The first three months of a newborn baby’s life are known as the ‘fourth trimester’. The idea is that the baby is not yet really ready to be born; he or she is delivered early because of the disproportionate size of the human head, which would mean that delivery was impossible if the baby stayed in for any longer.
The practical result of this is that newborn babies are incredibly needy. Their vision is myopic, their limbs are weak and shaky, and they require intensive, round the clock care.
It is completely overwhelming, as a parent. You think you’re prepared for the work involved, but you never are, because it’s so much more work than it seems like it conceivably could be. Newborn babies don’t have a bedtime; you spend all evening in the same grind as the day. They don’t have a sense of self; if you leave them alone for a moment, they cry.
And something happens to you, mired in the mud of hormones and fatigue; you lose your perspective. It seems like it is going to go on forever. You know, logically, that you won’t spend the rest of your life burping and cleaning and feeding and wiping and rocking, but it seems like it. And you start to think that maybe you should be doing something else with your days, because surely this can’t be it, and should you be achieving more? It’s only afterwards that you realise that you were doing just what you needed to: surrendering yourself to this tiny baby and its incessant need. It wasn’t for long, in retrospect.
Of course, this is a metaphor for sobriety, that ugly, squawking, greedy infant. In those early weeks, it swallows up your life, and you have to find a new way to do everything. Your social life is abruptly curtailed, because it was based around alcohol and evenings out. Your relationships are strained. You are so, so tired. The fatigue weights you down and no matter how much sleep you get – in the first days you get very little, as your body adjusts to falling asleep without your soporific of choice – you wake up exhausted. And you protest against it, because if this is your new life, you want the old one back, and quickly.
But it’s not. It’s just a transition period. Give in to it. Yield. It will pass.
Why was I thinking about this now? Because I was lying in bed the other day, having trouble getting to sleep, and feeling all sorts of cross about the fact that I can’t drink. I thought this bit had passed, I grumbled to myself. I have done the hard bit, and here at nine months things should be easier. Damn it all, it isn’t fair, I thought to myself.
And then I remembered that I have felt like this before. With my babies. Other mothers reading will recognise this: the dreaded nine month sleep regression.
For the uninitiated, the nine month sleep regression – which occurs anywhere between 8 and 11 months old, broadly speaking – is what happens when your darling infant decides that she is going to learn to crawl, attempt to stand up, and usually sprout a few teeth into the bargain. Quite understandably, these enterprises take a lot of energy (a lot of babies lose weight at this age) and also require a lot of practice. Which means that sleeping goes out of the window, and any incremental gains you have made towards becoming a semi-functional human being once more are comprehensively lost.
It’s not as bad as the infant phase, in a lot of ways. But it feels worse, because it feels like you’re right back where you started, and you just can’t go through that again, not yet.
My sobriety is nine months old. It is learning to crawl. It is pulling up on objects. It is starting to want things beyond its grasp, things that aren’t as simple as its mere continued existence. It is ambitious, and determined.
Both of my children were awful sleepers in that first year. And both of them are growing up to be incredible people. When I complained about the colic and the sleeplessness, the strong wills and stubbornness, people said ‘just you wait. Those characteristics are going to make for great, strong young women one day’. When I was walking the corridors at night holding a wailing, furious baby, that seemed like scant consolation.
My youngest daughter is about to turn three. She speaks in full, complex, clear sentences, and interacts with her peers, and has ambitions and dreams about what she wants to be when she grows up. She picks out her own clothes in the morning and pours her own breakfast at the table. She is kind and loving, even as she fiercely guards her independence and possessions from well-meaning intervention. My eldest breaks my heart with her beauty and grace, and her teachers stop me in the corridors to tell me what a pleasure she is to teach.
Some days, the best parent is the one who gets out of the way, stops trying to control things, and has faith that their children will grow and thrive under the sunshine of loving kindness. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to surrender to the hard bits and have faith that they will pass.
I got my sobriety through its newborn phase, and now I have to live through a regression, and as long as I don’t get in its way, it will grow and thrive just like my daughters. Even if it does throw the odd toddler tantrum along the way.