What do new parents like me really need? The unvarnished truth about babies

<span>Photograph: Posed by models/Getty</span>
Photograph: Posed by models/Getty

My wife gave birth to our first child, a beautiful baby girl, a few weeks ago. It’s all been a bit of a milk-scented blur, but the whirlwind of early parenthood has also helped me realise my true purpose in life: becoming a Baby Truther™. I’m not saying there’s a vast conspiracy of silence about the realities of motherhood, but there’s certainly still a massive stigma to admitting that it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. And, because there’s so much pressure to act as if having a baby is unmitigated bliss, a lot of people seem to bend the truth about the realities of parenthood. So, in my new role as a full-time Baby Truther, I am here to cheerfully admit that looking after a newborn can, sometimes, be hell. And I wish more people were honest about that.

Here’s something I have noticed: the moment you admit that having a baby isn’t 100% joy and delight, there are people who will immediately say something along the lines of: “Don’t complain! You should be grateful you have a kid!” Or they’ll sneer: “What did you expect?” So, before the “Motherhood is magic” crowd get riled up, let me get a few obligatory disclaimers out of the way: my wife and I spent a small fortune on fertility treatments; our baby was desperately wanted and we don’t take our new addition for granted. Also, I knew that looking after a newborn obviously wasn’t going to be easy. Still, I’m not sure anything could have prepared me for just how exhausting, difficult and boring the early days of parenting were going to be. Yes, I love the tiny tyrant to bits. But that doesn’t automatically make sleep-deprivation and changing umpteen diapers a day fulfilling.

Here’s another thing I’ve noticed: the moment you become a parent, other parents will suddenly admit to things they kept quiet about before. The same people who acted like parenthood was the best thing to ever happen to them will suddenly tell you that, yes, newborns kind of suck. “Why did you never tell me that before?” I wonder to myself as they nonchalantly tell me that they didn’t feel like themselves again for a year, or they worried their nipples were going to fall off as a result of breastfeeding. It seems as if the first rule of Parent Club is that you don’t talk about how difficult Parent Club is to the people in Childfree Club. Instead, you smile smugly and say things like: “You must have a kid, it’s amazing!”

I should note that, being the non-birth mother, I’ve got it relatively easy when it comes to parenting. I didn’t have to deal with the physical toll of pregnancy, which is another thing I don’t think we talk about enough and that a lot of women are ill-prepared for. Everyone knows that labour will be difficult, but there isn’t a huge amount of discussion of how your body can change postpartum; women are just expected to bounce back. The realities of breastfeeding are another thing I’m shocked I knew so little about in my pre-baby life. I used to think that breastfeeding was something that was natural and easy and beautiful. Hah! Maybe that’s true for some people, but just because something is “natural” doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I’m sure my daughter is going to print this article out to show her therapist one day, so I want to make it very clear, once again, that I love my child and many aspects of parenthood are, indeed, awesome. The smell of a baby’s head? Feral, but incomprehensibly delightful: someone should bottle that up! Seeing your baby grow by what seems like the second? Fascinating! Watching your kid beam as they projectile poop all over the bedroom? Hilarious! I wouldn’t change my new life for anything, but that doesn’t mean I have to pretend to enjoy every moment or act like my life pre-baby was incomplete. Parenthood can be amazing and awful. Admitting that doesn’t make you a cry-baby.

  • Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist