Saying goodbye to the perfect mother

My husband and I have this fine dining club where we as a group of friends pick a top notch restaurant to visit once a month. For June we decided on Chefs Warehouse at Beau Constantia. From the get-go I was a bit nervous about taking my baby along to a spot like this – these restaurants aren’t generally kid-friendly – but since she has been refusing to take a bottle I also couldn’t leave her behind. They say a baby should fit into your lifestyle, and fine dining is our little spoil, so we decided to risk it.

Off we went on a cold winter’s afternoon, with a soft drizzle settling over the city. Things started off well enough when Baby passed out for her morning nap in the car. But when we got to the restaurant the tides started to turn. The venue was a lot louder than we had anticipated, or perhaps we’ve just become more jumpy at noise. This, combined with the new environment and interesting smells coming from the open kitchen, meant that our little munchkin had no intention of falling asleep. She simply lay in her stroller, sucking her dummy, wide eyed.

The surge of panic began slowly, rising like the tide. I kept checking my watch over and over, seeing her nap time come and go, seeing her awake time stretch longer and longer. When the first cries erupted I nervously eyed my husband from across the table. We were officially those people. “Honestly, who brings a baby to a place like this?” we had asked once, before becoming parents ourselves.

Eventually I pushed her pram outside to get away from the noise. Now we were standing under the awning at the entrance, an electric sliding door that kept opening and closing because we were triggering the sensor, trying to keep out of the rain, and getting pitying stares from passers-by as we tried to calm a now somewhat hysterical infant. I tried strapping her into her carrier, but she only cried more. And I think that’s what tipped me overboard. That was my secret weapon, the thing that had always worked. I could strap her in and she would fall asleep. And now it too was met with angry wails.

“What do you want us to do?” My husband asked, standing next to me, helplessly. “Should we leave? You know her.”

“Stop saying that!” I spat at him. “She changes, I don’t know this baby! Just do something!”

At this point I once again realised why you have both a mom and a dad. Instead of shouting back or challenging me, he saw my distress and uncertainty and simply took our baby and put her back into her stroller, covered her up and walked in circles until those eyes dipped. Then he organised to carry her into a back office – the manager was a superstar and helped us carry her, pram and all, up the stairs and inside. There, next to the shelves stocked with spices and pantry supplies, she slept calmly for an hour and a half. I breathed.

I think two things caused me to flip my shit that day. The first was that I became completely obsessed with checking the clock for her nap, without giving her time to take in her surroundings and adjust. The second was my fear that other people would think me a bad mother because I could not manage my child. And I am sure there were those who rolled their eyes at me that day. Unfortunately there’s nothing I can do about what strangers think, but I can control the standards I set for myself.

I think we all have some idea of a perfect mother in our heads. Before we had our baby, whenever we spent time with new parents, we would take away the things that we liked about their style, and discard the rest. Over time we built up this idea of how we would like to be when we had our own kids. We’d be calm, easy-going, encourage our baby to be social, take her out so she would get used to noisy environments, give her a consistent routine so that she would feel a sense of safety. We would avoid screen time and cook our own baby food. We’d be present, patient. Perfect.

I’ll confess that I’m a bit of a control freak, so you can imagine that having a baby has been a pretty big challenge on an emotional level. I’ve tried to cope by reading up on methods and strategies – how to avoid overstimulation, the optimal awake times, sleep schedules, and and and. I am glad I did my research; it has helped me immensely. But the downside, in my case, is becoming obsessed with doing things exactly right, to such an extent that I often forget to just look in front of me. I forget to just ease into a situation, I forget that my child is just a child, and not a robot who knows they’re suppose to fall asleep after exactly 2 hours 15 minutes.

After the lunch we struck a couple of rocky days where she would struggle to go down for naps, or wake up earlier than usual, or take forever to fall asleep at night. I’d tell myself it was typical of her four month sleep regression, but at the same time I would become anxious to the point of nausea because I felt I’d somehow done something wrong to trigger this. Did I allow her to nap too long this afternoon? Was she awake too long? Is it okay if she sleeps till 07:10 or should I wake her at 07:00 sharp like the guide says.

Then this week I became so immersed in my work that I forgot to check the time and I was late going home to feed her. The knock-on was that she missed her sleepy window and ended up skipping her afternoon nap altogether. I remember sitting at my desk, feeling physically ill because I’d fucked up. I felt so guilty.

And then I realised it was time for me to let go of the perfect mother. She was smothering me. She was sucking the joy out of this time and instead of allowing myself to mess up and grow up, I was stifling the entire experience.

Instead of trying to be perfect, I think it’s smarter to try and find a space where both myself and my baby can be happy. It’s okay if I love working, sometimes more than spending time at home caring for my baby. After a day at the office I love coming home and hanging out with her. Sometimes I’ll be prepped and ready with healthy meals. Sometimes I’ll reach for a ready-made something. Sometimes her naps will go perfectly and sometimes she, like all humans, might struggle to nod off. Sometimes the storm outside will frighten her and she won’t want to be put down drowsy but awake. She’ll want to be snuggled in my arms, because I’m her mom. I’m her safety. And instead of sleep training to the point where we’re both exhausted, maybe I can just enjoy having this tiny human close to me until she safely drifts into dream land. It might mean trouble later on, but at this point I don’t care anymore.

There is a lot of growing up that needs to happen when you have kids. She and I need room to wiggle and stretch, to figure out how this new rhythm works. And perfection isn’t going to fit here. So here’s to being perfectly imperfect. To losing your shit now and then, to burning the baby food, to drinking a little too much wine because, damn, this is hard. And the next time you see a mom struggling, ask her if you can help. Lord knows she’s hard enough on herself without your judgement.

 

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