The Hardest Thing

I was lost for a while.

I didn’t realise it at first, through every nappy change, every bowl of pasta tipped on the floor, every reading of Tabby McTat. Every chunk of hair yanked out by chubby fingers. And the scarier stuff, like all the early mornings soothing my tired and anxious husband as he wrestled with fears bigger than himself, all the late nights talking about our relationship, picking us up and hoping he didn’t drop us again. Toddler tantrums, baby grumbles, mummy meltdowns. Daddy on the other side of the universe (or so it felt).

Pick up, dust off, get on.

I got lost under the waves that were rocking my family. I tried to hold us together, and I’m proud to say that I did. But it came at a cost. And that cost was me.

Not even my self worth, or my free time; just me, the grasp I had on who I was without the other people around me. Like looking in the mirror and seeing their faces but never mine.

I don’t regret a thing. I carried us all and we made it through.

But I stopped being a person in my own right. I was only mother, wife, counsellor, mediator, therapist, personal shopper, accountant, chef, life coach, cleaner, nurse, teacher. It’s sometimes hard when you’re buried underneath so much responsibility to even notice that you’re struggling to breathe.

So I started to break a little. Bit by bit the burdens grew heavier and I was less able to hold them. My self esteem plummeted with every new ‘failure’. I apologised when I was ill, when dinner was late, when I slept in. Guilt was my shadow. I criticised myself for wanting time alone or checking my phone when I should’ve been playing with my kids. I tortured myself for causing my son’s speech delay. I went from solving our problems to blaming myself for them.

I realised it had gone too far when I spent the days before Christmas focusing on everything I’d done “wrong” and apologising to my family for not being good enough for them. I was too busy hating myself for not being the wife and mother I should be to actually enjoy my beautiful boys. Christmas, a time I look forward to all year and always fills me with magic and warmth, was lost to me. I was lost to me.

So I began the new year with a resolve to find myself again. So far that looks like apologising less, keeping a happiness journal, watching movies alone, listening to music that made me feel alive when I was a moody teenager in bad eyeliner and baggy jeans, crocheting more, sometimes saying no and often saying yes. And it’s working, albeit slowly. I can feel the change in how much enjoyment I’m taking from my sons and how much clarity I feel with my husband. I’m getting there.

When I was pregnant with Tristan someone warned me that the hardest thing I’d have to do as a parent is put myself last, but they were wrong; far harder is having the strength to stand tall and put myself first.

I’ve Got This

It’s rare that I have nothing to say, particularly when there’s so much happening, but the fact is I’ve entered a strange late pregnancy isolation. My brain feels tightly locked up, as though it’s shutting down all but essential functions. There’s lots to do to feel fully prepared for this baby’s arrival but I’m moving at a snail’s pace, physically and mentally. Somehow though we’ve managed to get the house looking acceptable, hospital bags are packed and I’m choosing to have faith that my husband still remembers how to fasten in a Maxi-Cosi Cabriofix car seat. We’ve got this.

I went to the hospital for my pre-op appointment today and it was a really strange experience. The last time I walked those corridors I was in a daze. I was desperate to be out of there. It was like an out-of-body experience, I don’t remember my feet ever touching the floor, though I have plenty of memories of the sounds of babies crying, alarms ringing, new mums whispering to their little ones, and the pervasive smell of chlorine. I was hit by it all again today and at first it sent me spinning. I was sat in a waiting room surrounded by photographs of smiling parents and I wanted to hide. Every instinct told me to run away.

But I didn’t. I stayed, and gradually the fog lifted and I saw it for what it was; a normal hospital ward, bright and warm, filled with smiles, laughter and the sound of brand new voices making themselves heard for the very first time. I saw a woman being wheeled in her hospital bed to her place on the ward, baby in her arms, and I immediately recognised her expression; exhausted, confused but oddly tranquil. I recognised it because I experienced it once too, more than two years ago, and it was a beautiful reminder that despite everything, despite the traumatic labour and pain that followed I was still a new mum riding the wave of love and hormones. In that moment I was no different from anyone else.

I finally realised today that I can change the story. I’m not the same person and my life doesn’t follow a script. I can make things different and if I’m strong enough to get through all that happened with Tristan I can be equal to this too, no matter how it goes. I’ve got this.

