When my first baby was born and I realised I was not quite as prepared as I thought, everyone kept telling me to follow my instinct. The problem was, I didn’t feel like I had any instinct. My baby didn’t arrive how I had expected, he wasn’t feeding how I expected, and he didn’t sleep like I expected. I was exhausted, overwhelmed, and traumatised. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be doing, and furthermore I didn’t have an internal voice guiding me, like people seemed to be suggesting I should.
I felt alone at the time, watching other new parents knowing what their babies needed and providing it without fuss. However, five years on, I realise it’s really common feeling among new families, this lack of instinct or natural ‘knowing’ what to do with your baby.
When I had our twins, I had a sort of ‘aha’ moment. From the start of their birth, I knew exactly what we needed to do and what was right. Sometimes I falter, and I get it wrong a lot, but I rarely go looking for advice because I trust my instinct.
So what was missing first time around? I have spent a long time reflecting on this question. One thing I realised is that prior to the last few years, I didn’t trust my instinct in lots of areas of my life – work, friendships, relationships… When making any big decision, I asked everyone in my life what they thought I should do. I never asked myself what I thought I should do. Not only did I not listen to my instinct, I didn’t even give it a chance to voice an opinion.
It wasn’t until I had to make lots of big decisions every day, in order to keep a tiny human alive, that I noticed this absence of instinct. In general, I think it comes from a lack of confidence and self-esteem on my part (something many years of therapy have yet to unpack), but in becoming a mother I blame the overwhelming amount of often-conflicting information we are given.
From my first appointment with the midwife (at about 6 weeks pregnant), I was bombarded with guidance, official recommendations, leaflets, and other sources telling me exactly what I should be doing. Some of it I sought out, like the ‘Babycalming’ book I found in a charity shop, but I would estimate that about 75% trickled in passively, even subliminally.
I can’t remember musing about what kind of parent I wanted to be, or what it would be like to have a newborn. I had lots of expectations based on societal norms depicted in the media: like all other babies, my child would sleep in a Moses basket, he would sit in a bouncy chair or lie on his play gym during the day, he would go to sleep nicely and night and wake up in the morning, and he would enjoy going in its pram for walks.
It’s almost laughable now. He did none of this. Our first week home, he would not sleep anywhere but on one of our chests. We slept in shifts, terrified to put him in our bed (while our bodies screamed out for rest) because the leaflet the midwife gave us said it wasn’t safe. He hated being put down, and I hated hearing him cry when he was away from me, but people said we could spoil him by holding him too much. He slept in 10-minute increments day and night, so I could not sleep when the baby slept like everyone kept telling me to. He did not enjoy being in his pram; he did not care that people said it was where he was supposed to go.
Why didn’t I do what I thought was best? Why didn’t I trust myself to keep my baby safe? Perhaps we would have had a very different start to our relationship if I had listened to my instinct instead of turning to books, healthcare professionals, and websites for guidance. What if someone had taken a moment to ask me what I wanted to do, instead of telling me what I should do?
It got better when I had the twins, because I was confident in my choices. People still offer unsolicited judgement and recommendations, and I have learned to smile politely and change the subject. They are happy, having imparted their wisdom, and I am happy to continue as we are.
But I still wonder how differently our parenting journeys would be if we were encouraged to listen to our inner voices. I still feel sad that I wasn’t.