Since I had Sadie, I’ve thought a lot about the relationship between parents and children, especially between mother and child. My mom used to tell me that you would never really understand the boundlessness of a mother’s love for their children, her readiness to forgo anything for the happiness of her children, and the endless, endless worry she has for them, until you are a mother yourself.
A colleague who became a grandmother recently described motherhood as a spell you are under for life: ‘You always see them as an extension of yourself. Your worry and concern for them never end. It’s easier for Dads — they would say as long as the kids are happy, they are happy. But it’s different for mothers. You want them to be happy, healthy, successful, live a meaningful life, feeling fulfilled, you want their dreams to come true, you want everything for them. You can’t bear to let them go, but you know they are not yours.’
The wisdoms many mothers shared with me will take me years to fully appreciate. However, five months with Sadie have already taught me much about the joy, the pain, and the heartache of motherhood. And the guilt.
Sadie was just under one month old during the heatwave in the summer. A lot of the early memories are blurry to me now, but I remember those long steamy weeks well. They were some of the toughest weeks for us as new parents. We had been home for a few weeks and were just starting to get the hang of things. I no longer felt like a zombie, and grew more confident at handling her by the day. Everyone told us it would be lovely to have a baby in the summer, with fewer layers of clothes to navigate through and endless walks and picnics in the park to look forward to. We were not prepared for the heatwave. I only reluctantly agreed to borrow an electric fan from David’s sister, because I didn’t think we needed it. After all I grew up in Shanghai, I thought, and with its above 35-degree heat and high humidity for at least 3 months of the year. It turned out that my Chinese upbringing did not prepare me for this year’s heatwave.
Day after day, the temperature in the flat slowly rose through the morning, peaked in the early afternoon and never really came down at night. The relentless heat tormented Sadie’s little body. She was constantly sticky, sweaty and seemingly in pain. She couldn’t sleep at night, and was often inconsolable during the day. The only thing that helped to keep her calm was to lie on one of us, skin to skin, day and night. So every day, after a short rest in the morning by herself, she would lie on me through to the evening, twisting and turning, feeding constantly, dozing off every now and then. The heat from her body made it impossible for me to stay cool. I struggled to fall asleep, rest or even breathe sometimes as the fan blew warm air on my legs. Leaving the house was out of question. The shops were all closed during lockdown. There was no shade, no breeze, no escape from the relentless heat. I lay as still as possible in the bed with her asleep on me. The sheets underneath felt damp and sticky. I checked the time and weather forecast obsessively, counting down the minutes to when it was supposed to rain, the promise of imminent relief. Yet the hour kept moving, and the rain did not arrive until a few days later.
She developed a heat rash. Her armpits became bright red and looked painfully raw. There were tiny red dots all over her body, especially the parts of her skin pressed against mine. Experienced parents would have wiped her down throughout the day, or did other sensible things to help her cool down. It took us two days to notice how bad it had got. We felt guilty. And stupid, remembering the lessons from our pre-natal class. Check all the folds on your baby, the instructor had told us, they get irritated and red very quickly. As I carefully cleaned her and rubbed in soothing cream, I had wanted to kick myself. I stroked her tiny arms and legs, and whispered sorry in her ears. Of course I knew we weren’t terrible parents, we were just learning. And I knew she would be fine, and that it wasn’t a big deal. If it was someone else, I would have thought them overacting. Yet I couldn’t help but feeling a bit heartbroken. When we took her home she was this perfect little thing, and we were lucky enough to call her our own. All we had to do was to keep her perfect, and we couldn’t do that.
People often say that you learn from your children. They are a magnifying mirror showing all sides of yourself that had never been seen before, whether you want to or not. They amplify all your emotions, test your strengths, and expose your flaws and insecurities.
Mom came over from Shanghai to stay with us when Sadie was six weeks old. Both my parents had planned to come over before she was born but the plan had to change as was with everything this year. By the time she goes back to Shanghai she will have been with us for just over four months, the longest we’ve lived together since I was in high school. I had thought it might be a bit uncomfortable for us all to squeeze into our two-bed flat. I’m an introvert. I need my space, privacy and my peace and quiet to recharge. Then I realised that a newborn did not care for such frivolous needs. It didn’t take long for the four of us to became a new family that fit together naturally around Sadie, her needs, her moods and her routine.
I did not exactly have a vision of what type of mother I would be — in fact I was never certain whether I wanted children or not. I thought my own mother had managed a good balance of affection and authority when I grew up. But perhaps I would be a bit more laid back, I thought, if I were to have one. It was not until the last trimester that I started to read about babies and what you do with them. This was a familiar area — not the subject matter, but the process of information gathering and research. I had a lot of time, and Sadie was nearly two weeks late. By the time she was born, I had read a lot on birth, sleeping, feeding, emotional and cognitive development. David and I were aligned on many things — they all seemed quite… obvious, we thought. Some sort of routine is needed, better sooner than later; good sleep habits are clearly important, and to establish them some degree of crying seems inevitable; discipline and routine are good for children, even though they may fight it to start with.