What I’m most aware of is how much things will change for T, and that he seemingly has no idea that it’s coming. I’ve explained but he has an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality that’s common to lots of toddlers. I don’t know whether he really knows what it means that Mummy has a baby growing inside her. I’ve explained that I’ll be going in to hospital and that when I come home he’ll have a baby brother or sister, but there’s no way of knowing how much he’s absorbing as he still isn’t very verbal.
I hate feeling that I’m taking something away from him. I try to remind myself that in doing this I’m augmenting his life, giving him something in the way of friendship and socialising that he could potentially lack with two introverted parents. And when I doubt that I have the strength to do it, to raise two tiny humans, I ask myself what do I have in infinite amounts, what resource will never run out that I can give to my son indefinitely?

I have love. I have so fucking much of it I feel as though it’ll burst its banks and come flooding out of me in a great tidal wave that’ll drench everything in sloppy kisses and glitter. That won’t change for him, he will always have that. And I know my heart well enough to know that there’s a bottomless reservoir tucked away for this baby too, building up and up, ready to carry me off on a new journey of motherhood.

Perhaps PND will be part of that journey. Perhaps not. It’s funny how of all my fears, that one isn’t the loudest or strongest. I’ve beaten it before, I can do it again. I’ve learned how to talk and heal, how to be vulnerable and how to put my adult face on and get on with the day. I helped nurture my son this far and PND was part of his story too, and he is this incredible little person, and all the testament I need that I can do this. I’ve got this. 

This will be the last time I post here before my life changes forever. I’m scared, excited, jittery and oddly calm, and the funny thing is that it doesn’t feel as though I’m going in for a C-section; it feels as though they’ll be operating on my heart, opening it up and pumping it full of new emotions and experiences. I’m terrified. But I’m also happy beyond words.

I’ve got this.

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30 Floors Up

Today is my 30th birthday, a day that should by all accounts feel like a notable step up the ladder of adulthood. I’m typing this from the bedroom while Tristan sleeps peacefully beside me, and the only awareness I have of my age is a strange feeling like I’m stood at the top of a 30 storey building looking down at the ground and pondering how high I am, and not really knowing how I got there.

Turning 30 years old isn’t important to me because of some societal expectation that all women should fear the loss of their youth. I don’t care about that. In fact, I feel more free from the pain and fear of my adolescence and early twenties the more distant they become. And that brings me to why this age feels significant.

My early adulthood was an endurance, something to be survived. I fell to my lowest, hit the ground at a violent pace, then fell even further, through the darkest places, and finally, at the age of 24, landed in a cushion of apathy, self-destruction and disassociation. It sometimes felt as though the fall would never end and the darkness would never stop growing, but in many ways the psychosis that followed was worse, like the world existed behind a thick pane of glass with those I loved banging frantically against it to try to bring me back. Most heartbreaking was that I simply didn’t care.

But today I am thirty years old and this morning I looked at my hands and gently traced the lines and imperfections with my finger. I have scars, accidental and deliberate, and I admired those too. My brown hair is spun through with whisps of silver. My body is fat and flawed and though I don’t love it, I value it fiercely and I’m grateful for every trial it’s endured and every second of joy it’s allowed me to live.

I am thirty years old and this morning I smelled my son’s hair, a mixture of sweat, milk and sleep. I drank him in, held him close, and marvelled at his energy and joie de vivre as he jumped on the sofa and carried on conversations with his toys.

I am thirty years old and I’m pregnant with my second child. I can sometimes feel his or her movements in my stomach, a reminder as if to say, “I’m here!” and I don’t begrudge the sickness or restless nights or pelvic pain because every moment with this little one is a gift to be treasured.

I am thirty years old and I am married to a sensitive, kind and beautiful man who loves me and keeps me safe, and accepts my failings. A man who truly sees my soul and doesn’t flinch or hide. A man who has never once put me down or thought me weak. A man whose eyes first met mine across a busy room more than 8 years ago, who looked at me as though he already recognised me from another life, or perhaps the one we had to come.

My life is vast and wonderful. Every second of it is a glorious blast of light that I never could have imagined from the darkest depths of my illness. I’m beyond blessed; I’m living the kind of life I didn’t think ordinary people could easily achieve, much less a scared and damaged girl with baggage spilling out of every corner of her mind. Mine is a story of patience, strength, fear by the bucketful, and a good deal of fight. I had help along the way, from friends, family and most of all the man I now call my husband, but the decision to keep going always, always came from me. I dusted myself down and carried on somehow, and I thank myself and my courage every day for what I gave myself, which is a life, a real, beautiful life to be grasped with both hands.

