When I agreed to write this blog post, I thought it would be easy. It’s been 12 years since my son was born, and while I vividly remember the tiredness, anxiety and grief of the loss of my previously carefree identity as a young woman (I was only just 24 when my son was born), writing about it is harder than I imagined.
Part of me is still scared of solidifying into words the difficult feelings I experienced during those early days, months and years.
When I was pregnant, I’d moved away from the squat party scene in London, where three-day sound-system parties were clearly not great companions to my morning sickness and exhaustion, and the father of my unborn child had already moved from our casual relationship to exploring new ones with other women. I moved to Brighton where I only knew two people and hadn’t seen either of them for a couple of years, but thought I could make a new start for myself and raise a child by the sea.
I joined all the usual pregnancy groups and baby classes, antenatal yoga, aqua-natal swimming, sing-along classes for new parents and babies, in an attempt to make new friends in a new city. I met some really wonderful women, some of whom are still my friends now, but my new reality was still immensely hard to adjust to.
I think the shift in identity that happens when you have a baby cannot be underestimated. I’m sure some people slip into their new role just fine, but for me, as a single parent, following a difficult birth, and having a baby who fed every two hours, every night, my anxiety levels rocketed. I had suffered from undiagnosed anxiety and depression on and off since adolescence, and this was the default setting my exhausted brain took. I remember clearly the moment when I bonded with my son – he was about a month old. Up until then, I viewed him with care and wonder, I saw to his every need, but the overwhelming love I had been expecting to kick in immediately just didn’t. I was so relieved when it finally happened.
The NHS are brilliant, and new mums are allocated a health visitor to check up on how they’re getting on. My health visitor was lovely, but I lied to her about how I was coping. I was terrified that if I was honest about how I was feeling then someone would realise I was winging it the whole time and take my baby away. When she came to visit, I dutifully filled in the Edinburgh Test cards– the clinical ‘scorecard’ that is meant to diagnose post-natal depression, I would always answer the questions such as “I have been able to laugh and see the funny side of things: a) As much as I always could, b) Not quite as much now c) definitely not as much now, d) Not at all” with a cheery “a) As much as I always could”, with the odd “Not quite as much as now” thrown in to add authenticity every now and again. I realise now, this probably wasn’t the most useful approach to the Edinburgh Test, as my health visitor would leave happy that everything was just fine, when really, I would sob if sad music came on the radio, or a person bumping into me in a queue would leave me desperately sad, second-guessing my entire self-worth and wondering how people really saw me. My low self-esteem meant I didn’t come out favourably in these critiques.
I realise now that most of us are winging it, all of the time and that health visitors likely know that anyway. Parenting may or may not come naturally, but learning on the job is just how it goes. I don’t really remember battling my anxiety in the early days, I thought it was a very realistic and highly likely prospect that if I let my son out of my sight then he would almost certainly die. For me, during my worst, most catastrophising times, this meant I couldn’t bear for someone to suggest taking him for a walk in the pushchair so I could rest (I wouldn’t rest, I would sit, tense, waiting for them to bring him home, imagining the worst horror that could have befallen him). I couldn’t put him down to sleep in another room- once when I was encouraged (made) to by my son’s dad and his mum, I sat downstairs with the baby monitor glued to my ear to make sure I could still hear him breathing, hyper sensitive that I was the only one in the room who thought this completely necessary, and not understanding how they could relax so much. Fun times.
I breastfed my son. Partly this was through choice and partly this was because I was lucky in that it was one thing that was easy about having my son. Breastfeeding made sense – there was no-one to share bottle duty with anyway – my son’s dad, visiting every couple of weeks made it clear he would not bottle-feed under any circumstances, even when, exhausted, at 3 months into parenting, I found myself literally banging my head on the headboard, sobbing, trying to stay awake through a night feed so I didn’t drop my baby. It was soon after this that the partner of one of my new friends told me that they co-slept and that their baby lay next to the mum during feeds.** This revelation enabled me to feed my son lying down, and get a fraction more sleep. No one up to this point had told me it was an option – it may seem obvious, but I never knew! After this, I had to try to convince my parents I wasn’t going to roll over and accidentally smother my baby in his sleep. My dad ‘helpfully’ cut out newspaper articles where this had happened to show me. My anxiety levels would rocket through these sort of interactions, and wading through the day with well-meaning relatives and strangers telling me I was ‘spoiling’ my baby, and ‘making a rod for my own back’, or creating a ‘mummy’s boy’ through letting him in my bed left me exhausted and second-guessing my decisions. I’m happy to report that despite these words sticking with me, I carried on, as best I could, breast-feeding and co-sleeping until it came to a natural conclusion in toddlerhood. I also don’t believe that you can spoil a baby. If they need you, and you are able, then go to them. If you are not able and there’s someone to help, ask that person to help. If you need more help than you’re getting, don’t be scared to reach out and ask someone else. I was too scared to ask my health visitor for more support but I wish I had. I eventually got help through some counselling at a women’s centre. This was a lifeline to me. I had one hour per week where my son was in the crèche downstairs, while I sat and cried out all my feelings of sadness and worry and inadequacy and uncertainty as to who I was anymore. This hour per week gave me a breathing space, just a small one, but enough for me to surface and survive.
Through it all, there were good times and good people, friends would come over for cups of tea, or I would meet other frazzled (and not-so-frazzled) mums in cafes or the library, and eventually, I began to carve my new identity as a mother. It felt like I had to claw away at granite to find the shape of who I was again, who this new me with baby in tow was and whether I liked her very much. Little by little, that new me emerged.
I had always thought my identity as a mother would be straightforward and easy to find, but parenthood shifts and changes like sand dunes underfoot and with that you have to find your balance again and again. Sometimes you’re sure of yourself, but often, like most people, you realise that winging it is the only way.
For the record, and if you’re going through a similar situation, my only other piece of advice would be do what is right for you and your baby, the best you know how. That is all. Don’t let other people’s opinions make you feel inadequate, you’re doing better than you realise.
For more information about Postnatal depression visit the NHS Choices website.
*Names have been changed
**Find Get Give recommends that readers refer to NHS guidelines before you consider co-sleeping .