There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about becoming a parent. Maybe that’s for the better; a collective wisdom passed down through the generations that allows the human race to continue. Because if you really knew what was involved, you wouldn’t have the courage to sign up. And if you had to formally apply for the job, your lack of qualifications and experience would mean you would never get past the first interview anyway.
One of the most terrifying moments of my entire life was as a new mother, with a new baby, walking back into my own house and putting the most precious gift in the world in his clean, new and lovingly assembled cot. He looked up at me and I looked down at him and smiled nervously. And my first thought was ‘God help him, he is completely dependent on me for his very existence.’ And I am pretty sure he was looking up at me thinking ‘God help me, I am completely dependent on her for my very existence, and she ain’t filling me with confidence here, judging by that nervous smile on her face.’
One of the first qualifications you realise you wish you had as a parent, and that you really should have studied for, is that of advanced midwifery specialising in antenatal care. That way you would be licensed and capable of looking after a precious new-born baby whose only hope of survival lies totally in your hands. Because now, without any prior training or qualifications, you need to feed, bathe, love and care for them, as well as get them off to sleep with a confidence that ensures they will sleep soundly and safely for hours and you retain your sanity. I failed at the first hurdle.
I couldn’t even put a vest on my baby for fear I was going to break his arms or dislocate his elbow. I tried a few times, I could only ease the vest gently over his head. Then he would look up at me, with a baby vest bunched around his neck like a gigantic white scarf. And his frank, open gaze could only hold one meaning ‘I really hope you know what you’re doing, and if you don’t get this thing off my neck I’m going to have to start screaming until someone with a bit more sense turns up.’
I would lift one precious little baby arm and try to gently bend and push it through the tiny armhole of the baby vest, but somehow it just wouldn’t bend in the right direction, and I would panic, and he would scream. And there is nothing on this earth designed to reduce you to a sweating heap of fear quicker than the sound of your baby screaming. In the end I just took to wrapping him in extra blankets to make sure he was warm. We both found the whole baby vest thing too stressful and decided to skip it until he was a bit more pliable and lot less delicate.
That’s the thing about parenting, you have basically signed up to some sort of life-long apprenticeship scheme. You get to learn on the job, but the job will never be finished and you don’t get the choice of retiring. This is for life, and there is a lot of learning to do!
And as long as you don’t mess up too much you won’t get the sack. You just have to keep on trying to get better at the job. Except the job keeps changing.
You go from midwife, to sleep expert, to paediatrician to child psychologist to nutritionist to teacher to IT expert, to detective, to teenage behaviourist and so it keeps going until you get to the advanced level, if you ever do.
However, there are loads of benefits to your long-term apprenticeship; not least the job satisfaction that comes with finally getting a baby vest on a four-month-old baby without having a panic attack (you or them!) And through a fug of sleepless nights, weaning, pureeing food only for it to be spat out, teething toys, wobbling, falling, first steps, walking, bumped heads, scraped knees, tantrums and tears, you eventually move to the next big life stage – the first day of school.
And no one tells you how it really feels to be walking with that little hand in yours, that trusting little soul by your side, taking hesitant steps all the way up to the school gates and the new class and the smiling teacher. And here you are, wishing and hoping with your heart and soul that they will have fun and make friends on their first day at school, while also hoping secretly, guiltily that they will be a little upset because they love you so much they don’t want you to leave.
I think I was more nervous than he was. I bravely smiled and held back tears as I waved him off into the classroom on his first day, and felt a mixture of pride and sadness as he marched into the cloakroom without a backward glance. That’s another thing about parenting, it can be very bittersweet sometimes.
So now the real challenge, the mind games, the brinkmanship and power games really kick in when they start school. Because before long, you are in a state of psychological warfare known more commonly as ‘Homework’. And the one piece of homework that really brought out the worst in both of us was spelling. The delaying tactics, the tears, the tantrums, the sulks. And he could be just as bad sometimes.