I am thirty years old and I didn’t always think I’d be here to see this birthday. I believed with every conviction that one way or another my illness would beat me. It’s not something I spoke about or something I feared; it simply was, and that’s why today isn’t a milestone for me, it’s a tribute to survival and a war fought and won. To glance at everything around me, everything I have and all I’ve become, is to look upon a private battlefield covered in daisies; pretty little miracles growing out of tired old earth, and the best view is right here, from thirty floors up.

Snapshots of a Life Well Loved

I’m what many people would call an ‘oversharer’, the irritating brand of parent who posts multiple pictures of their child to Facebook every day, and later on maybe just Instagram if self-awareness kicks in and leaves an unsettling sense of shame. (It’s okay to overshare on Instagram, its target demographic of parents, fitness fanatics, and amateur chefs all pile together in a big narcissistic orgy and no one has to feel bad about it. That’s its ‘thing’.)

I know it’s annoying. I know it’s tedious to log on to Facebook and be assaulted by static images of my son using a spoon or walking down a tree-lined path flapping his arms like an inebriated bat, or squinting uncomfortably in the sun and making a face that bridges the gap between pain and glee. I know it’s repetitive. I know it seems as though my relationship with my child is enacted through the medium of my phone camera. I know.

Some people may wonder whether I value my son’s right to privacy, and I agree that’s a real issue. I’ve wrestled with myself over how much of his life I share with the world and whether or not I’m being respectful of his autonomy. Truthfully I feel uncertain about it even after turning it over and over in my head for months on end; I don’t own his life to throw it out for everyone to see. I don’t own him. But I do own myself and for now sharing is helping me heal in a way nothing bar intensive therapy ever has before, and at this stage in our journey together what benefits me benefits him too. It’s an easy mistake to assume that as parents we should throw ourselves on the fire to provide our children with a certain kind of life, but our relationship is symbiotic; to borrow an overused analogy, I need to put my own oxygen mask on first. When he’s a bit older I will ask him how much he’s happy for me to share and of course I will respect his choice and be proud of it, no matter what it is. And in return I will ask that he respects my own decision to share my story.

Because that’s what the photos, the blog posts and the Facebook statuses are about – they’re a celebration and an acknowledgement of a life that so far has been difficult and amazing. They are me saying, “Look where I am, look at what I’ve achieved!”

Some people believe pride is a flaw, but you know what? For the first time in my life I am unspeakably, extraordinarily, astonishingly proud of what I’m doing every day. I spent a long time in jobs that didn’t last because anxiety built up like a pressure cooker and overflowed in waves, taking me back to square one, and later I worked from home in writing roles I neither cared about nor paid well. I didn’t have anything to talk about or feel proud of.

And then this happened:

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And suddenly I had a reason to feel as though my life mattered. I had something to say. I wasn’t studying for a PhD or working in my dream job or travelling the world, but I was making a human being. For the first time in my life I was doing something really and truly worthwhile. And that was just pregnancy!

Along came my pink-faced squish and a hurricane of love and depression blew me away like a flimsy polythene bag. I hated myself. I hated my baby. But I also loved my baby. I must be an awful mother! I hated myself some more. All the while I was dutifully taking photographs and uploading them to Facebook (that’s what normal people do, right?), and a strange realisation gradually crept up on me – sharing those photos was helping me feel better. Every positive comment was a different perspective for me to consider. Sometimes it was validation that I couldn’t be doing such a terrible job, other times a few simple ‘likes’ would be enough for me to feel that people were rooting for me and maybe I really could beat this. And just the presentation of being a functioning, successful parent with a beautiful baby made me momentarily believe that it was true. It was incredibly powerful. And addictive.

So I carry on sharing my photographs. Perhaps after reading this it’ll still be annoying and boring, but hopefully my friends will be able to understand why I do it, that I don’t think my life is more interesting than anybody else’s, or that they should want to see countless pictures of my son. It’s just a small glimpse of the happiness I’ve achieved and am so proud of, or a second of glee caught on camera on an otherwise shitty day to get me through without breaking down, or a way of convincing myself that I do have this parenting thing under control, that I’ve got this. And I can bet my reasons are shared by many other parents, whether they’ve suffered from PND or not.

