Unlike many grandparents – unlike I.’s other grandparents, who live in Cardiff – we and Esther live in the same town. So when I heard she was pregnant, I was able to promise her I’d take the baby for a day a week whenever she needed it. Would I entrust a small child to me? I’m not sure. But Esther, seemingly, has no qualms. Also, she needs the time.
The basics, of course, haven’t changed and never will. You feed, you clean, you play, you try vainly to induce sleep before you yourself die of exhaustion (invariably a losing battle). My own philosophy was that babies are as tough as old boots and will survive; Esther, the living proof of this, is, as always, less sweeping and more empathetic. She’s also very conscious of what other people do baby-wise, something I rarely gave a thought to. I had just the one paperback, listing symptoms in alphabetical order, T for three-month colic, P for projectile vomiting, etc, but she’s more anxious (or less dismissive).
Not only does she have books covering every aspect and eventuality of babyhood, she also has, as I didn’t, the internet, with its infinite store of untrustworthy and paranoia-inducing information and its few gold nuggets. But then, whatever she undertakes, she does it one hundred per cent. And what she’s doing right now is raising a baby. I can’t imagine her conducting an exchange like one I had with my husband beside the telephone table in the hall, when she was around a year old:
Self: God, a whole year and I haven’t done a bloody thing!
Bruce: (indicating hovering small child) You’ve done this!
I wasn’t really persuaded.
It wasn’t that I neglected her. I’ve never bought the notion of ‘quality time’. What babies need is quantity time, mostly eventless, but all requiring the attendance of an adult. And since I work from home and Esther’s existence was entirely my choice – Bruce, as it turned out the most devoted of fathers, being at that stage quite indifferent one way or the other – I took it for granted that I would look after her. I told myself You are enjoying this, make the most of it, you’re never going to do it again.
But I knew I wasn’t enjoying it, not really – certainly not the way I see Esther enjoying I. As our neighbours observed, with shocked amusement, when we took Esther to Italy for her first summer, I was not a natural with babies. ‘You haven’t the first idea what to do,’ they said, carrying her off for a little R&R in more congenial company. A mother who’s bored by her baby? Being Italians, it was their first experience of such a phenomenon.
Obviously, there were wonderful moments. I hadn’t imagined (who possibly could, who hasn’t experienced it?) the instant, overwhelming flood of visceral emotion that submerges the new mother. And then there was the way she’d say eh! eh! eh! when she was happy, her huge, semi-circular smile, the way she ecstatically buried her nose in her first pinks and pansies, the joyful surprise of her first word. But, generally speaking, the endless round of baby care seemed a poor substitute for my former life. I bitterly envied Bruce, who could carry on as before while I was stuck fast, waiting for time to pass.
Because that’s what you do, with babies. You wake up, should you be so fortunate as to have had any sleep, you get through till lunchtime, then you get through till teatime, then you get through till bedtime, then you collapse and pray for a few hours of unconsciousness before that first little wail heralds the resumption of duty.
Also, it’s lonely. There are few isolations to compare with that of the new mother stuck at home with her speechless, infinitely needy little ball of flesh. That was when I missed my mother most. ‘I could help you a lot, you know, darling,’ she said to me once, on one of the rare occasions when she allowed herself to broach the subject – a subject, I now realise, that she and my father must often have thought about and wistfully discussed. And the greatest help of all would have been her company.