When she became a mother, Liadán Hynes lost for a time the ability to decipher between what worked for her and what the outside world approved. Here, she writes about stepping outside the pre-approved boxes women’s lives are so often judged by.
The night my husband moved out, I went to sleep in my daughter’s bed. Just for tonight, became just for this week, became still there almost three years later. I say all this like it was an aberration. Sleeping in her bed a break from the norm, a transgression from our usual way of doing things. In fact, since birth, more nights than not, one of other of her parents had slept with her.[restrict]
In hospital, her head barely graced the mattress of the cot lined up beside my bed. When I look back on those nights, they are a blur of milky sweats, me, bleary, never fully asleep but never fully surfacing into wakefulness either. Of midwives coming in to prepare for the hours ahead, rolling up scratchy blue towels and wedging them about the bed so she wouldn’t slide off when I dozed off. Then later, appearing in the room in the middle of the night, because I seemed to have buzzed them, or they had heard the baby crying. Again, they settled us both.
They never once suggested she needed to be in the cot. On day two, a mid-wife arrived in my room late in the day and shooed my guests out. ‘Oh you need to go now,’ she said, seemingly aghast at the sight of them still there at this hour. ‘She’s going to need her rest. Cluster feeding.’ I had no idea what she was talking about. That second night in, when the baby starts to realise that it is out of the womb, and latches on for dear life. The midwives lay the baby out across my chest, on one breast, the rest of her across the other, so that my body anchored her, and I could lie down. We were propped with more cushions and rolled towels for what lay ahead. Which was hours and hours of relentless feeding.
The next morning, wrung out and exhausted, I cried when the breakfast trolley loudly banged into the room, I cried when I ate the white toast and drank the tea, and I cried when her father arrived in the ward. But I also felt we had made it through some sort of baptism of fire together, us two. Back home, and each night became a battle to get her to sleep in the Moses basket. Two weeks in, I went to my doctor and confessed my failure. ‘She won’t sleep in her own bed. She can be fast asleep in my arms, but the minute I put her in there, she wakes.’ ‘You need to keep trying’, he told me.
We ditched the Moses basked, took a wall off the cot and attached it to the side of the bed. As a tiny baby, she slept in it for one nap, instead of the usual in my arms. I sent a photograph to my family. I’ve nailed it, I thought.
My own parents had co-slept, although they were would never have used that phrase; parenting wasn’t a public performance, a selection of lifestyle choices, back then. But in the aftermath of my daughter’s arrival, we were all of us paralysed by fear at the breakability of this precious new being. At any other time my mother would have briskly said of course. Now, unable to take the responsibility herself of telling me yes, take her into the bed, she texted her friends. I texted mine. At one point, I had ten separate text conversations going, with older cousins, friends’ sisters. All mothers.
Reports flooded back. Put that child in the bed.
A reflux baby, my daughter needed to lie at a tilt. Put books under the mattress said the internet, and I did, and she rolled to the bottom of her cot every time. What worked was for her to lie with her head in the crook of my arm. In the morning, we would wake and without moving eyeball each other, and I would smile. For a while, each morning for a second upon waking I forgot the fact of her arrival and a wave of joy would wash over me again.
The fear was hormonal; I knew really that she was safe beside me. But the judgment was societal.
I ignored the fact that I liked my daughter there in bed beside me. That it, in fact, seemed to me perfectly reasonable, that she would want to be there. Should fight so mightily to be there. Instead I told myself I was failing. That there are stages, and phases, and ways you should be doing things. That this wasn’t what motherhood should look like. I’m not sure where I got the notion that motherhood would offer up any sense of clean lines, of tidy demarcations. It was shame that kept me at it. Shame and judging myself by an outside standard, rather than to simply look at what was making us happy.
I became a mother and for a time lost my ability to apply common sense. I see new mums now, exhaustedly being held up by the pram in front of them, eyes all blurry and close to tears, and I shudder inside for them. Those early weeks. When I tore at my frayed self, questioned everything. Let the world in, and ignored what worked for my baby and I. (All this is of course to say that if your baby in a cot in their room works for you, that is what you do. It is to say that you do what works for you, and them).
My daughter is five now, and still sleeps in the bed. Currently, we’re in my bed, we migrate between hers (better black out blinds for summer months), and mine (slightly bigger). I have to slightly force myself to type out that sentence. As if this situation is odd, or a failure. Recently, I sat with my best friend in her kitchen and discussed ‘the situation’.
Partly, it was around the fact that my daughter still needs someone to lie down with her, and that going to sleep can take an hour. Obviously, faster would be better. But then I wonder if it makes sense? That parenting, so full on during waking hours should be easily switched off, door closed, light off, for the night-time hours. That they should need us so much, and then not at all.
As we talked, I could feel it, the low-lying niggle of guilt, as if I was betraying my daughter. The next morning, we lay chatting in bed. We were discussing breakfast. What we would have. Maybe we would go out; a treat. Some evenings now, she reads her book beside me; Where’s Wally. Occasionally she will look over my shoulder; she is learning to read and will spell out a word on my Kindle.
In her sleep, as I lie beside her reading, she will occasionally stir, all legs moving like a small dog in the water. I will reach out my arm, and when her skin touches mine, she settles back down, becomes still again.
As we lay in bed chatting that morning it struck me. There are so many boxes held up to women, which if they remain unticked, we are held to have failed in some way at life. But this is a lovely life we have here, I think, as we decided upon breakfast in bed, and I went to forage in the kitchen. I would be foolish not to recognise that.