'I was so tired I had aural hallucinations'
When her first-born arrived, Emily Hourican spent a fortune looking for the magic bullet that would make him sleep. Two children later, she no longer believes in the baby gurus.
By the time my first baby was eight months old, I had taken him to see pretty much every medic and practitioner in town. Osteopath? Check. Naturopath? Check. Sacro-cranial osteopath? Check. Homeopath? Check. Allergist? Check.
I had even begun to delve into the world of seventh-sons-of-seventh-sons, and random 'healers'. The poor child had been prodded, poked, massaged, had hands laid on, and crystals waved over him. He had been taken off dairy (as had I, the breast-feeding mother), wheat and eggs, put into a routine of fresh air, evening baths and given a cd of white noise.
None of it made the slightest bit of difference. Now, you are probably holding your breath at this stage, thinking that I am about to reveal some terrible malady that afflicted him, a dreadful illness that conventional medicine couldn't cure. Well, not really.
His problem – and frankly it was mainly my problem – was that he wouldn't sleep. He woke every two hours or so until he was about two years old. Now, although he didn't seem all that bothered by his appalling routine, this was dreadful and debilitating for me – at one stage, I was so tired I regularly had aural hallucinations, and would round on the person nearest me shouting 'what did you say?' when they hadn't uttered a squeak – and I was convinced the 'problem' could be 'fixed,' that all I needed was a magic bullet. A system.
This conviction came from every single baby book I read, and I read them all in those days; I also regularly stalked posts on mumsnet about someone else's LD who wouldn't sleep, in case they had any decent advice. They never did. Neither did the books, much beyond advocating a strict bedtime routine of bath-book-bed, and then leaving him to cry it out.
Sometimes they called this 'learning to self-soothe', sometimes they called it 'controlled crying' or 'tough love'; whatever term they used, the net result was the same – baby howling for as long as it took to pass out from sheer exhaustion.
I couldn't bring myself to do that. My one attempt ended in me crying as hard as him and swearing passionately that as God was my witness, I would never leave him to cry again. Yes, I was the Scarlett O'Hara of the nursery.
After that, I tried the gentler type of sleep gurus – these are the ones who advocate staying in the room with baby, but not picking him up, just gently rubbing his back and saying 'it's all right, mummy's here, go to sleep'.
Kinder, but only slightly. The sheer irritation he displayed – 'why is she not picking me up? Come on, pick me up!' – scuppered any chance of that system taking off. So I gave up.
That's when I turned to the world of alternative therapy, and spent a fortune in the process (a much smarter move would have been to just hire a childminder for one night a week and go to a hotel, but hey, we live and learn). In the end, time did its own work, and the nights finally went from repeated, fraught encounters to eight hours of blessed unconsciousness again.
So did the experience teach me to be wary of gurus? Of course not. How could it, when all around, at every turn, is a new book, a new way, a new system, promising order in place of chaos, predictability in place of uncertainty, and eight solid hours of sleep.
I have a library full of them. Books on how to raise boys, how to raise girls, how to raise rats – oh, sorry, that one got in there by mistake – how to raise superstars and happy people. How to parent like an Eskimo or a cave woman. How to discipline, inspire and feng shui my kids.
I have read them all in my quest for help with particular stages of my children's lives. Always the difficult stages, of course. When things are going well, I don't reach for the experts, I trust my own instincts and enjoy the ride. But when things get tough, I immediately presume I'm doing something wrong, and go looking for answers.
The more prescriptive the books are, the more they promise, and the more I have learned to mistrust them. Order, calm, predictability, control – this is what they are offering. But is that really all we want our experience of parenthood to be? What about wild, hilarious, ridiculous, inspiring and messy?
"Be consistent," the experts say smugly. "Stay calm. Explain everything to your child ... " Well yes, we can all accept the wisdom of doing these things. Of course, it would be much more sensible not to descend to the name-calling level of a three-year-old, but if we were capable of always resisting that particular urge, we wouldn't need the experts in the first place, would we? It's not so much a vicious circle as a vigorous one – an endless round of trying and failing, spurred on by guilt and aspiration.
Anyway, even the experts only ever offer temporary solutions to eternal problems – naughty step, gold star reward system, whatever the latest-craze stopgap is.
And unless you have a will of iron, they're all ultimately useless. What's that military quote about plans not surviving first contact with the enemy? Well, sometimes children are the enemy.
I have, over the years, tried star charts, marbles in a jar (take one out every time they do something naughty), bar charts with levels to go up and down depending on behaviour, pie charts (literally, slices of pie), time out, the thinking chair, the naughty step and many others (these are used intermittently, between my more usual 'system', which consists of yelling 'get out of my sight' when I finally cross the line between 'exasperated' and 'lost it').
There was a time when I had three sets of charts going at the one time. The kitchen resembled the HQ of a firm of serious number crunchers, working flat out on the most recent census, generating information in a variety of visual forms: flow charts, bar charts, pie charts, candlestick charts, you saw it here first! I have used these incentives for everything from getting dressed without having to be forcibly removed from behind the sofa, to not fighting in the schoolyard.
Not one of them works. Or at least, let me qualify that – they all work. For a short time. And for certain, very specific things. Two weeks is the average.
In the beginning, the kids themselves are wildly enthusiastic about whatever the New Way is, especially if it's one that comes with rewards for good behaviour. I explain it to them, they ask excited questions, we all feel as if we are powering ahead in exemplary fashion – me towards domestic harmony and good behaviour, them towards the acquisition of more cheap toys.
Great. That is the honeymoon period. It generally lasts a week. Familiarity quickly breeds contempt, and after a couple of weeks their indifference to either the carrot or the stick, along with my weariness around implementation, jeopardises everything. The day they say 'I don't care' when you warn they're about to lose a marble or move down a space on the jolly airplane chart, is the day you know that particular joyride is over.
The incentive system is effective for things like putting pyjamas back on beds after getting dressed, or washing hands before dinner. But if the trouble is any more nebulous, the whole thing becomes impossible.
Take whinging, the thing that annoys most of us more than most other things. What constitutes a whinge? Is it repetition? Tone of voice? Is it category-specific, ie, it's a whinge when it applies to the getting of ice-cream, but not when it's about going to the park?
Defining exactly what you mean, in terms a four-year-old can understand, is like picking up grains of sand with your teeth. And whatever system you have chosen will crumble under the impossibility of it. Just like the trawl through alternative medicine subcultures, the best thing about these various systems of discipline is the illusion they give you of doing something.
Killing time till time does its own work, basically. The trouble really starts when you actually believe them, pin your hopes on them, expect something of them. Because no guru is going to deliver half of what they promise.
No system will provide a magic solution to your problem, and no star chart will fully solve challenging behaviour.
Those things will all happen, with time; through our own understanding of our children and their ways, and – crucially – our acceptance that they are what they are, not necessarily what we want them to be.
And the sense of wonder when that happens is a tremendous thing.
'How To Really Be A Mother' by Emily Hourican is in bookshops now for €16.99