We came home from the hospital with Little T on New Year’s Eve. I really had to push to be discharged as I was anaemic and bleeding heavily following my C-section and the midwives made no secret of their disapproval, but I simply couldn’t be there any longer. All I could think about was my home, my clothes, my smells, my cats. I wanted to be in a safe place, away from the trauma of the birth, and in my naive head Little T would slot in to that. I had a dreamlike vision of the three of us shutting the door on the outside world and basking in our new familyness, as though the only thing that had changed in my life was the number of people I had to love.
Of course, I knew nothing. The reality saw us arrive home completely shell shocked. Big T tried to hold it together but I fell apart as soon as I saw that the haven my house used to be had been invaded by the stranger that was my son. I hadn’t slept in more than four days and Little T refused to be set down anywhere that wasn’t in our arms, preferably at my breast. My body and my head and my heart needed space to heal and I realised that wasn’t possible in the way I wanted. I held my baby and sobbed.
That first night was horrendous. There were times all three of us were crying. I think Big T managed to nap briefly but I stayed awake all night looking, terrified, into the face of my only-sometimes-sleeping newborn son.
The next few days brought sunshine and with it a cautious optimism that things would soon feel better. Except they didn’t, for me at least. The shadow in our house was my mood. I’d occasionally explode in tears and every sound Little T made shot through me like lightning and I’d cry again. I was scared to hold him, to pick him up. Feeding him was overwhelming in all ways, beautiful and terrifying, and I wanted him off me and close to me and every space in between. I also started to revisit the birth experience itself and my stay in hospital. The trauma hit me whenever I felt my scar pull or went to change my maternity pad, and I began to hate myself for failing to deliver my son the way nature intended. I felt (and sometimes still feel) massive guilt for not being able to give birth to my child, as though I’d failed at my very first task as a mother.
-I’m starting to choke up writing this. I’d stop except I’ve promised myself not to try to erase any part of my son’s story.-
I was honest with my midwife from the very start but was told that what I was experiencing was no more than the baby blues, which considering my history seems irresponsible, and made me feel even more guilty; if every mother felt this way why was I struggling so much to shrug it off and connect with my child? The guilt was actually the hardest part as it became a weight around my neck even when things were going well. I’d be cuddled up with Little T enjoying some skin-on-skin, or feeding him or tracing his tiny ears with my fingers while he slept and suddenly the memory of the tears and fear would flood back and I’d be paralysed with guilt. My emotions were in a loop that always ended on a dose of guilt. I started to believe Big T and Little T would be better off without me, whatever that meant. I became increasingly obsessed with Little T’s health, checking and rechecking on him throughout the night, every ten minutes leaning over to feel his breath on my hand. I couldn’t sleep in case something happened to him which led to my functioning (loosely) on no more than two hours rest a night. What was supposed to be the most magical few weeks of my life was a dark, dark time.
It was actually my husband who broke the pattern of ‘you’re fine, it’s normal’ and encouraged me to see my GP. Even though I was still being ‘treated’ by the perinatal mental health team I didn’t have a voice until I shouted, until I had the courage and confidence to tell someone that how I felt wasn’t okay, it wasn’t normal, and I needed them to help me do something about it. Looking back I don’t know how I mustered the fight to do it since part of PND’s cruelty is in the belief it gives you that you deserve every horrible feeling, every twist of the knife, and there’s no reason why anyone should help you.
(I’m obligated to add that these are just my experiences. Perinatal mental health services are shockingly underfunded and I have no doubt that this shortfall influenced the delay in my diagnosis. Here’s a good piece from the Guardian on the problem.)
To her credit my GP was kind and understanding and started me right away on the medication I’d successfully taken in the past (to the detriment of breastfeeding, but that’s another post) and within a month my mood was better and I felt my old self resurface. And my son! My beautiful baby was there with me, the one I’d dreamed of since I was a little girl playing with her dolls, and all that movie love filled my heart the way it was meant to.
There’s huge pressure when you become a parent to react in a particular way, and when you appear to deviate off course it can leave you feeling desperately flawed and alone. Friends and family asked me heavily loaded questions like, “What do you feel when you look at him?” and “Having a baby really makes sense of your life, doesn’t it?” and inside my head I was screaming, “I don’t know!” and “NO! Everything is infinitely scarier and more confusing!”
And in the spirit of full disclosure, that’s still how I feel. When I look at my son I’m just as overwhelmed as when PND had me in its grasp, but I’m prepared for it, and I understand it, and I let it wash over me for the huge tumbling wave that it is. My feelings for Little T are so vast and so complicated and so simple and so epic that I couldn’t possibly explain it. It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, it’s real and gritty and fucked up at times because that’s me and that’s life, but it is beautiful because he is. As for the notion of perspective, motherhood has turned my world into a fairground of potential hazards and there’s no sense in it whatsoever; only last week I hastily walked out of a shop because there were enormous cracks up the walls and I worried that the whole place might cave in on the most precious thing in my universe. In another sense of perspective, my values are the same as they were a year ago when I found out I was pregnant, and I still enjoy drinking too much gin and dancing like a dickhead with my (mostly childless) friends. ‘Mother’ is both all that I am and just a part of it – and there is no shame in that. Prescriptive ideas of motherhood can aggravate PND symptoms and I became caught in a downward spiral of self-loathing for not being the parent society was telling me I was meant to be, which in turn made me less able to parent competently.
My recovery is still ongoing but accepting my own definitions of parenting and letting go of the guilt as much as possible has played a crucial part in the steps I’ve taken so far. It’s that initial cry for help that takes the most strength, and doing that and getting this far has shown me that I may not be the best mother in the world, but I am the best Mummy for Little T.
And that’s all I’ll ever need to be.