The answer was no, not my family, but yes, my husband's family. "That's good," they'd say. "It's so important to have family nearby."
I consider that I get along with my in-laws very well, but it's not quite the same as your own family. Even if they tell you that you can ring them up at 1am for help, you don't feel entirely comfortable doing it. And when you've just had a baby, you don't want to put on proper clothes and make a good impression. You want to wander round with your boobs hanging out so your nipples don't chafe, and to be around people who won't think any less of you if you are grumpy and can't manage a complete sentence. You want someone who can really help when you have no idea what to do, but who you can also stand up to when you disagree.
The "Do you have any family up here?" question started to make me anxious, particularly since my husband had no paternity leave and only about 6 days of recreation leave accrued. I was going to be sitting in the house all on my own with the baby. Would it be ok? Would I hate it? Would I go stir-crazy and my brain turn to mush?
Here are some of the things I did to help:
Staggered family visits:
You want family to visit, but you don't want them all at once or back to back.
My mum, my sister, and my dad and stepmum have all come and stayed with us to help out. It was really good that these visits were staggered, with weeks in between. The weeks in between were crucial, because they gave me enough time to work out how to manage on my own and to find my own relationship to and rhythm with my baby, and meant that there was always another visit to look forward to, when I would have some company and help. The only difficulty we had with the timing was when my dad and stepmum came up in the 3rd week - as their energy level was far above what the baby (and I) could handle, and I was still too new to being a parent to know what my baby needed and to feel confident expressing that. I let them wind the baby up with constant interaction and then paid the price for it big time in the night (an overstimulated baby does not like to sleep at night). They came back and visited at the three month mark and that went a lot better.
Looked at this as a new stage in the relationship with the in-laws:
My husband's extended family has always been welcoming, but since having Bethany, I feel even more connected - especially in those moments where I realise they are seeing in my daughter their niece / cousin / grandchild.
I am particularly lucky in that I have always got along well with my mother in law, and since the baby arrived she has been absolutely fantastic about helping out and keeping me company. But what I have found difficult is that she has also now seen a side of me - argumentative, grumpy, petty - that I would have previously held in check around her. While this has been uncomfortable at times, I also know that our friendship and our sense of each other is becoming more real and less superficial.
Got to know my existing mum friends better:
When I was pregnant, I made more of an effort to visit friends with young babies. Partly this was to get advice, and also because I was extremely clucky. But I also had in the back of my mind that once I have the baby, I would really need friends who weren't at work. For the first month after the baby was born I was too exhausted to socialise - but after that, knowing other mums who I can meet for coffee, or drop round and visit, has been awesome. A number of these mums used to be 'friends' in little more than the facebook sense, but having a baby has given us another thing in common and I find myself having all sorts of great conversations with women that I previously barely knew. It has also been great to get a 'preview' of how babies develop and some idea of what's coming next by seeing how their babies have grown.
Joined an online mothers' group:
I joined a forum on Essential Baby for mums due within a week or so of my due date. This was great during pregnancy, as there was a place to discuss symptoms and stages, get information, and get ideas on how to prepare. Over the six or so months I was on the forum, I felt like I got to know the personalities of the other group members, and was genuinely excited when everyone started giving birth. The pregnancy group then became a parent's group, but as that was too large to get to know people or keep up with the posts, we started a spin-off facebook group of about 35 people. Unlike a real world mothers' group, you can have a discussion with an online mother's group any time of the day or night, and because it is larger, there is a bigger range of parenting ideas and approaches that are being tried and talked about within the group. When I was too bedraggled to leave the house, it was a nice place to read, participate, and debrief.
Found a real world mothers' group:
I'd heard a lot of negative talks about mothers' groups, and how they can be full of annoying mums with whom you have nothing in common. But I have to say that my experience has been exactly the opposite - I have a lovely, supportive mothers group, and I have found it invaluable for feeling connected and keeping my own dramas in perspective. I met a bunch of mums through a program called "Earlybirds" which was run by the government, for parents with babies aged between 0 - 8 weeks. It was a quiet place you could go once a week to chat, breastfeed, and also discuss any issues you might be having with a health nurse. The first time I went to Earlybirds I had to really drag myself there - I was still paranoid I'd crash the car with the baby in it, and it didn't help that she screamed all the way there. But I was very glad I did it.
We formed our own ongoing mothers group "Tiny Tigers" after Earlybirds ended, and have taken turns to meet at each other's houses each week since. It gets me out of the house (and, occasionally, forces me to clean up my own house), and there is something really nice about watching everyone's babies grow together, and knowing they'll slowly become aware of and get to know each other. I think what makes it work is that even though we may have different ideas and approaches, everyone is very understanding and respectful of each other's ways of doing things.
Enrolled in a (not too challenging) course:
I had contemplated working on my masters while on maternity leave, and am very glad I decided not to do that - I think that would have been too difficult and stressful. But I did decide to take on a course that was much less intensive.
When I was about five months pregnant, I started doing a short course part time through Adelaide Uni and my work. Since giving birth, I have attended a couple of two-day modules for the course (in Darwin). I arranged for family members to assist me with looking after my baby while I attended, and the Uni has been fabulous with allowing me to breastfeed in class, leave the class to settle the baby, or have extensions on assignments. It has been tough at times, getting up after 3 hours sleep and going to sit all day in a classroom and pay attention, or staying up to finish an assignment during the baby's longer sleep, only to have her be restless for the rest of the night - but the classes were pretty interactive, and it gave me the chance to think about things other than the baby, and chat with other adults about other things.
Read about child development:
People warned me that newborns were not very rewarding because they were not very interactive. I hate mundane, repetitive chores, so was not looking forward to months of looking after what was described to me as an "eating, sleeping, shitting machine". I was therefore astonished to find out just how interesting a newborn could be. To watch a little human being experiencing and trying to make sense of the world for the first time is fascinating. Partly to get a better sense of what was going on inside her head, and to find a path through all the conflicting parenting advice, I became an avid reader. Watching a baby does not have to turn your brain to mush - child development is, after all, a professional area of study - although I won't pretend I spent my time reading scientific studies. I found the more I read, the more I appreciated the little events in my baby's life. Some of the best reads I found were:
- NutureShock: New Thinking About Children by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
- Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent by Meredith Small
- Motherhood: How should we care for our children? by Anne Manne
- The Development of Children by Cynthia Lightfoot et al
As for the old crew...
I try to keep up with my usual friends, but as they work full time, and lunches and coffee are not quite the same with a baby stealing your attention. I feel a bit guilty that I find it hard to make more of an effort, and I miss the way our chats were before the baby, but I know they understand, and once Bethany is a bit older and I'm not the only one who can feed her, I know I will be able to join them for some baby free nights.