As a virtuoso pedlar of intimacy-at-a-distance, that strange phenomenon when a complete stranger writes something that makes you feel as though they have set up camp in your head, Daisy Buchanan describes it as,
“I sometimes feel as though I’m trying to start a choir. I’ll describe a situation that has made me feel small, scared or stupid, reasoning I can’t be the only one who knows the words. Surely at least one other voice will join me in the dark? And sometimes we reach the chorus and arrive at this incredible swell of sound, as everyone shouts, “Me too!” Together we become loud – and strong.”
After the birth of The Eldest in 2012, I needed a choir. But there was nothing there. I felt small, scared and stupid, but most of all I felt alone and I was desperate for another voice to “join me in the dark”.
Since those bleak days however, with the emergence of a particular kind of confessional “mummy-blogger”, I assumed that women who become mothers today and tomorrow are surely better served than I was. If they too want to punch someone in the face every time they are told to “cherish every moment”, or daily fight the urge to call their tantruming two-year-old a twat, these days they at least know they are not alone.
But then, in response to a post I’d written about the birth of my second child, I was contacted by a woman who made me stop assuming, and start thinking:
“My labour with my daughter is still haunting me and makes me feel really effing sad and inadequate. The lack of noise around this stuff just cements that, so thank you for sharing.”
I thought that everything that needed to be said, had been. I thought the expectation that mothers should embrace every part of mothering without so much of a whisper from their previously intact, independent self, had died with the birth of “honest parenting”. But this message proved me wrong.
The writing of a post about my difficult first six months of motherhood had been cathartic to write, but I had never pressed publish – I was certain that I had nothing of benefit or originality to contribute to the conversation. It felt self-indulgent, a bit wanky and didn’t fit with the way I feel these days about being a mother. This message however, told me that I had missed something – I hadn’t considered that every day there are women out there landing in the exact dark place that I had already climbed out of, and that perhaps this is not actually about me. Instead, they need someone to say something.
So, here is my story. Sorry it’s so long (and a bit wanky). A lot of sh*t happened along the way.
The birth of my first child is not the most horrendous story you will ever hear but it did take 23 hours of contractions every 3 minutes or less, while birthing a back-to-back baby who resolutely refused to turn. Eventually, with the “assistance” of forceps, and the associated episiotomy (and bonus third degree tear – go me) she was born safely. Less sound, however, was my sanity.
I went home after four exhausting, unbearably hot days on the Postnatal Ward and although I was relieved to be home, the considerable pain I was in somewhat cooled the mythical warm glow of new motherhood. The reality was that the prolonged pushing stage of my labour had left me so swollen that I felt like I was sitting on a golf ball and I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to poo again without my insides falling out.
The following day we were visited by a community midwife who checked my stitches, gave us some advice about feeding, and left, never to be seen again. She came into my home, touched my baby, looked at my foof being held together with half a metre of fishing line and was undeniably lovely throughout, but I don’t even know her name. This was only the start.
Over the ensuing six months, at the most vulnerable time of my entire life, I didn’t see the same health professional more than once. On one occasion in the early days, a midwife, her student, and the health visitor all arrived in my house at the same time and sat having a chat for twenty minutes. I felt bemused, uncomfortable and wondered whether it would be acceptable to tell them all to chuff off. I wish I had. Perhaps then they would have noticed that I was going a bit mental.
To be fair, I didn’t want to be ill – it just wasn’t something that happened to people like me. When I was leaving sixth form back in 1999, my A Level English teacher had told me that no matter what I did, he was sure I would be successful. This remains one of the nicest things anyone has ever said to me and I sure as hell was not going to let motherhood prove his confidence to be misplaced.
So, in total denial, I did what every new mum does and asked someone wiser, cleverer and more well-informed than I was.
Google obligingly spat out a slew of information and questionnaires about the signs of PND. I however, told myself that because I was having no trouble sleeping, and had no difficulty getting out of the house, I was not suffering from anything other than the understandable turmoil of adjusting to no longer being at the centre of my own world.
My total exhaustion despite having a baby who, relatively speaking, was a champion sleeper, and my obsessive insistence on leaving the house because I despised my own company, should have been red flags. I had barely any appetite, and the almost constant sensation of someone squeezing my windpipe meant I couldn’t eat so I lost the baby weight with alarming speed. In stark contrast to the compliments that came rolling in about my body “snapping back” was the reality that all along my mind was in danger of just plain snapping.
I was a nightmare. My mood swings and anxiety were out of control and I was so very, very angry. I had episodes of fierce hyper-vigilance when I would feel sick if anyone except me, my partner or my mum held the baby, but then I would lurch all the way over to fantasising about walking out of the door and never coming back. They would all be better off without me – raging, unreasonable, rubbish me – I was sure.
So next I blamed the pill.
