(That image is me, with my first-born child.)
We were twenty years old when my new boyfriend and I discovered that I was pregnant. I experienced a difficult pregnancy and had Hyperemesis Gravidarum. I received poor medical care due to – my autistic ways of communicating (I was often fobbed off, disbelieved, ignored, and assumed ‘unstable’); my past of being subjected to ableist punishments that made me confused about when I could ask for help and how much I should push to have my needs met; and not being taken seriously by medical staff as a young, first-time mother. It was not diagnosed until I was thirty six weeks. At that time, the hospital I was receiving my care at did not want to acknowledge the diagnosis (made by another care provider who I saw out of desperation) but were forced to when scans showed my baby was not growing well and when it was clear that I was not faring well from eight months of vomiting and fatigue. It was a time when I lost track of the world around me, retreating into a kind of disassociation. It felt like the only way to cope with such violent, inescapable illness. During that time, I worked a lot to save money for the essentials, moved into a house with my boyfriend, and got everything ready for a baby. I don’t remember very much of it though. The things I remember the most are my strong desire to not go to work but feeling like I needed to, the confusion at filling out paperwork (I gave up on it) that would have given me cheaper medical care, the fear of vomiting, eating in the city in the evenings, the horrible smells in the new underground train station and the absence of bins there to vomit in (I was told that was for security reasons), people not getting up from Priority seating and with me subsequently slumping onto the floor on the train on my way home in the evenings, the decision to quit being vegetarian when I realised how little I could actually eat, my mother yelling at me that I was lazy, hearing constant stories about people who had handled pregnancy better than I was, vomiting up blood, and the fear that my baby was not thriving because I was failing to nurture her adequately. The pregnancy remains the most difficult experience of my life so far.
My daughter was born on a chilly autumn afternoon. I could hardly believe she was mine.“Is this really our baby?” I said to my boyfriend after I had pushed her out, swearing. My quiet manner had disappeared when I was birthing her head. She was quite small at birth, and the doctor told me nervously that maybe she had been younger than we had realised. She seemed in brilliant health though, and we headed home the next day. I felt like a million dollars almost as soon as she was born. The HG cloud left me and I felt well for the first time in a long while. That feeling was something I would hold onto in years to come as well, when I mothered more children – waiting for that longed-for time after birth when I would feel brilliant in contrast to the dark feelings that sickness brings to me, and when I would be able to get on with loving this new tiny person.
Before my baby had been born I had felt drowned in the stories people had unloaded onto me. About babies crying, babies with colic at midnight, parents being at their wits’ end because of the apparently unpredictable nature of babies. I had ended up with the impression that maybe I wasn’t going to know how to comfort my own baby. But in the hospital, she just wanted to be held. She cried when she was born and then stopped when I held her. She looked for milk and then fell asleep when she got it. I heard other babies crying. Many of them worked themselves into states of distress. It was painful to listen to. It didn’t feel right that these babies didn’t receive the comfort they were seeking. My daughter was very happy in my arms and walking around with me as I cuddled and breastfed her. Were all the stories just disrespectful to babies? Did they reveal a culture that was geared toward not meeting the needs of babies, deliberately? Perhaps their needs weren’t such a mystery, after all.
When we drove home with my daughter, I recall looking out the window and pondering what life had in store for us. I felt the beginnings of change, gentle and comforting and strong. I had already begun to challenge my previous beliefs about children and raising them. I think I begun to challenge how I was raised while I was being raised. I think many of us do, but many of us forget. Maybe it was because I was a young mother that I could remember a lot of my childhood. It felt like just yesterday that I had been a scared child being shouted at and punished, wary of adults and realising that my parents weren’t there to help me but to make me do what they wanted me to. It made me a better parent to remember what it felt like to be a child.
Over the next four years, my partner and I welcomed three more children into our family. Much criticism was thrown at us. We were too young to know what we were doing. We were too poor. How would we afford weekend sport when they all grew older? How would we afford birthday parties? Did we really think renting was appropriate? How would we finish university now? We were too relaxed, and aren’t good parents supposed to be stressed? Having fun and taking life lightly was proof of our inadequacies and naivety. Breastfeeding was weird and we should stop being exhibitionists. Why did we have so many children? That wasn’t normal anymore. Didn’t we know how babies were made? Why were we so nice to our kids; didn’t we know that wasn’t good parenting?
We became a strong team and grew accustomed to going against the grain and copping flak for that, whether it was colleagues telling us to lock our babies in a room at night to get better sleep, pissed off friends who felt they deserved to be parents more than us, anger from other parents that we elected not to use daycare, or family members taking our choices as personal attacks on them.
As our children grew, we were developing close bonds with them. We wanted to be trustworthy people in their lives and we wished to support them as they learned and developed. We wanted to be partners to them as they adventured. It seemed wrong to use these sacred relationships against them, to punish, manipulate, bribe, or withhold affection until it was “earned”. We were challenging the dominant parenting paradigm and we continued to to do this more and more over time.
By the time my oldest child was three, I had rejected punishments and rewards. We had been travelling toward that choice for some time, but I remember the day that I tied all my thoughts and reading together and just realised those things had no place in a family life based on respect and love. I remember where I was sitting, how old my three children were, and what time of day it was. I remember how the light spilled onto the table and what our kitchen looked like. It was an exciting realisation. Punishment can be described in many ways, but respectful and loving don’t fit. I consider that a beginning , because I remember so strongly the resolve I had to give my babies this deep respect. It was a commitment, and our family grew in leaps and bounds from that day.
Since those times, we have had various family challenges and difficult times. The boyfriend who was new to my life when I fell pregnant is now my long term partner and we have five children together. We have grown with our kids. We have learned a lot. We have made choices along the way, continuing to reject punishments. As time travels along, people seem to become more adamant that we should be punishing our children. They seem to believe that something terrible is going to happen if we continue to respect our children. But nothing terrible is happening. In contrast, everything wonderful is happening.