There’s an argument that projecting a sugarcoated version of parenting can silence struggling mothers and prevent them seeking the help they need, and I agree, and I speak from experience; watching the perfect mothers around me made my shortcomings appear even shorter.  But that’s why I started this blog. Photographs are blissful snapshots in a day full of chaos, but my written updates are a window on my reality. I started writing here for myself, but if I can show just one new mother that she isn’t alone then every second of fear and panic I feel before I hit the ‘publish’ button will be worth it. I owe it to every other scared mum battling feelings of inadequacy to be more than just an Instagram profile. But that’s just me. How others project themselves is entirely up to them.

Ultimately, who’s to say why other people post photos of their kids? Frankly, it’s not my business. But it isn’t yours either. So what if they do it just because they think their kid is the bees knees, even with a snot-encrusted nose and a fist full of masticated raisins? They should think that. Equally, it’s just as fine for other people to boast about their gym progress, or how much weight they’ve lost, or the kick ass job they did on that project at work, or how many unsuspecting females they ‘pulled’ the other night (wait,  that’s never fine). No one has to justify what they share or why. The only question that really needs answering is why it bothers you so much.

The Agoraphobic Parent

Most people think of agoraphobia as a fear of open or public spaces, which by extension I suppose it is. The NHS website defines agoraphobia as a fear of being in situations where escape might be difficult, or help wouldn’t be available if things went wrong. What that looks like varies from person to person, but for me it means every second of life outside my home is a constant risk assessment. What if the tram crashes? What if the man sat next to me attacks me with a knife? What if my coat gets caught in the doors? What if I get off at the wrong stop? What if the supermarket collapses while we’re inside? What if we miss the start of the film and we have to get to our seats in the dark and I fall over and crack my head on the steps and die? What if the waiter seats us at a table in the middle of the restaurant and I can’t see what’s around me and I start to panic and have to explain to total strangers that I need to sit at the edge of the room so I can keep an eye out for danger? (‘What If?’ will totally be the title of my autobiography, btw.)

It’s easy enough, within reason, to exist around those kinds of fears because they’re the same all the time; I know I’ll feel upset if we arrive late at the cinema so we make sure we don’t. Easy. But the same can’t be said for situations where the outcome is uncertain, like going somewhere I’ve never been before, answering the phone, or meeting someone new. Or, as in the case of doing a regular job, being somewhere I know I can’t ‘escape’. That’s where the avoidance behaviours come in (I wrote avoidance ‘beavers’ at first – my brain can’t take anything seriously).

Avoidance is self-explanatory; I avoid situations that scare me. I don’t often go to busy places alone, I tend to only answer the phone to my husband or my parents, and social events make me want to hide under my duvet with tea and cookies. Obviously there are times when I have to force myself out into the real world, for practical reasons mostly, or if I am one cancelled plan away from losing a dear friend forever, but it takes a heavy toll. A short trip out to the doctor down the road which takes only 45 minutes leaves me exhausted and spent, and I need the rest of the day and night to recover.

But how does agoraphobia fit with parenthood?
Put simply, it doesn’t.

Unsurprisingly, the addition of something more precious and valuable to me than anything in the world hasn’t made me any less terrified. Logistically it’s harder to ‘escape’ a given situation when I have a 20-odd pound toddler on my back or in a pram, or munching rice cakes on the floor of a café, and my fears are 20-odd pounds heavier for encompassing him too. The result is that I’m a bundle of nerves most of the time, always ready to fight or fly should anything threaten me or my son. It’s exhausting.

And I’m not able to be a social parent. I don’t go to baby or toddler groups often and when I do I pay for it later by feeling worn out and drained and unprepared for another hard day as a stay at home mum. It breaks my heart, but naturally this means T doesn’t spend time with other children very often. So far I haven’t seen any negative consequences of that – he is gentle and sociable and friendly with his peers, but that may be down to his personality and nothing to do with my efforts to socialise him on my own (if such a thing is possible).

I find myself feeling lonely at times because I don’t get regular input and companionship from other parents – the validation and support and the hugs and shoulders and the cups of tea gone cold while we talk and the kids run wild. It’s not that I’m naturally antisocial. I’m an introvert, but I enjoy people, knowing them and observing them and connecting with them. The problem is that with agoraphobia I fear being ‘found out’ and rejected, because let’s face it, who wants to be friends with someone who can’t answer the phone or reliably leave the house? There’s also a fear of panicking and having to lean on people who don’t understand what it is I’m frightened of, or how to help me. So it’s easier just to stay home.

