When our first child was five days old, I was discharged from the hospital. A nurse carried our brand new daughter to the door, where my husband Andy was waiting to drive me home. The nurse turned to me and gently placed our baby in my arms, before smiling and wishing us well. And I thought, “She is going to let me walk out the door with this baby. She is going to let me, a mother with absolutely no experience, take a baby home. Surely I need some sort of qualification before I’m allowed to be in charge of such a precious child?” The nurse said goodbye. Andy and I passed through the door. And no one stopped us.
It suddenly struck me: I was a mother with full responsibility for a child. Andy and I were about to begin our parenting adventure and we realised we didn’t know much about babies at all. Oh, we’d read a few books, shared ideas with some other parents-to-be, but theory is totally different to reality. And we knew we’d have to be quick learners if we were all to survive.
Everything went reasonably well… for a few hours… until the first bath. We were excited. Our baby was going to have her first bath at home. We gathered the baby bath and the stand, a soft fluffy towel and a soft face washer, the baby soap, the baby shampoo, the baby bubbles and the baby powder, the rubber duck, a clean soft pink singlet, a tiny pink baby Bonds suit, a hand-knitted cardigan and a nappy, a baby brush, the camera… and finally, the baby.
Now I am not sure what went wrong. Did we think Felicity had stopped breathing? All I remember is Andy and I jumping about in a panic, and me crying, “Karen, next door is a nurse! Quick, she’ll know what to do.”
We hurriedly wrapped our baby in the towel and ran out outside and thumped on our neighbour’s front door. We waited. No answer. Some more panicking and some more thumping. And then we looked down at Felicity.
“Andy, she looks perfectly fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her at all.” We looked at our clean, pink, breathing child. Sheepishly we retraced our steps, hoping no one had seen us. Later, as we dressed our newborn baby, I thought,” There’s nothing wrong with Felicity. The problem is her inexperienced parents. How will she ever survive life with us?”
Felicity likes to describe herself as our guinea pig child. She was the one we experimented on as we tried to gain some parenting skills.
I was talking to Felicity on the phone the other day. I retold the baby bath story which happened 26 years ago and my eldest daughter giggled. “You’ll have to write about that, Mum!”
“It must have been hard being the guinea pig child,” I said. “All those mistakes Dad and I made while we were bringing you up. The other kids have it so much easier. These days we are a lot calmer and more confident and we know what we’re doing.”
“It wasn’t all that bad, Mum,” Felicity reassured me. “I had a great childhood.”
“So you don’t have bad memories of a dragon mother who couldn’t cope?”
Felicity laughed. “No.”
I have been thinking about the mother I was then and the mother I am now. I have changed so much over the years.
I used to worry about every little thing. I was always rushing down to the doctors with a slightly sick child who always seemed to recover in the waiting room; I’d fuss until my children had perfectly clean faces and perfectly brushed hair; they couldn’t leave the house unless they were wearing pristine matching clothes; I’d be anxious if they didn’t eat and spent so much time trying to make them swallow food they didn’t want; I worried about dirt and mess and an untidy house; when someone accidentally knocked a dinner plate to the floor, I reacted as if it was the end of the world; I became anxious about such things as toilet training and sleeping through the night… the list is endless.
Today I have gone the other way:
“If she’s had enough to eat, take her plate away,” I’ll say.
“But Mum, she’s hardly touched her dinner,” one of the older children will reply.
“Gemma-Rose is wearing odd socks,” someone will observe.
“At least she has socks on. It doesn’t matter about the colour,” I’ll answer.
“Oops! I’ve knocked the peanut butter jar out of the fridge,” someone will confess.
“Go and get the broom and clean up the mess,” I’ll reply, without even getting up to inspect the damage.
I have to admit I’m not perfect. Some days I get overtired and the temptation, to make a fuss about things that aren’t really important, threatens to reappear. I had one of those days not so long ago. The girls were cooking a cake and they got the instructions in a muddle which resulted in all the ingredients going to waste.
After I’d thrown my little wobbly and had my say about “reading instructions properly… and how many eggs did you waste…” and so on, I stopped and apologised and immediately began to feel rather bad. What’s a few eggs? They don’t matter nearly as much as my girls’ feelings. Gemma-Rose looked like she was going to cry and I felt like the worse mother in the world. How could I have forgotten the lessons that have taken so long to learn? But all the girls said was, “Don’t worry about it, Mum. It’s all over. We’ve already forgotten about it.”
Sometimes I wish I could go back and fix up all my past mistakes and erase all the not-so-good memories from my children’s minds. I don’t want that easily overwhelmed, emotional dragon mother to live on inside them.
I wonder if Felicity ever thinks: “Gemma-Rose, you’re so lucky. You got the good mother, the calm mother, the gentle mother. She may not be perfect but she’s a whole lot better than the mother I got. She was hopeless. I wish I was the last-born child and not the first-born guinea pig child.”
Why does it take me so long to learn anything? I have this suspicion that, by the time I have perfected this role of mother, my last child will have finished growing up. She will no longer need a perfect mother. She’ll be ready to slap her P plates to her car and drive off out into the big world to live an independent life.
I think again about that seemingly miraculous moment when I, an inexperienced mother, was allowed to take a precious baby home from the hospital. I didn’t have to present a certificate to the discharge desk, proving I was worthy of the role of mother.
Similarly, God didn’t ask me to prove myself before He blessed us with so many beautiful souls. He sent them to us anyway. How could He have done this? It took me a long time to work things out but eventually I came to realise that God doesn’t expect Andy and I to bring up our children on our own. No. He is always here to give us His strength and His grace. And He doesn’t expect us to be perfect. We only have to do our best. That’s all God expects. He does the rest.
Isn’t that a consoling thought?
Felicity phones for another chat.
“I wrote your baby bath story,” I tell my daughter. “It’s a post about your very inadequate mother.”
“You are a good mother,” insists Felicity. “When I was a child I wanted to grow up to be just like you.”
“You did?” I am so surprised. “I didn’t know that,” I say.
A warm feeling is spreading all through me. Yes, God does indeed fill in all the gaps in our parenting.
And my first-born child replies, “And I love you so very much too, Mum!”