Parentnoia

It sounded just like a distant bird call, honest. A faint puling sound that decorated the summer countryside quiet, hiding beneath an engrossing conversation with a friend out on the patio. It was the friend who commented on it: Hey isn’t that your baby? And I listened and thought: No…probably just a bird. I’ll just check to be sure.

It grew louder and more urgent as I started to race into the bedroom through open French windows. And there was my three-month-old, red in the face and bawling his eyes out on the bed. It was an auditory illusion, of course, his voice muffled by a curtain…and he was teething – ridiculously early – a light sleeper, you understand…

My friend, innocently enough, inquired as to why I didn’t just let him sleep on my shoulder. He weighs a stone, for crying out loud! I protested. But sure enough, it made me feel like the most appallingly irresponsible mother on the planet. It was no good – parentnoia had set in.

It seems to be a universal curse: first-time parents, diligently reading parenting books – most of them obnoxiously regimented in their techniques and rules – suffering spontaneous collapses of belief in their own instincts, as though their new child were some sort of incomprehensible kitchen appliance whose instructions were written in Japanese.

No matter how much we want to protect our children, there is a certain point at which protection becomes cotton-woolling – as great a parenting sin as neglect in most people’s eyes. Brought up in a sterile environment, a child’s immune system hasn’t been taxed; likewise, without challenges to the perfection of a young baby’s worldview, he or she will surely grow up fearful, lacking in initiative, and incapable of coping with the trials of earthly existence.

But a first-time mother is perhaps the most susceptible person of all to the insinuation that she might not be good enough in her new maternal role, that she might be somehow damaging her offspring in some subtle way of which she will not be aware until it is too late. This insinuation doesn’t come from disapproving glares half as much as from within.

Where on earth has this absurd idea of parental perfection come from, this ideal to which none of us can possibly compare and against which everyone comes up short? It doesn’t get any easier as your baby grows older, either. The guilt we feel when mentioning to a new acquaintance that our toddler still wakes up in the night, as if we should have trained him better by now (Gina Ford would have a fit!) is outrageous, but still it stings like nettles.

What if we don’t mind getting up with our child in the night? One friend actually told me she relished her sixteen-month-old’s night feeds, the intimacy and peace that she knew would not last forever. There is something so intoxicating about that drowsy, tender proximity, which only a woman has the pleasure of experiencing with her baby. If only mothers didn’t feel so browbeaten about not stamping the habit out early so as to fit a nice, standardised model of family life.

I suspect it has something to do with conditioning women to get back to work as quickly as possible, even when we’d much rather enjoy the all-too-fleeting closeness with a child who will, before we know it, be asking to sleep over at their friend’s houses every night and barely registering our kisses as they come in the door from school.

It seems that somewhere along the line we have forgotten our instinctual ability to integrate children into our lives, whether it be our faith in our own ability to care for our kids adequately, our fears about the way they are growing up, or our cliquiness about parenting styles. Humans knew how to care for their children millennia before web forums and expert guides came along. Perhaps the cure for parentnoia is nothing more than telling those bossy, opinionated know-it-alls to stick a babygro in it.