Right now my agoraphobia feels particularly acute. I have phases like this, and each time it’s hard to take because I naively start to believe I’ve fixed that part of myself when in reality I’ve merely been avoiding risk and creating an artificial life with nothing to be afraid of. The crash back to reality is a harsh one. I’m struggling to read e-mails and texts, and going out without support from my husband makes me feel tense.

I’m not depressed at all, and Little T is a great remedy for overthinking my problems. I look at him every day and I see how happy he is and how much he gets from his surroundings, whether that’s at home with a washing up bowl of water and the contents of the kitchen cupboards, or outside getting muddy with other children.  He doesn’t judge me for having agoraphobia, he doesn’t think I’m weak or a bad mother. I make a promise to him each day to help him grow and learn in all the ways I’m able. Some days that might mean leaving the house and getting up to amazing adventures, but most days not. We make up for what we don’t do in the week by spending time together away from home at the weekends, as a family, and that way he gets the best of both of his parents, rather than the scared and exhausted version of his mummy I try so hard to protect him from.

My son is happy and healthy and his life is full of fun and discovery. I give him my everything so he isn’t too badly affected by my illness, but I can’t save him from it completely. I live with that as best I can and hope that one day he can look back on his childhood and the wonderful times spent at home and out and know that I always, always tried.

Motherly

Sunday 15th saw us in Eyam, a lovely little village in Derbyshire famous for an outbreak of plague that occurred there in 1665, wiping out most of its inhabitants. Sunday was also Mother’s Day here in the UK, a fact which didn’t affect my husband’s decision to take me to a place noted for death and disease; because nothing says, “I love you Mummy!” like a spooky walk to the revolving sheep roasting jack.

Plague and freezing temperatures aside, it was a beautiful day. We had cuddles in our new Girasol Northern Lights and Oscha Matrix Satori ring slings, ate obscenely large cheese-stuffed paninis, shared a big pot of tea, and explored Eyam Hall and its lovely gardens. Little T is walking confidently now so there was lots of chasing for Daddy to do while I hung back with the camera. It’s nice to have a chance to enjoy my little livewire from a distance; it makes it easier to focus on what a delight he is when he isn’t whacking me in the eye with a pastry brush.

P1070298And being the contemplative sort, I also took the time to reflect on my last year of motherhood, and I realised with all the amazement of a child at the zoo that I actually felt I deserved this special day, a day spent honouring my role as Mummy. I walked with my head held high and a big smile on my face. I felt proud carrying my boy in our sling, his little face nuzzled into my chest, and prouder still with my husband’s arm wrapped protectively around us both.

As a new mum caught in the throes of PND, Mother’s Day 2014 wasn’t such a happy event.

Imagine waking up one morning and the people you love most have thrown you a birthday party. They have cards and gifts for you, and tea and toast in bed. They keep saying ‘Happy birthday!’ and you feel a knot in your stomach and you want to cry because they’re wrong, it isn’t your birthday at all, and all their effort and sweetness isn’t deserved.
I wasn’t a Mummy then. I was a parent, technically, and I nurtured and cared for my baby, but my heart was empty and my head was full of hurt. What I wanted more than anything was time alone, to sleep or cry or both. Big T and I argued; neither of us had done anything wrong, we were simply overwhelmed by the need to make my first Mother’s Day ‘perfect’ and I couldn’t do it, not with the world ending around me. He perceived that as his failure to make the day a good one and felt he’d let me down, which of course he hadn’t, so I felt guilty too… And it spiralled. Most of our arguments were like that then, guilt feeding off guilt and exploding, usually inwards rather than at each other, which makes a different kind of mess but a mess all the same.

2015-03-17_11.25.46So this year felt as though it was my first true Mother’s Day as a proud mum deserving of the title. I basked in it like a cat in the sunshine, grinning at strangers as I held my son close as though to say, “I’m a MUMMY, bitches!” (that’s an idea for a slogan t-shirt right there).

I know it’s just a day, a commercialised farce invented to make us spend money on cards, flowers and chocolate, and maybe we won’t make such a big deal out of it in future, but I loved every second because it celebrated the journey I’ve taken to get here; the years of wanting a child, of dreaming but never believing I’d be strong enough or lucky enough, to the joy of early pregnancy and the devastation of antenatal depression, to a difficult birth and sinking into the blackest hole I could ever imagine. It’s all part of where I am now, which is a place of tentative but very real happiness.

