I had my first baby when I was twenty-four. She was unplanned and I was the first of my friends to have a child and those early days, despite having a supportive family and partner, were quite lonely.

Amanda Jennings

Amanda Jennings

My day to day life was very different to my friends who were starting out in new jobs or travelling or living in far-flung cities. I adored my daughter but it was quite a stressful time. She cried a lot and rarely slept. Everybody had an opinion on how we should be raising her but in the end we went with what felt right and threw away the baby books. She was quiet when we were holding her, and screamed blue murder whenever we tried to strap her into a pushchair, so we rarely put her down and carried her using a sling which wasn’t quite as usual in the late nineties as it is now. I found she was far more content when she could feel the warmth of me and listen to my heartbeat. I tried a routine but it didn’t work for us. I didn’t mind if she slept in her sling or napped in the car, but the idea of being tied to the flat for certain times each day to fit in with a rigid timetable didn’t seem very practical and I was a bit too scatty and disorganised to stick to it properly.

At night she slept in our bed, which, it turned out, was controversial. Lots of people told me it wasn’t good for her and was dangerous, but she slept peacefully in the crook of my arm. Not only that but my body seemed to know I was holding her and I slept well without moving a muscle. When she was too big and wriggly she slept in a crib pushed up against our bed. I would hold her hand through the bars which seemed to help her sleep. Sometimes I worried that she was too dependent on me and that perhaps I was doing things wrong - after all one thing that unites all parents of new babies is the fear that we are somehow doing it wrong. So I dutifully picked up another baby book, this one prescribing controlled crying and strict routine and black out curtains. We tried to make it work and made one attempt at controlled crying, a long night during which her father and I clung to each other on a mattress in the sitting room while she cried non-stop. It didn’t suit any of us so we went back to doing what did. When I was ready to stop breastfeeding, we skipped the bottle and went straight to a cup as she hated the bottle. Part of the reason for ‘going it alone’ was anxiety triggered by baby weight charts. She was an average weight on the chart when she was born but almost immediately her relative weight fell. It became an obsession for the health visitors and their concern rubbed off on me. I had to get more milk inside her. I had to get more food inside her.

Eventually, when my daughter was about ten months we were sent to a paediatric nutritionist. I was terrified, worried I was doing something wrong, endangering her. But as soon as we walked in to the consultation room, the nutritionist took one look at my bright-eyed, engaged child and as good as sent us away before I’d even sat down. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your baby,’ she said, so kindly I promptly burst into tears. ‘She’s just busy and her graph is fine for a breastfed baby.’ She suggested I might like to put little piles of food about the place so that as she was moving about being busy she would come across squares of cheese or raisins. It was such a sweet idea and my daughter loved it! I adored watching her face break into a smile as she stumbled across a pile of foodie treats, pausing for a moment or two to push a couple into her mouth before hurrying off to be busy somewhere else.

Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that this is how people should parent. In fact, the point of me sharing this is I believed at the time - and still do - that there is no one-size fits all parenting advice to follow. My daughter and I, and her father, followed what felt right for us and, ultimately, what kept life as happy and stress-free as possible. We knew there would be things we would have to address - the rods for our backs that my dear grandmother would sometimes allude to. When the time came, teaching her to sleep through the night in her own bed in her own room required a few difficult nights, but we got there.

Aged twenty-four she eats anything and everything and I no longer have to leave cubes of cheese around the house for her! My experience of raising a baby - when I felt I had no clue what I was doing, realising with a jolt that I was in charge of caring for an actual human being who relied on me for everything and who I was responsible for - without doubt influenced my writing of Tara in The Haven. There are certain sentences one of my protagonists, Tara, says that come word for word from things I said back then. I think Tara is more belligerent and opinionated that I was, more sure of herself. She is passionate about raising a free-spirited child released from the constraints of society and traditional schooling. Willing to uproot her family and detach them from society in order to follow an alternative way of life. My husband and I were probably more driven by a desperate need to sleep! Our ‘busy’ child who rarely napped was much more likely to sleep if she was close to our bodies, so that was what we went with.

I would be mortified if anybody read this and thought I was trying to dictate how people should care for their babies. If anything my beliefs are the polar opposite. If it feels right for you and for your baby, doing what makes you all the happiest you can be - whether that’s controlled crying or on demand feeding or any other of the myriad ways we can care for our children - then I reckon you can’t go too far wrong!

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The Haven by Amanda Jennings is published on 17th March by HQ, £12.99