I leave her at home. I think it's just a symptom of trying to do too much without help. It's a thing I keep doing.

  2. "She did maintain a fairly constant low-grade eerie moaning mutter that had those nearby turning to check whether they were about to die"

    Sounds like she was enjoying herself and trying to take part. (although I don't speak baby)

    1. Why is it that directly after reading your post I needed to one up you in the bad parent stakes?

  3. Guilt, schmilt! What you need to remember is that she doesn't form memories until she's, like, four. You can do whatever you want* and she won't remember! I'm just sorry I didn't recognise you. I saw you in the lobby of the theatre with baby and thought: What a legend!

    I felt no guilt about telling the Small One the big fat lie that children weren't allowed at the Aurealis Awards. Actually I just wanted a weekend alone with my husband. I was beginning to forget what he looked like. Subsequently I have been informed by the Small One that the AAs are "SO STUPID" and "NOT AS GOOD AS THE DITMARS."

    Next time I will make sure to personally salute you 🙂


    *Not actually whatever you want.

    P.S. Use guilt as a force for good and guilt some relative that you hardly ever see into getting you the really expensive awesome breast pump. And then you'll be free, free I tell you! 😉

    1. Ha! I see I have much to learn 😀

      Seriously, I think it really is just a case of learning to balance my expectations of myself (and analysing them to make sure they're reasonable… I kinda suck at that) and growing confident about which of society's "expectations" I judge to be trivial and floutable. I don't regret bringing her in the sense that I think challenging her routine is actually a good thing for her. She proved herself quite flexible and adaptable. I just feel terrible about inflicting discomfort on her, even if it's for her long-term good, and I feel like I let down all the grown-ups I tried to talk to in my addled state. This gig is hard, to understate things.

  4. You already know this in your heart of hearts, I'm sure … but Deb, you don't have to be a perfect mother and writer. Or even a brilliantly awesome mother and writer first time out. (Or second time, or third time.) It was great to catch up with you, however briefly, and to meet Squawk in person. And letting people down? By flying interstate with a newish born and helping us all celebrate one of the scene's night of nights? Pshaw. You're a mother now. And a writer, still. Don't let anyone — including that inner guilt-pusher of yours — ever convince you otherwise.

    1. Thanks Kirstyn. I'd settle for feeling mildly competent at either, although I do recognise that my certainty I'm not has more to do with my headspace than actuality. After all, she's healthy and happy, and I am still putting words on the page, however questionable they may prove.

      Honestly, this parenthood gig really screws with your head. I'm pretty sure the broken sleep factor alone violates the terms of the Geneva Convention.

  5. Don't feel bad! We're all just playing this motherhood gig by ear – every child is different, and it's not like there's some magic behavioural recipe we ought to be adhering to. And besides, we mothers are all different, too 🙂

    On the sterilising/expressing/bottlefeeding side of things: I was apprehensive about the time-cost, too, but it's really quite manageable. Expressing is something you can do in front of the TV, and if you buy a microwave steriliser, you just whack the bottles in there for six minutes after you've washed them up (but even then, I was told by a NICU nurse that sterilising bottles was overkill and not really necessary provided they were well-washed, so if you wanted to skip it all together as a stage, you could). More to the point, though, the Smallrus responded really well to combination feeding, and the difference in my ability to get some proper sleep was evident overnight, because Toby could do the morning feed and I, having done the late one, could get some proper rest. Even if you only express one bottle's worth per week, it means an extra uninterrupted timeslot where Stu can give you a bit more writing time or some extra sleep, and it'll help the two of them bond, too. I know it can feel like even that much of a concession to bottles is a betrayal, somehow – that's certainly how I felt for ages – but it's really, really not. All it does is give you options, and that's a worthwhile thing.

    1. Thanks, Foz. You've hit the nail on the head with the issue of betrayal, I think — I didn't realise that was part of what I was feeling, but I think it must be in the mix. I've found, since Squawk was born, a whole lot of expectations and assumptions crammed into my head that need unpacking, sometimes on a daily basis. Certainly keeps you on the path toward self-awareness!

      1. Trust me, I'm right there with you. Despite having believed – and blogged in support of, even – the idea that there was nothing wrong with using formula or bottlefeeding, I persisted with exclusive breastfeeding for five weeks of literal agony, where I'd scream and cry every time he latched on, and spent much of the rest of the time feeling depressed and exhausted, because I'd so wanted to breastfeed, and even though I couldn't really admit it to myself, regardless of what I said in public, I'd still internalised the idea that I should persist with breastfeeding only because doing otherwise would make me a bad, lazy mother. (The prenatal talks we went to did nothing to dispel this stereotype.)

        And all the while, Toby could see how stressed I was, and he kept on saying, it's OK if you want to express, if you want to get some formula so I can help, and for ages I said no, I wanted to keep going – but then, in the fifth week, when I'd finally been started on the right medication to treat my Raynaud's and had had a precious handful of painless feeds, I got a plugged duct on the sorest side while I was home alone, and I just snapped. I was sitting there on the lounge, in tears, and I thought, 'This is ridiculous. Why am I putting myself through this?' So I went to the chemist, and there was an absolutely lovely woman working there who could see straight away how distressed I was, and who took twenty minutes out of her day to talk to me and make me feel good about the decision to buy a bottle, and who as a consequence I still go in regularly to talk to. And right up until a few weeks ago, I was still combination feeding – breastfeeds and expressed milk and formula – and it was working perfectly.

        But in the end, it's just as well I'd switched when I did, because of that week in hospital I ended up having in April. Toby had to fend for himself with the baby, and that was stressful enough, but if he'd had to figure out bottlefeeding and formula all by himself at the same time, it would've been a nightmare. And I did pump in hospital, but I was so out of it that I wasn't doing so nearly as often as I would've fed the Smallrus at home, so by the time I was home again and recovering, I was down to just one or two breastfeeds a day. And by that point, he'd adjusted so well to the bottle – the time it took to do a single feed had more than halved, and given how hungry he was, there was something really comforting in knowing he was getting exactly enough food; plus, I no longer had to wait for the boobs to fill back up if he was screaming for an extra feed – that it just made sense to switch over entirely once we hit the three month mark.

        So, yeah. I think I'd told you most of that already, but the point is: whatever you decide to do, we've all internalised a lot of crap about why bottles are bad, and they're really not. The main thing is to make sure you're happy, Squawk's happy, and that everything else is more or less working (always allowing for child-induced setbacks and obstacles).


        1. Oh, I think the consequences of the "breast is best" campaign on a society that already has unreasonably high expectations of a mother can be quite toxic, and in the end a parent's job is to feed their child. Whether that be by breast, expressed breastmilk, or bottled formula is irrelevant. It will probably come to expressing at some point in my future, such as when I go back to work, but for now she's relatively low-maintenance on the feeding front.

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