This year’s celebration also gave me the opportunity to consider my relationship with my own mother. In a way, parenthood forces you to see your own parents in all their fallible humanity, especially when you remember that they were in your position once, sleep deprived and scared, still feeling like a child themselves underneath the mask of age and responsibilities. Some (most) days I want to crawl back under the duvet and let someone else take care of my son, just until I’ve had enough sleep or spent some time doing something for me. I don’t want to wash pissy nappies all the time or read ‘Whose Tail?’ over and over to the point I want to punch the lion in the face at the end. Sometimes I want to be able to yell when my son pulls my hair or gleefully hits me without restraint, but I don’t, because it’s not the kind of parent I want to be, and I have to keep that adult armour on all day every day for his sake.
I now understand that my own mother will have felt the same, especially spending much of her life as a single parent. I know there were days she’d have been exhausted from work and would rather have curled up with a book and a glass of wine than helped my brother with his homework or combed nits out of my hair. That’s not to say those things weren’t done with love; they most definitely were, and that’s why I admire her so much. Not once did we ever feel like we were a chore to her. She never complained, she always listened, and we never wanted for anything. I’m sure when the weekend came and we went to stay with our Dad, she collapsed in a tired heap and maybe even had a good cry. But we never knew.

I understand now how hard her days could be and what the love I took for granted actually looked like, the true depth of it, and I’m so, so grateful for all she did. I don’t parent the same way she did, our values are slightly different and our methods occasionally at odds, but I always hope to model her affection, encouragement and creativity with my own children. I can now wish my mum a happy Mother’s Day as a daughter but also a sister in the sorority of parenthood.

And I hope all my other sisters in real life and here had a wonderful day celebrating with their children. You’re all amazing. ❤

Cuckoo

We’re a house of snuffles, sticky cuddles and pathetic coughs, and we’re not sure where the illness ends and the sleep deprivation begins. Having a toddler with a cold is like having a newborn again except the cries for milk at 3am are joined by shouted accusations and fists to the eye, as though we did this to him ourselves and even if we didn’t why haven’t we made it better yet ffs. Oh, and I just wiped my nose on a muslin cloth that I forgot contains my son’s regurgitated breakfast. Oh, motherhood how I adore thee!

I’ve found that Little T’s second year is so far being punctuated by tiny anniversaries. It seems like every day I’m thinking, “A year ago we were…” or, “A year ago he was…” You might think it’s nostalgic to the point of being harmful to live like that, but I find it’s more a way of gauging time and progress, a bit like looking back at the starting blocks in the race, an ‘I was there but now I’m here’ sort of thing.

A year ago I was in a dark place. I didn’t like myself or my life and I wasn’t bonded to my son the way I felt I should be.
It was also around this time that I became obsessed with my baby’s appearance.

Little T was born with a light dusting of brown hair, the soft newborn kind that you can barely feel when you stroke it. I kissed that hair and inhaled its newness whenever I held my squish in my arms. It was beautiful and precious and I memorized every strand during those hard, early sleepless nights.
And then it started to fall out.
I remember Big T coming downstairs having just given LT a bath and handing him to me, a six week old bundle wrapped in a towel. I noticed immediately that he was almost completely bald on top, like a tiny Iain Duncan Smith – BT had washed his hair away. I was mortified, but we laughed about it because of course it’s funny when your newborn son resembles a Tory politician. It’s natural and it happens, after all.

A few weeks passed and before long new hair started to grow.
Blond hair.

Around that time, and totally coincidentally, I hit my lowest point. I felt as detached from my life and loved ones as I’d ever felt. I dreaded each second T was awake but hovered over his every breath while he slept. My fingernails were bitten to the skin. I was a shadow in the same room of the house each day. An empty little ghost.
And suddenly my brown-haired baby had been replaced with a blond imitation. I couldn’t see myself in him, and I couldn’t see his dad either.

Big T has naturally thick, black hair and large brown eyes. I’m also a natural brunette. It had never occurred to me that our baby could be anything else. And people started to comment on it –

“He really doesn’t look like either of you, does he?”

I got scared. And paranoid. I didn’t recognise my own child.

I began pleading to Big T over and over, “He is yours, I promise!” as though repeating it would banish the panic, but every, “I know he is!” did nothing to quiet my head. It started as fear that my husband would think I’d been unfaithful, but gradually became a belief that I unwittingly had been. Let that idea sink in for a second – I was so paranoid that my son was blond that I believed I must’ve cheated on his father. I was crazed over it.

