When I had Ted I felt completely lost. I knew how to look after babies so I thought everything would be fine, but those babies weren’t my baby and I didn’t know how different it would be.
I didn’t know how crippling the baby blues could be or how very desperately lonely I might feel. I didn’t know my hormones would race from one extreme to another in the blink of an eye or that my tolerance of screaming would bend with my mood. I couldn’t have predicted how very frightened I would be: of Ted being poorly; of a car veering out of control as I pushed his buggy down the street; of muggers and kidnappers and murderers; of diseases I’d never even heard of before; of him leaving me.
When I first went to the nearby Sure Start centre it was with my nephew and his Mum. We went to the sensory room and it was magical. Ted must only have been three or four months old and he was mesmerised. It felt, to me, as though I was being a good parent; I was exposing him to positive new experiences and interacting with him in a more focused way. It was lovely.
Shortly after that I signed up to the centre and started taking Ted to PEEP (Parents’ Early Education Partnership) sessions, where we would meet other babies and delve into messy activities and play with things we had never thought of before: pine cones, confetti-filled bottles, reflective blankets, scarves. Ted loved it. He could see the other babies and he loved the singing. We’d have a group discussion about whatever had been in the news that week but mostly we were just left to explore together.
What was most important to me about that group was that as well as babies there were also a whole load of babies’ Mums: Mums who, like me, were muddling through and hoping for the best; who prayed no one could tell they didn’t really have a clue what they were doing; who wished they knew what was going on and whether they were doing it right.
There were, of course, some Mums I didn’t want to talk to. There will always be Mums who compete to show that their child is the best: the biggest, the brightest, the bravest; or, oddly enough, the naughtiest. There were Mums who were feeding young babies crisps and shouting at some who weren’t even walking yet and, once, a Mum who repeatedly smacked her toddler. There were Mums who knew everything.
But there were also Mums who admitted that they were clueless. There were Mums who asked, in hushed tones, whether it was okay to let babies sleep on their front if they didn’t tell their Health Visitors, or if it was alright to give them baby rice at four months instead of waiting the recommended six, or who tried not to cry as they recounted tales of sleepless nights and spousal discontent. Or who did cry.
I needed those Mums. I needed them so much it made me write this blog; because I knew other people needed those Mums too and that, unlike me, they might not be fortunate enough to have somewhere as amazing as a Sure Start centre to go. I’m aware of how lucky I am to live in a town with two centres and, after five hundred closing over the last few years, I can’t urge you to find your nearest enough.
I still see one of the Mums I met at PEEP and two I met at a music group. Ted loves spending time with them and I love being able to say “I don’t know if I can take much more” while they reassure me that I can.
I didn’t think I’d need the centre as much when I had Ben but it’s been just as important to me. I’ve needed to have somewhere to take Ted where I can focus purely on him and his speech and to encourage him to play with, and learn from, children who have more highly developed language skills. I’ve really needed to hear that I’m doing okay and that it’s not my fault. But I’ve also needed a fresh round of honest, flawed, frightened Mums to share my fresh round of questions, quandaries and concerns.
I’ve spoken to lots of varieties of Mums and, on the whole, I’ve found it unbelievably rewarding. Of course, there are still those I choose not to spend my time with: the Mums who compete over whose son got the most detentions that week; the Mums who scream at their children in language they shouldn’t hear; those who look at Ted like he’s stupid or, worse, who don’t let their children play with him because they think he’s different.
Luckily there are plenty of Mums who will smile and tell me it’ll get better when I’ve had a bad night with Ben (although there are still those who will tell me how much worse their night was). There are those I can talk to about the realities and the difficulties and the fact that I love my boys more than I could ever put into words but that sometimes I just want to go away.
Being a Mum of two doesn’t make being a Mum of a baby much easier. Yes, I’m more confident in my abilities to feed and change and clothe him. But I haven’t had a four month old baby for twenty-six months and there’s so much I’d forgotten. It doesn’t make life much easier that I’ve also not only got a toddler to think about but a toddler whose communication skills are poor. In some ways the new Mums are the ones I need most, because it’s all new and scary to them and I don’t feel like they’re going to judge me for not knowing what I’m doing. The thing is, Ben is so different from Ted that sometimes it really does feel like I’ve never done it before.
Now we go to PEEP and Musical Movers for Ted and Little Explorers for them both, but my favourite time of the week is Monday afternoon: Chill & Chat. I only went because an ex-colleague, a first time Mum, wanted to go and I said I’d go with her. I thought the idea of sitting in a room full of parents and babies without any structured activities, just to “chill”, was hideous. Then I met other Mums of babies the same age as Ben and breathed a sigh of relief as they talked about how knackered and stressed they were.
The leader of the group has a knack of getting people to open up and of steering them to the other members of the group who might be going through similar things, or just who might get on well. One week I wandered in to find my friend leaving and, although I felt awkward, I decided to make the most of that hour and plonked myself next to another woman who was sitting on her own. A short while later another Mum was introduced to us and we just didn’t stop talking. That second Mum and I ended up leaving after the chairs had all been stacked away and the leader was coughing at the doorway.
I cry most days because I’m worried about Ted. I cry most days because I’m exhausted and I don’t have time for anything else. Remembering how to raise a baby whilst trying to support Ted has been really challenging, and the one thing that has helped me through is peer support.
Without the Sure Start centre I would be completely alone with my boys. I wouldn’t have anyone to share my fears with as the Health Visitor and SLT have brushed us off. I’d be left crying about Ted and about my lack of sleep but with no one to share it with who could just say, “I know. I do, I know.”
A slight disclaimer: My blog has been accused of sexism before because I write about Mums. This post doesn’t even mention Dads and that’s because it’s not a social commentary; it’s an account of my recent experiences. The only Dad I come into contact with at the centre sits glued to his phone while his girlfriend plays with their son and he’s certainly not representative of the Dads I know.