1994 – 1995: In which she goes postal and to the ball

Against all odds, despite that Satanic nun in my head, I managed to learn which way was up. In just a few, short weeks I went from incompetent hell-mother to semi-capable Steven expert. I gained confidence. Things that seemed intimidating in the beginning became second nature to me. The scariest thing wasn’t the physical aspect of looking after him – I soon realised he wasn’t as fragile as he looked and I actually was capable of feeding, bathing and dressing him without causing any lasting damage. It wasn’t even the sheer mind-blowing bizarreness of knowing that I loved someone more than I thought humanly possible, without being a stalker.

No. The most frightening part of it all was making the decisions. That daunting question that demands an answer a thousand times a day: What now?

Dr Spock and Supernanny are all good and well, and they know their stuff, to be sure. However. They are not in the room when your baby goes to sleep ten minutes before you were going to bath him, for example. Nobody is there to tell you whether you should just let him sleep in his dirty clothes and wet nappy, or wake him and risk trying to bath a screechy, slippery bundle of infant fury, then struggle for five hours to get him back to sleep afterwards. What do you do? What do you do if he doesn’t finish his bottle for the third time in a row? Is he terribly ill? Is he just not hungry today? Is he thirsty perhaps? Should I give him some water instead? This book says he can have water, that one says under no circumstances. What if he gets constipated? Or diarrhoea? Is this bit supposed to be that colour? Has the rash got better or worse since we changed the washing powder? Oh my God, is it meningitis?!

How am I supposed to know what to do? The feeling of abject incompetence, while bluffing for the camera, is the loneliest feeling in the world. You think you’re the only one who has no idea what she’s doing, and nobody ever tells you they felt the same way. You have a helpless little person entirely dependant on you and your ability to make the right decisions – to know what decision to make. The pressure is relentless, the constant uncertainty enough to dissolve even the most together mother into a gooey puddle of snot en trane.

But I did it. Somehow. I’m still doing it today. And with each new situation, I’m still utterly clueless. I’ve made hundreds of mistakes (no, I’m not telling), and I’m sure to make plenty more. Hopefully they won’t be big. Okay, maybe one or two big ones. (Talk to Steven’s therapist in twenty years and he should be able to tell you how badly I’ve screwed up.) In the process, I’ve learned a trick or two.

Trick number one: if you’re worrying about whether you’re doing it right, you’re on the right track. You can always tell the parents who believe they’re doing a fantastic job. They’re the ones whose children torture small, fluffy creatures. Sure, the guilt and the voracious monster fear of ruining your child for life gnaws away at your soul until there’s nothing left but a desolate windswept vacuum, but at least it keeps you honest, right? Right?

Trick number two is the easiest way to check your parental aptitude: how many times have you dropped your child on the head? More than twice and you’re probably screwed. Less than that, you might be okay. Watch for puppy-kicking. Quite simple, really.

Great parenting in two easy steps.

Sooner than I would have thought possible, the day came that I realised I knew my baby better than anyone else. I could comfort him better than anyone, and I was his favourite person in the world. It happens to all mothers. I just didn’t expect it to happen to me.

My life had taken on a routine of mothering, studying, more mothering, compulsive yawning. I was tired all the time. By early afternoon, I’d be barely conscious, operating entirely on autopilot. Steven had heard about sleeping through the night, but this was apparently something that happened to other people. He didn’t see how it applied to him. His daytime naps were short, not long enough to make a snack and sleep, for example – you had to choose. Eat or sleep? Hmmm… dumb question.

Steven was healthy, a sturdy, happy baby who had my whole family wrapped around his chunky little finger. I remember the sheer joy of watching him grow and learn, reaching each milestone on target, or even earlier. The angst-ridden excitement of each new stage, like starting him on solids (apples and pears were his favourite. Do not try the fish and veg variety. Trust me, it’s cat food in a jar. And strained carrots lead to alarmingly orange nappies, which is not a sign of cancer, so don’t stress. I couldn’t wait for him to reach the third stage of Purity – those banana and caramel puddings looked so good. And while we’re on the topic: jelly sniffed up your baby’s nose will melt eventually, and does not pose any threat of suffocation. Don’t panic. Just laugh. Okay, panic a little first. Then laugh.)

Mom was a huge help – she took care of Steven every morning while I studied. Or rather, while I sat at my desk and stared uncomprehendingly at my books, drooling a little. It was hard getting back into the work. My mind was on Steven constantly, and every squeak or cry I heard had me rushing out of my room to see what was up.

Some mornings, I never even made it to my desk. My mom and I would sit in the lounge, drinking gallons of tea and discussing our favourite subject – Steven. We’d analyse his bowel movements, possible teething and strategies for getting him to sleep just five minutes longer. And gushing. We gushed a lot. He was so perfect, so strong and healthy, much more beautiful than any other baby we’d ever seen, of course.