A few friends recommended a popular book about baby sleep which has a sleep schedule by week and suggestions on how to deal with sleep problems. They all made sense, David agreed. We felt we were prepared, or as prepared as we needed to be, the rest would become obvious to us, surely. After the first few chaotic but intoxicating weeks had passed, I felt ready for some sort of structure. Slowly I started to try some of the suggestions in the books. It became obvious that the baby wanted to do her own thing and did not care about the schedules. And the books didn’t tell me what to do about that. I thought it must have been something we did or didn’t do, perhaps it was the feeding, or the daytime nap, or the way we put her to bed, or the sleep environment. I obsessed over logging every activity in the baby tracker app, analysing the data we collected, trying to diagnose the potential causes for each success or failure. I created and amended her daily routine constantly, setting rules on what we should and shouldn’t do to help her develop and grow, all the while avoiding bad habits as the experts have warned about.
This eagerness to do the right thing, to do the best I could, combined with sleep deprivation, made me pretty miserable at times for myself but certainly for David and my mom. I felt exhausted and inadequate, frustrated by the lack of ‘progress’ in accordance with what’s set out in the books. The books say by now she should be able to sleep longer stretches. Why is she still waking up throughout the night? The books say she needs 4 hours of sleep in the day time. What happens if she only sleeps 2? The books say we need to teach them to soothe themselves as early as possible, don’t pick them up when you soothe them, put them to sleep awake but drowsy, don’t nurse them to sleep, and no don’t respond immediately every time they cry or they would never learn to sleep on their own… We have done all of that, but why are we still soothing her every five minutes for hours every single night?
I worried about feeding her too little one day, too much the next, her sleeping too little, at the wrong time, sleeping too much, at the wrong time again. Despite the advice all health professionals tend to give: relax if they are gaining weight and appear happy, I worried. Up to this point, I had seen myself as someone who doesn’t worry much about how things may turn out. Having a baby has firmly changed that belief about myself.
One particularly difficult afternoon she kept waking up from her nap, and no matter how hard I tried, she wouldn’t sleep for longer than 10, 20 minutes. It had gone on for hours, with many rounds of going down and back up. After the fifth attempt, I came out of the room, feeling utterly exhausted and defeated. I sat on the sofa, putting my face in my hands, tears streaming down my fingers. Sadie was still crying in the bedroom. Mom and David came over , both sympathetic. It’s OK, David said, what can we do to help? Suddenly I felt angry, and snapped ‘Why do I have to decide what to do all the time? I don’t know what to do with her. Do whatever you want!’
I sat alone on the sofa, feeling both angry and sorry for myself. After a while, mom took Sadie out of her bassinet and sat across from me. ‘Sadie baby, why aren’t you sleeping?’ Mom said to her softly, ‘see how worried you mom is? She’s worried that you aren’t sleeping enough.’ Mom kept talking to Sadie, holding her in her arms. She was not crying any more. She might even be smiling. I was not crying either. But I couldn’t look at her. I knew she would feel no resentment towards me, she would not blame me for my silly little plans and schedules, my efforts to make her more perfect than she already was. In those moments, my heart felt heavy with guilt and regret. When I eventually met her eyes, she opened her mouth wide and gave me one of her biggest gummy smiles.
These days I find myself far more emotional and sentimental than before. Might be the hormones, as they say. I’m moved by things I read, images I see on TV, stories about parents and children, mothers and daughters, about passage of time and frailty of life, but more than anything, I am moved by children’s love for their parents. I read about a 5-year-old girl abandoned by her mother and left to die on a freeway in California in the 70s in one of Joan Didion’s books. It was a very brief description, barely covering half a page. But it hit me and suddenly I felt an urge to cry. What struck me was not the monstrosity of the mother’s act. It was the fact that the abandoned girl had chased after the car her mother was in for a long while. I couldn’t get the image out of my head.
How forgiving children are, I thought. They tolerate our mistakes, our failed attempts, our misplaced efforts, our clumsiness and inadequacies, our imperfections as humans and parents. I know rationally that I haven’t done anything terrible, and that I’m a good mother to her, but I can’t help but feel guilty sometimes. These days her eyes are always searching for me and when she sees me, she would beam at me. Sometimes she smiles in my direction when I am not even looking. I don’t have to do anything, she’s happy just to see me. I feel undeserving of this happiness.
I know this stage of our lives is brief. One day not so distant in the future, she will not smile when she sees me and that will break my heart a little. She will continue to demand all my energy and strength and love and resolve, but in a different way. But right now I know she is giving me her unconditional, uncomplicated, gigantic love, and perhaps it is this gigantic love that I’ll be repaying for the rest of my life.