My parenting instinct? What’s that?

I remember, with surprisingly clarity, a phone conversation with a breastfeeding counselor (now a friend) in the early weeks. It may have been week two after Talitha’s birth and I was in a bit of a state from utter sleep deprivation. She was waking something like every half an hour and the midwife thought it was a breastfeeding issue. Looking back, I think it may have been related to her tongue-tie, actually, but this wasn’t something on the table just yet. What remains with me was the question over the phone: “What is your instinct telling you?”

My instinct? My baby was days’ old. I was tired, traumatised by the birth and none of it felt like it was going well. My confidence had dissipated. I just wanted someone to tell me what was happening and what I should do. I wasn’t even sure I had any mothering instinct. At first, I felt like this was yet another thing I was meant to have and didn’t, along with the ability to birth the way I’d wanted. Perhaps I’d fallen at the first hurdle. There was no voice inside me telling me what was what.

I know now that wasn’t true. Even then – in fact, even in pregnancy – my instinct was there. It told me that we should aim to birth at home, even if that’s not what happened in the end. It told me I needed to breastfeed, even though that ended up being one of the most uncertain battles I’ve fought. But learning to listen to instinct – there was the skill that would grow over time. It’s still growing.

We’re always told that no two children are the same, that a second child could be different. I don’t think I fully believed that until Ophelia was in my arms. Her sister may have been a frequent waker for the first year of life but Ophelia slept lengthily from the start. Talitha was tongue-tied and suffered weight gain problems as a result. Ophelia never lost weight and has gained generously ever since. Talitha was never happy to be separate from me for even a moment, for the first six months of her life. Ophelia frequently lay happily where she was set…at first…

Talitha became relatively independent once she’d learned to sit up, largely entertaining herself. I guess I assumed Ophelia would be the same. Instead, sitting up for Ophelia has coincided with her intense need to be held, to be attended to, to have our attention. It’s hard work, especially with a big sister to look after, a house to keep relatively clean, work to be done, a husband to love and a personal space that needs, well, personal space.

My parenting instinct - what's that

In frustrated moments, I’ve had to take a breath, to ask myself: “What is my instinct telling me?” My instinct tells me that she is only little, that I won’t carry her everywhere forever, that I’m laying down the foundations of natural independence, that “the second nine months” is a thing. I have carried her inside me. The time for me to carry her outside is so brief in the scheme of things. Right now it is tough. Parenting is tough. Babies need so much. Thank goodness for slings!

Further down the line with three-year-old Talitha, I’m often uncertain what instinct is telling me. There’s so much noise and action, not much time to pause and think. But it’s there. It’s there, in rotten clarity, when we get into a battle of wills or when I end up shouting. It tells me that coercion doesn’t raise the kind of adult I want to give the world or that I want to be friends with in the future, and that it doesn’t respect her now. It tells me to slow down, to be creative, to find other ways, to think about where the limits are and why. Instinct is there, even if I sometimes ignore it.

But I’m also tuning in to a message I didn’t hear so loudly last time. It’s one about what I need to live and give abundantly. I’m accepting help where it’s offered and taking the time for other things, even if it’s limited. I’m now saying what I feel instead of internalising it. This time, the connection between my needs and my children’s needs is much clearer.

A few people have recently asked me if the choices we make about the way we parent are philosophical. I suppose they are, in the sense that any choice anyone makes is, one way or another. I feel, though, that they’re better described as instinctual. They always were. I just didn’t know it yet.


21 Comments

  1. October 20, 2014 / 8:04 pm

    Really interesting post. I found my instincts a lot easier to follow when the kids were babies, my instincts told me to just let them spend as much time on my boob as possible but I think that was also because it meant I got peace and quiet whilst sitting on the sofa all day! I really struggled with Tiger from ages 6-11 months, he was such hard work and then when he started walking and suddenly became happy again it felt amazing. With Cherry now it’s really hard to follow my instincts, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time but the one instinct I do always have is to hug her. Hugs usually help most situations, that and bedtime 😉 x
    Jess @ Along Came Cherry recently posted..The Glisten Camping Geodomes

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:08 am

      You know what, I really think that once Ophelia gets walking she’ll be happy. She’s bum shuffling at the moment. I want to take her to an osteopath just for a check up to make sure that all’s well, though. That sounds such a powerful instinct with Cherry. So often what kids need in the midst of it all is simple connection. Sounds like you are listening to your instincts too.

