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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett

I hated being told I should ‘cherish every moment’ of motherhood – now I understand

Touching hands with a baby
‘I am taking a little time every day to look and to feel and to try to remember, to set it all in amber.’ Photograph: Uldis Zile/Alamy

Of all the phrases parents tell me they dislike, “cherish every moment” is the winner. Time is a strange thing when you are caring for small humans, and, as I thought about it this week, it is this phrase that keeps coming back to me. It’s the idea that by feeling any negative emotion, you are somehow squandering time. I have been told by parents with postnatal mental health issues that this unrealistic phrase – often said by older people – has made them feel deep shame. Time is precious, and to not feel constantly delighted by your child is a terrible waste.

I don’t feel shame, but I’ll confess that the occasional suggestion that this column is overly negative has wounded me. I’ve been writing it in real time these past eight months – I wrote notes for my first column while in hospital, the sounds of women in labour all around me – and though there have been struggles, there have also been immense, intense highs. My son still feels miraculous to me. But writing as it happens means real, living feelings land on the page, some dark, some light. There’s no time to try to temper reality in retrospect to make it seem like it’s always plain sailing.

When I see new parents out and about with newborns, I feel solidarity but also a strange mix of other emotions. He was once so small and curled like a bug – how could that time have passed so quickly? Why did I not realise how short those days would be? At the time they felt unceasing; in the whirl of feed, sleep, feed, sleep I could not see an end to them. The baby and I were still one, and would cease to be. He would open his eyes to the world and look beyond me, and I would be gifted a whole new phase, while mourning that which came before. At the time, the shock of his premature arrival left little room for reflection – but had you asked me, I’d have maybe said that I felt that the time in the third trimester, when the baby should have still been safe inside me, had been lost, or even stolen. Now I say I got five extra weeks of him. What a gift, this time travel.

When you are raising a child, it isn’t that the hard parts aren’t hard, but that time marches on so indefatigably that they almost mystically fade. Older people, I think, understand this, which is why they often can’t remember when you ask them about specific aspects of parenting, such as my mum not recalling when she moved on from giving me purees, or how they coped with certain difficulties. (In case it sounds as though her memory is going, she just recited TS Eliot to the baby: “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” I could measure the last year of mine in formula scoops, I thought.)

Women have said to me that they suspect this amnesia might be evolutionary, otherwise no one would have a second child. Time makes you sentimental, and pain fades in the memory, with sleeplessness rendering whole stages – where the passing of time felt like treacle – a blur. I’m starting to understand that. The hell of establishing breastfeeding felt, at the time, all consuming. I doubt I’ll ever fully forget it, but thinking about it now is like watching a film about someone else, while sitting a great distance from the screen.

Older people also give you outdated advice, like telling you to start babies on solids at four months. That’s the other thing about time: the official recommendations around parenting change so often that sometimes older generations might be made to feel that their input is irrelevant. This is not the case. The science around safe sleeping may be different, but my mother still knows, it seems, instinctively how to comfort and entertain a baby, and I am tearfully grateful for her years of graft and wisdom. The letters I’ve had from older readers that say this series brings it all back to them vividly have been some of the most moving to me.

Of course, you can let time get on top of you if you allow it to. On a tough day, you can find yourself staring down the barrel of the next 18 years, wondering if you’ve got what it takes. But then you find yourself excited about showing the baby The Wizard of Oz for the first time – and of all the joys to come.

The other thing about time is that it becomes a precious commodity: time to yourself, time to work, time to think. My husband and I are constantly trying to find time. When he isn’t working, he’s with the baby, trying to give me a break. Meanwhile, I’m working while the baby sleeps. Should I be watching the flutter of his long eyelashes, his cupid’s-bow mouth slightly opened, instead? I wonder. He will only be this exact way once, and I’ll have missed it typing this.

And so I put down this column, and I take a minute or five to gaze at him, and stroke the fine tuft of his hair. I may not cherish every moment – some of the nappies I have changed render that impossible – but I am taking a little time every day to look and to feel and to try to remember, to set it all in amber: the sound of his breath, the curve of his head, his smell, his fat little fingers curled around mine. Perhaps this – finding moments to cherish – is what those well-meaning people mean.

I don’t know where the time goes, but I know that one day I’ll be glad I wrote it down.

What’s working

We have discovered a whole world of bus travel these past few weeks, and it has opened up the city to us. We love the children’s-only park at Coram’s Fields, on the site of the old foundling hospital, where my dad said he also took me as a baby. “We have been keeping children safe and off the streets of London for 300 years,” said the woman in the cafe.

What’s not

Another week, another illness. The NHS says that a young child will catch eight viruses a year. “They missed a nought off that figure,” one parent grumbled. “Actually it’s two,” said another. “One from September to December and another from January to March.”

• Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a Guardian columnist

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