My self-esteem plummeted, Little T’s hair kept growing, and the comments kept coming. “I can’t believe he’s so fair!” The only way I could handle it in public was to smile and laugh even though my mind was ravaged by fear.

And then it got crazier. And scarier.

I stopped believing he was mine.

Did the midwife swap him when I was being stitched up after my C-section? Or when I was having a shower and the nurse promised to look after him? Did I mix him up myself at a sling meet? The possibilities swam round my head, and the more ripples they made the more plausible it all felt. He isn’t ours, of course he isn’t. 

Big T kept reassuring me, even suggesting we pay for a DNA test to put my mind at rest, but perhaps I knew that what I felt was so irrational that even scientific evidence wouldn’t have helped, and I refused. I’d look into Little T’s face and hate myself for rejecting him, even though I didn’t want to be feeling any of it. He was lovely, beautiful, precious – but he wasn’t mine.

Just typing this hurts. The whole situation was ridiculous, but it was real. It sounds crazy because it was; I was out of my mind. I don’t know who I thought the little baby in my arms belonged to, but I held his little fingers and kissed his perfect button nose and cried hopeless tears because I loved him in whatever frayed and tattered way I could and it wasn’t enough.

(I wonder now whether my belief that he wasn’t our child came from a need to legitimise my detachment, and his hair colour was just a catalyst for it. It’s hard to accept that theory though because it felt so real, too real to simply be my psyche’s attempts at justifying its failings. But it’s true that new parents are under tremendous pressure to feel all the ‘right’ emotions when their baby is born. As someone who rarely has the ‘right’ feelings in most situations, this was doomed to fail, and I knew that, even when I was pregnant. Towards the end of my pregnancy I had the increasing sense that I was performing a role in a play, the role of glowing, contented wife and mother-to-be, and doing it badly. Before I even held my boy in my arms I’d already fluffed my lines as his mother. Much like the hopeful teenagers who go on TV talent shows to be harshly told they can’t really sing, I felt devastated, as though my dreams and everything I’d worked towards had collapsed around me. All my life all I’d wanted was to have a child, and according to every book, film and parenting website I was failing at it. I don’t suppose it matters. It doesn’t help to understand; it doesn’t make it hurt less.)

Very slowly things got better. My son’s hair stayed the same but I became marginally less crazy over it. My mood started to lift but a trace of my paranoia lingered, and it made me ache slightly to see my two boys sharing a cuddle, thick black hair against fine yellow. I kept trying to find a reflection of me or Big T in the special little boy I loved (now in all the ways I was ‘meant’ to) but I couldn’t.

Until I found these pictures:
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And it hit me like lightning – “This beautiful boy is part of me.”
It was there in front of me. I studied the two photos obsessively, a mixture of amazement and relief buzzing through me like ten cups of coffee. I remember lying in the bath clutching my phone, stifling giggles and splashing my toes in the water like a little girl. He is mine!

At least, I’m 99% certain he is. You see, I’m not fixed down to my bones. I will always be paranoid, I will always find myself questioning my own happiness and waiting for it to fall apart; I will always look for a leaky roof. Perhaps one day the fear will grow again and it’ll become too much for me and I’ll accept my husband’s long-standing offer of a DNA test, but for now things are okay. Things are good. My son is my world and my husband is the gravity keeping me steady and sane (mostly), and far from regretting my son’s uniqueness, I love him all the more for it. He is so far away from what I expected, in all ways! He’s his own man, his own remarkable little human, and I don’t own him at all.

The way I handle the comments these days is to pre-empt them and mention Little T’s blond curls before anyone else does. To the outside world it probably looks as though I’m still obsessed with his genetics, bringing it up at every opportunity, but the truth is that I’m protecting myself from my crazy, from the germ of an idea that can so easily become a fixation in the head of someone whose neurological pathways are skew-whiff.

During the height of my delusions about Little T’s parentage I remember a night I spoke about it at length with Big T. We lay in bed together, my head on his chest, and we talked about the baby in the co-sleeper next to us, and how wonderful he was, how much we loved him, and how lucky we were to be right where we were in our lives and in that moment.
My husband, gently and softly, squeezing my shoulder as he spoke, asked, “What if he isn’t our son, just hypothetically? What difference would it make?”
I only needed a fraction of a second to answer:
“…None at all.”

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