  2. October 20, 2014 / 8:19 pm

    I think instincts are the strongest most useful thing you should rely on with kids because advice will always differ and no two children are the same! X
    Kathryn (@KatGotTheCream) recently posted..The Happy List #74

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:09 am

      That is so true! Certainly my two are proving different from each other!

  3. October 21, 2014 / 12:59 pm

    I think instinct is the best parenting tool – I tend to ignore ‘helpful’ advice offered by strangers, in-laws and people who really know nothing about my children. If instinct isn’t covering it, there’s always bribery and chocolate buttons!
    Vicky recently posted..bloggers at home: candy pop

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:09 am

      Haha! And if that fails, there’s chocolate buttons for us!

  4. October 21, 2014 / 3:28 pm

    totally agree with kat! (and the other ladies) ..intuition and instinct are there for a reason 🙂
    laura redburn recently posted..mini collage zine

  5. October 21, 2014 / 7:08 pm

    Great post. I find it fascinating to hear about the differences between first and second child, not only in the children themselves, but in the parents and how their approach has developed. I definitely think a second time parent would be better able to prioritise their own needs, because they already have the wisdom and experience that comes from knowing what they’re doing. xx
    Fiona recently posted..The Perfect Autumn Day

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:11 am

      Yes, so much has changed in this short time. I think having the added confidence of having been here before helps massively.

  6. October 22, 2014 / 11:30 am

    Really good post. I forced myself to make a rule when I became a mum for the first time – ‘I’ll do it my way, you do it yours’ and it’s kind of my mantra – I just wish ‘helpful’ other people would go by the same rule 😉 Instinct is always there like you say, but sometimes we ignore it, but then I think that’s alright too sometimes. x

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:12 am

      I have to remind myself to hold my tongue sometimes when it comes to other people because my instinct is for MY children, no one else’s!

  7. October 22, 2014 / 12:05 pm

    I love how poetic this post is, and how it so well illustrates the Mother Journey that you are on. So eloquent and so beautiful. You are doing a lot of introspective work, whilst doing so much on the outside too. So much to be applauded, and the struggles, and how well you deal with them, so openly are just humbling.
    xx
    Liska @NewMumOnline recently posted..Daddy’s Perfect Gift A Personalised Photo Calendar from Us

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:12 am

      Thanks, lovely. Motherhood is always giving me new things to think about.

  8. October 22, 2014 / 2:44 pm

    oh my, seeing your two girls together makes me want to make Wilf a sibling! Look at their faces, especially O’s lovely smile in the top shot. I love this post and couldn’t agree more, I felt very confident in my instincts when Wilf was a baby and even up to 6 months ago really but as he’s approaching 3 I am feeling a bit lost and out of touch with my instincts. I often feel like we are battling each other and I don’t know how to get through to him when I need to teach him that certain behaviour isn’t OK. It’s so tricky, I know I’ve lost when I raise my voice and shout but I need to work out how to not get to that point. xx
    Fritha recently posted..Wish List

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:13 am

      Oh go on then. Have another baby. 🙂 I think 3 (and I’m including the months leading up to it too!) is such a tricky age. I’ve been having this conversation with a few people lately.

  9. October 22, 2014 / 9:25 pm

    great post, and I totally agree in listening to your instincts, my three girls are all so different to each to each other, and so is the way I parent each of them. It’s certainly easier to trust your instincts with a baby/toddler than a almost-teen though :p
    Polly recently posted..Vegetarian & Vegan Food Guide – London

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:14 am

      I can imagine that each stage gets more and more complicated and challenging. I don’t want to imagine parenting pre-teens just yet!

  10. October 22, 2014 / 11:09 pm

    Oh what a lovely post – I think sometimes when it does come to a toddler or older child it can be harder to hear your instincts because of the noise – well sometimes I feel like that – but always re-evaluate what I could of done better at the end of the day, especially when it’s been one of those days where ideas clash.

    Laura x
    Laura recently posted..Divine black bean choc pot & kitchen colours

    • October 24, 2014 / 12:15 am

      Yes, taking a moment to re-evaluate at the end of the day, and possibly talk it through with someone you trust, is so helpful. Laurence and I often discuss things that happened that I’m not happy about. It’s great getting someone else’s perspective on how to do this parenting thing.

  11. October 26, 2014 / 8:02 am

    Aw I love this post and can so relate. I also think instinct, in those early days without the right kind of maternity care can be over-ruled and silenced…which is so wrong. But I also believe that instinct is ultimately strong and resiliant and will come through in the end.

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