Being on the pill at this point probably makes it sounds like the “husband” and I were having “relations” but I can assure you that nothing could be further from the truth. My fanny still felt like it had been hit with a Nutri-Bullet and any suggestion of intimacy triggered flash-backs to the internal examination the obstetrician had performed during a contraction – I could see the grimace on her face, hear my primal scream, and each time this happened I would experience my humanity desert me as it had done in that moment. Not sexy.
Sorting out contraception had in fact been just another thing on the long list of things that I was told I “should” do but once Google told me that the mini pill that I had been taking could be responsible for how I was feeling, I decided to consult someone with actual medical training.
At my appointment, I asked the GP all of my questions about the pill which he duly answered. Just before the appointment ended however, the question that I realised I had really come to ask popped out of my mouth, “Or could these things be something to do with Post-Natal Depression?” A question that surely should have rang an Austrian cow-bell-sized-alarm, right? Well, not exactly. Because what I had foolishly done was book an on-the-day appointment with a very young male doctor who it seems had just finished sniffing his text book. Finding himself inexplicably in front of patients, he shit himself when faced with the reality of a mental woman with a baby and got extremely flustered. To be kind(!), I quickly backtracked on my question and hot-footed it out of there.
So, 4 months into motherhood there were days that I screamed at my perfect baby girl because she wouldn’t take a bottle and my nipples were sore and red and burning with thrush.
There were times that I convulsed with body-wrenching cries that tore at my insides in grief for how it should have been.
I felt a grim, irrational protectiveness over my daughter which drove a desire to be near her at all times. But at the same time I desperately want someone else to take over, to take charge, to take her away.
And then I felt guilt. A friend had given birth to a little boy the week before my daughter was born and he hadn’t survived. I was tormented by the thoughts of why couldn’t I just be grateful? Why wasn’t the fact that my daughter was healthy, “the main thing” that everyone insisted it was?
Almost 6 months to the day after The Eldest had been born we awoke one Sunday morning to the news that my sister-in-law had given birth to a healthy baby boy. I expressed my delight then left the room in a hurry.
Why couldn’t I have a straight-forward birth? What did I do wrong? It’s not fair. I’m such a failure… I’m so weak… I wasn’t strong enough… I don’t deserve to be a mother… The injustice, the grief, the hurt and anger overflowed in that moment and with total abandon I picked up the pots and pans from the night before’s dinner and I threw them.
I don’t have the words to capture the intensity of the fury that consumed me in that moment.
Alongside the self-loathing, I was intensely jealous of any woman who hadn’t gone through what I had. “What did I do wrong? Why me?” was the question I returned to again and again. In my twisted version of a Girl Guide pack, failing to earn my “Natural Birth” badge meant that I had failed to be a proper woman.
Later that day we found out that my sister-in-law had endured an emergency c-section, preceded by a failed Ventouse.
I. stopped. dead.
Only a matter of weeks later, she was the first person to ever echo how I felt about my daughter’s birth. When she spoke of her guilt, and her feelings of inadequacy, I told her the truth – that she was no less a woman for not having a “normal” birth. She had done an incredible thing and she should be proud. That fictional “Natural Birth” badge of honour “don’t mean shit” and no one else cares how your baby was born.
Well, surely it was about time that I believed these things about myself?
I never actually received a formal diagnosis of PND or an anxiety disorder or whatever Fucking-Mental-Madness took over my life for those months but whenever I read the accounts of those who have “officially” been through it, I identify so completely that there is little doubt in my mind.
And the thing is that now, as shit as it undeniably was, my experiences mean that I feel like a stronger person, and I’m certainly a more empathetic one. I’ve adopted the attitude that what I have gained more than makes up for what I suffered, but it remains that having enjoyed the first 18 months of my son’s life, I can now see even more clearly how it “should” have been. The sadness creeps in occasionally if I allow it to because I’ll never be able to fix that…
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
If you’re reading this and finding yourself nodding along, please just know you are not alone. I wish I had known that even when you (wrongly) feel you have to be “strong” for the people around you, there is an entire community of people out there who you definitely owe nothing to.
Go get help. Don’t go and see a twelve year old doctor, that’s a terrible idea, but ask to see a doctor you feel comfortable with.
Don’t let your feelings be invalidated by your gratitude that your baby is healthy – you can feel both.
Don’t consult Google. Trust your instincts – if you know things don’t feel right, don’t ignore yourself because you don’t tick the right boxes.
Call one of the helplines on the leaflets the Health Visitor presses on you in a terrible impersonation of a helpful person*.
Call PANDAS (Pre and Post Natal Depression Advice and Support) Foundation who do exactly what they say on the tin for women just like us.
And don’t forget that although the internet gets a bad rap at times, and while we’re all aware of it’s potential pitfalls, out there are women who are waiting to sing just for you. They want to lift you up on the rise and swell of their voices, and make you feel that it is possible to be whole and strong once again.
*I am sure there are many helpful, efficient, caring, thoughtful, intelligent Health Visitors out there, it is just that I have never had the privilege of meeting one.