In ordinary times, many of the major adjustments we go through either come with plenty of time to prepare, or special kinds of support to help us through. Perhaps the biggest examples would be when someone gets married, or experiences the loss of a spouse or parent. There can be quite a few stages along the way in either case: weddings don’t just take a lot of time to organise, they are also the culmination of lots of decisions, for the short and the longer term. By the time a wedding arrives, we have given some thought to what we are getting into, and anticipated what that will involve.
But we are not living in ordinary times, and many of the adjustments we have had to make in recent months have come as a shock, even if the warning signs have previously been present. Personally I have found this shock or sudden disturbance almost the hardest part to deal with. The evening of the latest announcement of restrictions being put in place by the government has seen me filled with a state of disbelief – not wanting to believe this is happening – mixed with panic. By the morning, disbelief has been replaced by anger, yet the panic is also still there as I try to figure out the practical implications for us as a family, and what we will need to do as a result. The whole process has taken a huge toll emotionally, and I think this is in large part due to the way in which these necessary adjustments have been forced upon us: it is all beyond our control, there has been no time to prepare or discuss it with anyone, and the people with whom we might most want to connect – for support and reassurance at such a time – are themselves at a distance and equally under pressure.
This all occurred to me again as I reflected on the biggest and newest change to have affected me most recently: following the birth of our second baby. In a way this arrival does fit into the category of planned-for changes, and yet at the same time I don’t think we can approach anything of such significance in quite the way that we would were we not living through this pandemic. This global story has taken up so much of the available space in my brain, but also foreshortened the units of time in which I feel able to operate. We are operating day to day, and week to week, by necessity. A pregnancy doesn’t fit this pattern, and so it has been extra difficult to compute in advance what the arrival of a new baby would be like and what it would mean for us all. It has been like trying to put one’s mind in two different gears at once.
For this reason and others, I don’t think the pregnancy got me very far with the job of adjusting to what was to come, and so the first few weeks since the birth have thrust us into a very different place. There is something about what we have found both in dealing with the pandemic and welcoming this new baby that has to do with confronting a fresh reality. It is accentuated at the moment in the home, where you are essentially in it 24/7, so you really do only have what you can see in front of you. But its force comes from the sense that it is now required of you that you be something you have had no practice in being, and that there is no time to wait or press pause.
This being said, it can be easy to fail to notice just how much we have adjusted: instead becoming overwhelmed by what we haven’t managed, either mentally or practically, rather than what we have. So this past week had left me feeling things had been a bit disastrous: I hadn’t got beyond clearing up messes and getting food on the table. But then I realised that it has only been four days that I have been doing this on my own, since my husband went back to work. That is four days to learn a whole new pattern of loving, caring, coaching and disciplining. Four days to work out how to prioritise a new and ever shifting set of demands. These four days in themselves marked a new period of adjustment, when we had already begun the work of adjusting as a family over the previous two weeks since the baby’s arrival. I realised that I couldn’t yet expect myself to be able to do all the things I needed to do, because I just hadn’t had enough practice yet.
It helps when I can have a thought about what’s going on. So these are some of the thoughts I’ve caught myself with this week:
- Daughter 1’s bright eyes and sharp mind can be a bit misleading: despite the fact that you can hold a conversation together, she still only has the brain development of a two year old. In fact, although you spend most days together and she seems to know the ropes as well as anyone, she is not your peer. So you can’t expect her to fully comprehend that because her screaming will stop the baby from finally dropping off to sleep, it would be better if she stopped screaming. After the event, I realised how futile it had been to try to ‘make’ her understand simply through my voice and words.
- Daughter 1 is adjusting too. The job of adjusting is not just something for you to deal with on your own, but something that you are working on together and can look out for in her.
- It feels at times like my relationship with daughter 1 is lost. I have been alarmed by the strength of my feelings: wanting space instead of cherishing closeness. But now that her sister is here I understand that my emotions will take time to settle into a new formation. I feel protective over this little newborn, and so suddenly I can’t maintain that exclusive attachment that I had for and with my eldest. Still, these are early days.
- The things that feel like your shortcomings in this time don’t cancel out the work you’ve done with daughter 1 up until now. You have come a long way with her already in the two years you have shared.
- Although their basic needs are the same, the way in which each child needs you to meet these needs are pretty different at present, so you are having to be two kinds of mummy. The one who holds and feeds, decodes cries and keeps a record of the last nappy change. And the one who chats about what we can see out of the window, guides her down the stairs, tries to make mealtimes happy, and to generally keep up on some level with a turbo-charged body and mind. Though it feels isolating in its intensity, it occurs to me that actually this doubling up is not too dissimilar from what has been asked of so many parents during this pandemic. It has been a time of wearing all one’s hats at once, along with a new one for all those who are now also homeschooling. There really is a lot of life going on behind our closed doors.
- Though your mind is telling you “I have zero stress management skills!”, this is not true. It is simply the latest manifestation of a challenge you have been encountering in different forms since childhood. Perhaps the closest experience to this that you have had has been at work when you simply have to maintain some decorum, regardless of what you feel is being thrown at you. You’ll remember from this that you do have a choice in how you respond, and that you can also choose to do what you need to do to help you through.
All this mental exercise is nonetheless fairly taxing, and so when we need a break from it all, I can recommend listening to a recording of Mary Oliver reading ‘Wild Geese’ for a post on Brain Pickings. The music of the poem is, I think, as helpful as the words.
Image by Samuel F. Johanns from Pixabay