Then there are the new set of social skills you have to learn and then teach them, a whole new social code around play dates, fall outs, making up and playground rules, and most importantly, teaching right from wrong. And that’s where you are in a whole new landscape.
So there we were one day, walking home from school, sitting down for a snack and talking about his day in this whole other world he is in from 9am to 3pm and for once he is unusually quiet. Time for the amateur psychology skills to kick in.
‘What’s wrong, you look a bit sad. Did you have a good day at school?’
‘Yes, it was ok.’
‘Is there anything wrong, something you want to tell me?’
‘Well…’ He hesitated and broke off, his chubby little face looking up at me with a serious expression. My heart tightened, something was worrying him. What could it be, what happened today that will result in him lying on a psychiatrist couch twenty years from now because his useless mother didn’t know how to help him that day he came home from school. As someone wiser than me once said ‘You don’t know the meaning of the word worry, until you become a parent.’
‘Ok, do you want to tell what’s wrong?’ I gently probed, keeping the panic out of my voice.
‘I learnt a bad word today at school and I know you are going to be cross,’ he said, looking up at me with a worried expression clouding his sweet little face. My heart tightened even more. What was the bad word? What had he learned? And from whom? Oh the loss of innocence, the pain, the letting go. Like I said, you never knew the meaning of the word worry until you become a parent.
‘Ok, so do you want to tell me what the bad word was?’ I asked a bit nervously.
He nodded but then said ‘I don’t want you to be cross so I don’t want to say it out loud.’
‘Ok’, I said. ‘Well, let’s see if we can work this out.’ I was already forming the lecture in my mind, remembering what the Nuns from my school days had said: ‘Profanity is an idle mind trying to sound forceful.’ Hang on, that might not work, he’s five years of age, how would he know what profanity meant?
‘Probably best if we start with how many letters there are in this bad word. Why don’t you tell me that bit first?’ I asked.
He looked thoughtful for a moment and then counted out on his chubby fingers stained from finger painting at school. ‘There are four letters in the bad word,’ he said. My heart sank. I only knew a few bad words with four letters, and they were the really bad words.
‘Oh dear, well maybe now you could tell me what letter the bad word started with?’ I asked nervously.
‘No. You are going to be really cross with me, I know you will.’ He looked really worried, time for me to reassure.
‘I promise I won’t be really cross, I just need to know what the bad word is and then maybe we can talk about why it is wrong to say it.’
‘Are you sure?’ he asked nervously.
‘Yes absolutely. I promise you that, no matter what letter the bad word starts with, I won’t be cross. We just need to sort this out now.’
He looked up at me, obviously weighing up if he could trust me, in the end he decided to chance it. ‘Ok, it’s a bad word, with four letters,’ he repeated.
‘Yes we’ve got that bit, what letter does it start with?’
‘It’s a bad word, with four letters, and the first letter is R.’
He looked at me nervously. I looked back at him with a puzzled expression. That one stumped me. I didn’t know any bad words beginning with R, never mind a four-letter one. Curiosity got the better of me.
‘A bad, word? Four letters, beginning with R? I don’t think I know any – honestly I really don’t think I do. I think you are going to have to tell me the word. Just whisper it in my ear.’ By now I really was keen to learn this one.
This time it was his turn to look intrigued, and a little more confident because he knew something Mummy didn’t know.
His little face leaned over and he cupped his hands round my ear and leant in. ‘Mummy,’ he whispered. ‘The bad word with four letters beginning with the letter R. It’s the word Arse.’
I was stumped. Then shocked. Then I burst out laughing. He was delighted even though he didn’t fully understand the joke.
He wasn’t laughing ten minutes later when I made him write out the word Arse ten times correctly.
If you are going to use bad words, then you should at least know how to spell them correctly was my flawed intellectual stance. That’s probably why it took me so long to work out what ‘WTF’ stood for when he got his first mobile phone and started texting.