Parental amnesia is a thing – but I’m not buying into it

Posted in Newborn.
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Think back on the newborn period. Do you only remember squishy cuddles, sweet-smelling heads, blissful breastfeeding moments and first smiles? It’s official: you have parental amnesia.

Don’t panic – it’s normal and most of us get it to some degree. Parental amnesia is the process through which we gradually forget all the unbearably difficult parenting moments we thought we would never get through.

Remember the feeling of having to drag your weary body out of bed for the FOURTH time in one night to attend to your crying baby? The cracked nipples? The inexplicable tears that came when you least expected it? The days when you desperately needed to chat with a friend but you couldn’t even muster the strength to pick up the phone let alone get dressed and go to a café? Seems it wasn’t all smiles and snuggles after all …

It’s evolution, baby

There’s a reason our brains conveniently forget all the horrible bits. If we remembered them vividly, we would never have children again and humanity would go extinct. So, the jagged edges soften over time in our minds and we suddenly find ourselves screaming, “I CAN’T DOOO THIIIIS!” in the maternity ward all over again.

These selective holes in our memory don’t just apply to parenting. Researchers have been studying why negative memories fade faster than good ones since the 1930s. They call it Fading Affect Bias (FAB) and it appears to occur across all cultures. Psychologists believe it helps keep humans positive, happy and resilient.

Never forget

While parental amnesia serves an important purpose in the propagation of our species, it sucks for new parents who are desperately seeking some reassurance that things will get easier.

I distinctly remember meeting up with a friend one bleary-eyed morning about eight months into my first year of parenting and begging her to tell me it would be less challenging one day. She looked at me apologetically and said, “Well, it doesn’t really. My five-year-old has anxiety and isn’t settling into school and my eight-year-old has night terrors that keep us up half the night.”

GAH! I wanted the earth to open up and swallow me whole. I started to question whether I could do this parenting thing if it was never going to get easier than the sleep-deprived, frazzled hell I was drowning in at that time.

Once I’d talked myself down from the ledge, I concluded that my friend had forgotten what the first year of parenthood was like. You’re trying to wrap your head around the hardest job in the world. But instead of doing it in a power suit after spin class, you’re doing it in your milk-stained pyjamas after three hours of broken sleep.

That day, I made a promise to myself that I would never forget the challenges of each stage of parenthood: the sleep deprivation of the newborn phase, the constant monitoring of toddlerhood, the escalating tantrums of the twos and threes, and so on. If a friend reached out to me for reassurance, I wanted to be able to give it to her with genuine empathy.

It does get easier

Now that I have a five-year-old and three-year-old twins, I still face daily challenges and frustrations. My three girls constantly compete, fight and scream at each other. Some days, I feel like the twins have one giant tantrum from the minute they wake up to the moment when they finally go to sleep. I don’t think I’ve exchanged a full sentence with my husband since mid-2017.

But in so many ways, it is easier now. I don’t have to drop everything I’m doing to breastfeed twins for an hour every three hours. I’m not constantly carrying a baby (or two). I get a full night’s sleep (sometimes). I can go for a run or a catch up with girlfriends without checking in on my hubby 12 times to make sure he hasn’t cracked under pressure.

So, when a friend with a newborn says to me, “I don’t know how you do it! I can barely cope with one baby,” I know exactly what to say…

“There’s NOTHING harder than that first year of parenthood. You’re learning a whole new skill set on the fly and you have a tiny human who’s dependent on you for survival. You’re in the trenches right now. It’s so normal for you to feel like everything is hard and to worry that you’re doing a terrible job.

“But trust me – you’re doing a fantastic job. And it WILL get easier. When they’re one, they start to walk and they don’t demand to be held all the time anymore. By two, they sleep so much better at night and they can feed themselves. At three, they play on their own for ages and they can dress themselves. By the time they’re four, they’re super-independent and you’ll finally feel like you have time for yourself again. Hang in there. I promise you – it does get easier.”

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