They say it takes a village to raise a child. In our modern society, communities have dwindled and family rarely live close together. This often leaves the parenting to fall on just two people. A daunting task, at the best of times.
Of course, technology offers its own solutions. There’s an app called Mush which allows you to meet up with local parents (a sort of Tinder for mums, without the swiping or the sex). Just the ticket when you’re stuck at home with a squawling infant. There are personal communities that spring up through NCT classes, baby groups and cafes, which ensure you are always within moaning (or at least Whatsapping) distance of someone who is experiencing exactly the same things as you.
She was so small when we left!
Before we went away, I had just made some tentative steps in that direction. In the final weeks before Christmas when I felt able to leave the house (she was born in November), I managed a few meet ups for coffee, went to see the Star Wars film with her and even managed a Pilates class. After Christmas, I managed to do a baby massage course and squeeze in a few social gatherings, but most of my time was taken up with planning the trip, packing up the flat and saying farewells to friends and family.
Since we’ve been away, I’ve felt pretty rudderless when it comes to the direction of my parenting. So much time is spent planning for what we’re doing and looking after her daily needs, there is barely any time to sit any worry about whether I’m doing it right. Lost in a sea of flights, excursions and rented apartments, we’ve ended up figuring out how to be parents by ourselves.
She’s so big now
This hasn’t been without its benefits. There is so much conflicting advice about the ‘right’ way to do everything from nappy changing to introducing solid food. Weighing through books, websites and personal anecdotes can leave you with your head in a spin, wondering if you’re really cut out for taking care of a tiny human. It might be for the best that we’re muddling through on our own. It has, however, led to a degree of self doubt.
It always baffles me that complete strangers will offer advice on how to raise a baby. There are very few areas of life when someone will walk up to you and tell you what to do, with no preamble or warning.
New Zealand – beautiful but chilly
In New Zealand, I was walking through Rotorua on a blustery day, on my way to steal Wifi from the local library so we could book our next campsite. As we made our way across a road, the hood of her coat slipped back.
A friendly-looking woman waved at me, as people often do when I’m with her.
“Do you want a hat?” she said. “I’ve got one in the car.”
For a minute I was confused – did she think my hair looked bad? Was she trying to sell me something? Then it dawned on me. She was concerned for the girl strapped to my chest, wrapped in several layers and a very thick coat, I might add. Her hair was fluffing in the breeze, which was making her laugh.
Some warm clothing required – note that hat AND coat
I declined, pulling her hood up to demonstrate what a capable mother I was, and that of course I knew that she shouldn’t have her head exposed in chilly weather. While my initial reaction was annoyance at her assumption I didn’t know how to keep my baby warm, it made me doubt myself. Was she too cold? Perhaps, seeing as the woman was local (I presumed from the accent) she had a better idea of what to dress a baby in. I couldn’t shake the feeling that her unwanted advice wasn’t entirely unwarranted.
After all, I had only brought this baby into the world a few months ago. What did I know about how warm or cold she should be? From that point on, I made sure I always put her woolly hat on underneath her coat, just in case.
As time has ticked by, various crises – usually involving screaming – have presented themselves, and we’ve dealt with all of them. Every day I complete actions I never had to before, and this repetition has made me much more confident. While we’ve had the standard challenges that every new parent has, we’ve also had to deal with them away from the comfort and familiarity of our own home, and without the direct support of loved ones. I wonder if it hasn’t helped us become more confident, more quickly.
The grey skies of Mexico City
One of the things we haven’t had to deal with too much (unfortunately, as far as I’m concerned) is what to do when it is too hot. We’re currently in Mexico, and decided that, seeing as we’re reaching the end of our trip, it would be good to have some time on the beach relaxing. What better place to do that than the ‘Mexican Riviera’ on the Yucatan Peninsula?
On arrival, we discovered the whole area was in the middle of very heavy storms. A lot of the scuba diving off the beach was cancelled, and the sand was submerged under heaps of smelly brown algae. The skies stayed a gloomy grey.
We managed to go diving anyway off the island of Cozumel (where I saw my first spotted eagle ray) and by the time we’d both fit that in around her, the clouds were beginning to thin. We decided to head to Tulum, a Mayan ruin by the sea. Having read reviews, I was looking forward to soft sandy beaches just as much as the archaeological site. Unfortunately, the storm had made itself felt all the way down the coast so, you guessed it, more smelly brown seaweed.
Still, the site was amazing. Ancient stone structures teetered at the edge of high cliffs, looking out over the open sea. The area was a shocking green, with palms and fig trees shading the iguanas that scuttled between the rocks. For once, we also had blue skies peppered with just a few clouds, the fierce sun blazing down between.
The stunning ruins of Tulum
I wrapped a pale scarf over her protruding limbs to shield her from the heat and mosquitoes, and off we went. A couple of hours in the sling while wandering about is something she usually enjoys, although she was a little quiet, despite my best efforts to stand under tree shade whenever possible.
We were walking past (yet another) tour group when a Mexican guy pointed at her. ‘Liquido,’ he said, pointing to his mouth. He looked worried. I nodded and turned away, safe in the knowledge that she had fed only an hour ago, and that we would soon stop for lunch in the shade. Then I saw that he had grabbed his friend and was pointing at me, making the same gesture. I was suddenly infuriated. Not only did this man think he knew my baby better than me, he also felt the need to point out my failings to others.
Frijoles are still popular
Unfortunately, my Spanish didn’t stretch to that situation, but I was going to make my feelings known.
“What makes you think you can tell me what to do with my child?” I said. While the words probably didn’t reach their target, I’m sure my anger was clear enough.
It felt like a minor turning point. I had felt so sure that she was fine and so certain that I knew it that I had felt the need to speak out. I would like to say that I didn’t then spend the next half hour checking her and worrying that she was too hot, but it’s hard not to let doubts creep in. So then my anger passed to myself – I should trust myself and my abilities.
Breastfeeding in some Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza
It made me realise just how isolated we’ve been. Despite Skype chats and emails, it’s just been the two of us to figure out everything. No support groups, no family, no friends, no babysitters to give us time to ourselves. Of course, for the lack of all those things our little girl has seen and heard so many exciting things, and we’ve had experiences we will remember forever.
I hope I can pick up where I left off. My phone is full of WhatsApp threads of people arranging to meet up with their babies. Hopefully I can jump back into that and resume my relationships with other parents. When I get back, I will have the added challenge of working as well as looking after her, so I’m sure I’ll need all the support I can get.
She’s enjoying the history!
When I first had my baby, I made the slip of referring to myself as ‘Aunty Sarah’ to her, quite a few times. In relation to children, that’s who I’ve been for over twenty years.
Now, I always see myself as her mum. Somewhere between the travelling, the treks, the forests, the glaciers and the beaches, I’ve discovered at least a small part of who I am as a parent. While I hope the next part of it will be achieved with a bit more help from others, I wonder if it isn’t a good thing that I discovered this first part by myself.