I have had the great privilege recently of knowing not one but two families in the early stages of raising twins. Obviously I can’t speak for them – I can’t even imagine the complexity of such a mammoth task – but one thing I do know, because they have told me, is that it is hard. One friend, when I saw her last week, told me she was deliriously happy but also felt she had no understanding of quite how tough it was going to be. Partly because nobody really told her what to expect. I was chatting to the parents of some friends about this (who have also raised twins) and we were thinking about the nature of advice, and how every new mother feels, somehow, like they didn’t really know what to expect and that they could have been better forewarned / forearmed.
This is such a predominant theme among new parents, and I have heard variations on it (and said it myself) a zillion times. Why wasn’t I warned? How could I feel so unprepared? Why did I go in blind? Why wasn’t this in the books? Why did my friends who already have children neglect to mention this? Why did my mother gloss over this fact? In short: WHY DIDN’T ANYBODY TELL ME?
There are a number of good answers to these questions, which make perfect sense by themselves and yet still result in a strange conspiracy of silence around birth and new maternity. They generally go something like this:
Nobody wants to scare their friends / family unnecessarily. Asking people about the experience of birth, for example, rarely results in an entirely honest relation of the facts (that is, if you’re pregnant. If you’re not then you get all the gory details whether you like it or not). It’s pretty obvious why — it can be frightening. Birth is an incredible and inevitable end to the journey of pregnancy, and it is not fair or kind to frighten women about to undertake it themselves. Incidentally, there are a host of positive birth story web sites out there to counter this phenomenon, and I recommend them very highly. Trying to approach birth calmly is trying to undo everything Hollywood ever told you about the experience (it will be terrifyingly quick, and terrifically painful, and take place lying on your back and bellowing). Parent friends talking to pregnant friends try to undo this too, generally by adhering to the old adage: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
The same is true of motherhood – and actually people who make remarks such as “you’ll never sleep again!” or “there goes your sex life!” risk being glib at best and infuriating at worst. Fear-mongering is not fair, and a lot of people err on the side of super-positive in order to avoid it.
As above, people who delight in portents of doom are annoying. You feel in equal parts frightened about the devastation of your own future, and pissed off because you can’t believe it will be That Bad. It is also annoying, as has oft been noted by other parents, that people feel the need to bestow unsolicited advice left, right and centre. Everything from how to plan your maternity leave to what non-bio detergent to use can be shared with you unbidden, and (if you’re an Aries like me) this often leads you to want to do the opposite. Which is a sad and ironic side-effect, because actually you are desperate for advice and guidance – it just has to be from the right people, at the right time, and dispensed without making you feel like a hopeless noob with no brain.
I had a cesarean section, so I didn’t need to know what it would feel like to deliver a placenta. I had a baby girl, so I didn’t need to know that sometimes little boys are born with startlingly large testicles. I was lucky enough to have a baby who wasn’t colicky, so I didn’t need to know about the benefits of gripe water. Experience of motherhood is SO SUBJECTIVE, if you try and prepare yourself for every eventuality you will be overwhelmed with information and want to go and hide in a cave for the next 20 years.
What would be the point of trying to explain to somehow how a torn perineum feels when you sit down on it for the first time? As Shakespeare writes in Julius Caesar, ‘cowards die many times before their deaths / the valiant never taste of death but once’. If it is going to happen, it is going to hurt. You, and only you, will have to deal with it. If you think about it beforehand you are simply adding to the suffering through anticipation*. Similarly, if you spend nine months lying awake worrying about sleep deprivation, and nine months struggling through sleep deprivation, you’ve doubled the pain. Life is a constant battle between knowledge is power / ignorance is bliss, and raising children is no different to anything else; the best balance lies somewhere in the middle.
*N.B I do this all the time, and am (ironically) terrible at heeding my own advice here. I have spent so much time on mat. leave fretting about going back to work that I have probably shortened it by about a month.
It works both ways
A mother of twins cannot really describe to an expectant mother of twins the rage and frustration you will feel when one baby has just settled to sleep at 3am and then the other one wakes up, then they both wake up, then one is sick and then you realise there is baby poo all over the sheets because you ineptly did their nappy up in the dark. Your version of that feeling will be all your own. But it cuts both ways – they also cannot describe the overwhelming joy and awe that you will feel looking at two tiny faces curled up next to each other, fingers and noses touching, probably wearing matching hats, and knowing that they are yours and you are theirs. Just as we cannot be advised about every difficulty, we cannot be prepared for every happiness. And there is so much happiness.
The issue of how we help new parents feel less unprepared, even lied to, remains a question that I can’t really answer, and feel a bit conflicted about. I don’t want to think of my future self listening to an excited expectant friend and thinking ‘how naive, she doesn’t know the half of it’. I don’t want to be patronising, and I don’t want to scare people. So I might be tempted to say nothing.
I don’t like the conspiracy of silence that surrounds parenting, but I do understand it.