Hello. You appear to have made a baby. Whether or not this was the plan, well done. I’m a psychotherapist psychiatrist in Australia and recently wrote what follows for a video for some parents many time zones away, who are probably awake now anyway.
As it seems are you. At least partially.
This writing may send you to sleep, for which you may thank me. If not, you may find it helpful anyway.
(If it does send you to sleep, or it might do that to the person you want to share it with, there is a TLDR (too long, didn’t read) short version on the next post which can save a few precious minutes for napping. I’ve been there – those few minutes can save the day – or night – so go the short version if you need to!)
So. I am beginning to realise that I’m not young anymore. My sons have long since realised this and remind me daily: I’m old!
So old, I started at medical school back when a powerpoint was what our lecturers plugged the overhead projector into so a pull-down screen on the wall could come alive with inherently miraculous information about the human body rendered by most of our lecturers powerfully sleep-inducing.
Somehow I stayed awake enough to pass and survive being a junior doctor in hospitals, and about 12 years after leaving school was finishing my psychiatry training when a baby happened to my life.
And guess what? That was when my real training began. Which is still going to this day.
If that’s a lot of training, lots of time on steep growth curves, spare a thought for your baby. This tiny human who is going through something now that you definitely went through yourself once, but you can’t remember. Most of us can remember back to maybe age 3 or 4. Everything before that is a bit of a mystery to us. How can we help our brand-new tiny fellow humans, when what they are going through is a bit of a mystery?
Well, neuroscience in recent decades has been helping with this mystery alongside the exploration and experiences of those of us observing from outside the skull. We can now look inside skulls and make beautiful pictures, videos even. Delightfully, the neuroscience backs up what we kind of already knew, which is that the early years of life really really matter.
Babies’ brains grow more in the first three months of life than at any other time after that, by a staggeringly huge percentage in weight. But that weight is not new nerve cells – we are actually born with way more nerve cells than you or I have on board now, but while there are oodles more of them at birth, they haven’t grown yet, and crucially most of them are not yet connected.
A new human brain is like a big block of marble, waiting to be sculpted by experience. Nerves need stimulation from lived experience to form connections that keep them alive. Otherwise in these crucial early years it’s use-it-or-lose-it: unused, unconnected nerve cells die off, like the chips off that block of marble that fall to the floor, leaving the developing nervous system as the marble statue.
You’re a statue, that’s pretty cool.
The first big point here is that because we can’t grow new nerve cells after birth, we grow our nervous systems by connection. The second big point – and this still blows my mind – is that every nerve cell that makes you who you are today was there on the day you were born. Ready to connect. Ready to learn. Ready to begin becoming who you are now. Yep – the early years really really matter.
No wonder parenting little ones is such a tough job. Might feel on some days like the toughest job in the world.
I think if you’re the parent of a baby, you’ve actually got the second toughest job in the world. Your baby has the toughest job, because they’re on the steepest learning curve of their lives. You’re on the second steepest curve, and hey, at least you can ask for help using your words. You can even remind yourself that you’ve probably got the best job in the world, even if it doesn’t always feel like it.
It is a tough job working out what is going on for the kid with the toughest job – the stakes are so high because it’s your baby. There is a kind of a brain-stretching bothness here: Babies are BOTH way more capable than we tend to give them credit for AND way more dependent on us than we might wish was the case at times.
Here’s the good news though – the better we recognise BOTH our babies’ abilities AND needs now, the better they will grow their abilities, and get their needs met well, in life, out there, in the world.
If you have a baby in your life, you may not be sleeping well right now or anytime soon. But if your kid is set up well on the inside, you will surely sleep better when they are out at a party…in what will strangely wind up feeling like about 5 minutes’ time. In early parenthood, they say, the nights are long, but the years are short. Time does weird things and it can be hard to know what to expect.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting is a huge self-help publishing phenomenon – Pregnant people want to know what to expect more than anything, because as it was for our ancestors, our survival depends on how well we guess what comes next, especially when things are changing.
And…change is never greater than at the start of life. What To Expect when your brain has just come online in utero? You’re in the dark quite literally. You know no facts, because facts are words and you don’t know what words are yet.
There are no self-help books for this.
And yet amazingly, your brand-new brain helps itself. It starts learning to expect stuff to happen. It picks up on patterns in the information it takes in. Rhythms become familiar. People become familiar through their rhythms in movement, voice, and in the way it feels to be around them.
But a brain that starts out helping itself can only get so far alone – it needs so much help from other brains to form an actual self, as a baby begins to learn who they are thanks to who’s around.
In relationship with them.
Everything I ever learned about healthcare going right back to my Radiohead-Adoring Lecture-Theatre-Dozing days backs up this fact: the key to health is relationship. The best teachers at medical school did not send me to sleep, they made the facts come alive in a way we students could relate to.
We remember those teachers – the relationship goes on in our memories – because Medical School like any school, is not just what we learned, it’s who we learned it from. They showed us how to be doctors. How to help people who needed us.
Now you are needed more than you have ever been needed before, please know that relationship is your key to helping your baby. The biggest thing they have to learn after how to breathe, is how to be with someone.
What to expect from people. That’s relationship. What your baby learns to expect from you now will create their range of expectations of life, all of it, the good bad and messy-as-hell, as long as they live.
So you know, no pressure.
Well actually, lots of pressure, really.
So how do we take some of that pressure off? Enough to think, rest, play, fix things up, get a day or night with your baby back on track?
How do we get from messy-as-hell to good-enough days and nights together?
The clue is in the pronoun, we. You don’t do it alone. We connect. We make a mess of it, we clean it up, we try again.
We have to introduce this baby to a world full to the brim with messy-as-hell, such a complex imperfect place. New parents can feel so much pressure to be perfect, some of it from the world, a lot of it from within – if you are your own toughest critic you know what I am talking about.
The thing is, your baby doesn’t need you to be perfect, in fact they need you to be imperfect, to show them how the imperfect world works.
Because in its messy-as-hell way the world does work, or we wouldn’t be here.
You and your baby are here, living proof of the genius of evolution. You have survived up to this point in your life, including all it has taken to make your baby and make room in your life for them. I’m guessing they mean the world to you, and it’s safe to say you mean the world to them too.
I bet they would rather live with your imperfections than anyone else’s.
It’s a kindness to you to allow yourself to be imperfect, but it’s also a kindness to your baby. This world needs kindness now more than ever, with all the pressures it’s under.
Don’t read too much doomscrolly news about this world. Your world is where you can take the pressure off – that world may not extend far beyond your front door on many days right now and that’s fine.
Cut yourselves some slack – you, your baby, the other important people around you both. Breathe, do some free yoga on YouTube, eat well, exercise, binge watch comfort TV, zone out, then get back to connecting as best you can with your baby and your important people.
Just think, inside that small yet enormous little brain, squillions of connections have already happened thanks to you. Babies can’t say thank you, not with words anyway, but I can.
Thank you, and good luck with the next squillion connections.
Written on Wurundjeri Country, with the love and support of family and friends, and the kind, robust feedback of trusted workmates and mentors. You all know who you are – I only hope this work does you the credit I feel you deserve.