Parenting whilst disabled, part one: sleepless nights and side-eyes

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When I became pregnant, I had a clear image in my head of the sort of parent I was supposed to be. Feminine, attentive, playful, always up and down, laughing hysterically, doing every part of it myself, chatting with old ladies on the bus. When I was 12 weeks pregnant and my hair desperately needed cutting, I cut it into a soft bob: that’s what I’m supposed to look like.

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Of course, I spent the following few days trapped in dysphoria, crying, lashing out, being thoroughly miserable whilst on my first vacation with my now-wife. She arranged for me to have a better haircut.

I want to talk about those standards we’ve been taught to set ourselves from an early age, and hopefully save some new parents sleepless nights of fear over whether they’re good enough.

Children differ vastly from age group to age group, so this post is aimed at parents-to-be, and parents of children between 0-12m. Of course, if you just want to see what that situation is like: welcome! I hope I don’t put you off any future breeding.

1. It’s not always love at first sight.

You’ve spent nine months carefully incubating something which will one day be a full grown human with arms and opinions. You then go through a labour – the trauma of which very few people talk about – and are handed a screaming bundle of flesh, who is essentially a limpet and must be by your side 24 hours a day for what seems like an endless amount of time.

This moment is carefully catalogued in all forms of media, as the “aww” moment, the moment a parent lays eyes on their child and weeps, quietly, at their beauty. Which is great. I’m sure some people do feel like that, and you will feel it at some point – but not immediately. Mostly what you want to do once you’ve given birth is sleep, but the fleshy alarm clock you suddenly have is demanding to suck your nipples until they’re raw. There is nothing wrong with feeling resentment at this. This is even more true if you weren’t planning for children before you were pregnant – it can feel, all of a sudden, like your life is over.

It can feel fucking terrifying. Look at this beautiful, fragile creature, essentially still a foetus, who needs you for everything. What if you get it wrong? What if you can’t breastfeed? What if your baby hates you? What if you never sleep again? They’re all valid feelings, and nothing to be ashamed of.

You can be numb from the process, tired, empty. You can respond to the sudden hormone drop by feeling nothing, and that’s okay too. It’s important to tell your midwife and your health provider about this: if it carries on, it could be related to post-natal depression, which a lot of new parents get, and there is a lot of help for.

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2. Accepting help isn’t an admission of failure.

As disabled people in particular, we have people from all angles questioning our competence, the loaded “how are you coping?”s. The idea of the model parent is more toxic than ever here. You want to prove them all wrong, to be a superperson who can change nappies one handed and only needs a half-hour’s sleep a day.

I can tell you now, that superperson doesn’t exist. Everyone is run ragged in the first few months after having a baby, sometimes well into a few years later. But in the immediate aftermath of a birth, help is often ample in supply and desperately needed. Don’t turn it down because you desperately want to prove yourself – you just grew a fucking human! You’re amazing! And if you weren’t the baby-carrier, you’ve just had your world turned upside down. Always accept help.

If someone asks how they can help, here’s a quick list of ideas:

Food. Trying to cook when you’re getting four hours of sleep a night is almost impossible. Someone bringing ready meals, a big pot of stew or some frozen portions of curry can mean the difference between sleep deprivation and sleep deprivation plus hunger.

Supplies. No matter how much time you spent preparing for this, you will have forgotten something crucial. I forgot nappies, somehow. Give someone a list of the things you’re missing, and it will save you the utter spoon decimation that a trip to the shops with a newborn is.

Babysitting. You don’t have to be the ones looking after your baby 24/7, no matter what your green book says. If you need a nap desperately, ask someone to come and sit with your baby whilst you sleep. People love newborns, especially ones that aren’t theirs. You’d be surprised how many people leap at the chance to let you get some well earned rest.

Housework. Again, I know many people baulk at the idea of letting someone else do their housework when they’re trying to fit into that perfect parent image, but laundry really takes a backseat once there’s a tiny human using up your every waking moment. Just someone to come and do the washing up, like my little sister did when #stripelet was a week old, is a huge load off your mind.

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3. Babies don’t need bedrooms.

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The idea of a nursery is pushed by every major retailer you can think of, but it isn’t necessary and can be incredibly difficult to have your baby sleep in another room, and doesn’t have any intrinsic value. It’s worth having a room to store all the baby crap in, though.

I think the only thing that kept me sane in the first year of #stripelet’s life was co-sleeping. I’m an advocate of safe co-sleeping*, and if you have similar impairments to me it may be valuable to you too. Cosleeping meant that the night feed, when I was breastfeeding, became almost zero effort – I didn’t have to even sit up to get the job done, and we both had much more fulfilling sleep. I also felt much more able to bond with my baby, and able to parent even on days when I was bedridden.

If you don’t want to co-sleep, I still recommend keeping your baby as close as possible to save having to get up fully. When in his Moses basket, #stripelet slept right next to me, his bed pushed against mine. It’s worth getting a travel cot so you can continue this for as long as your baby is regularly waking up in the night.

If you aren’t breastfeeding, and are finding the trips downstairs to make bottles up are really testing you, the finest parenting decision I ever made was a mini fridge. That way we could keep expressed breast milk and later formula at hand, and no one had to struggle downstairs to start blearily pouring powder out.

From my experience, everyone longs for this period of parenting once their children are older. I already do, and mine’s not even two yet. But it’s utter shite whilst you’re in it. My dad told me shortly after my son was born that, “Babies are only really hard for the first six weeks. And then only a little bit hard for the first six months.”

To those of you hollowly laughing, yes, my dad didn’t take any paternity leave, how could you tell? But some of what he said rang true. After an initial period of feeling like you’re on death’s door 24 hours a day, you settle into a routine with your baby that means you forget how you ever lived without them. Hopefully, these tips will help you settle in to that sweet spot quicker.

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(*https://www.nct.org.uk/parenting/co-sleeping-safely-your-baby – sadly, CN for cissexist language)

Words by Dorian

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