I have a son. A son who I absolutely adore. Seriously, if you had told me three years ago that it was possible to love someone this much, this selflessly, this unconditionally; I wouldn’t have believed you. Even though I’ve always been lucky enough to have A Lot of love in my life. I really do believe that it is impossible to understand the depth of emotion involved in loving a child until you actually have one.
Unfortunately, being a parent isn’t all sunshine and daisies. Yes, there are moments of perfect joy and pride. But that’s what they are. Moments. And the rest of the time its really, really hard work.
I wish that someone could have warned me about this. And I say ‘could’ because I am the first to admit that many people did try – I just wasn’t capable of hearing them at the time.
Because I am who I am, I read every parenting book that I could get my hands on. I spent hours on the internet researching what it would be like and how to care for my new arrival. Many of the books, blogs and parenting websites that I discovered, dealt with the topic with honesty and poignancy. So I felt armed with knowledge and understanding. After all, people would have been completely open on those forums, wouldn’t they?
So I started the parenting trip with extremely high expectations of myself and the entire experience, as is my wont when embarking on most new ventures. I expected to fall in love with my baby the minute he was born. I expected some sort of mystical maternal instinct to kick in and to know what I was doing. I expected to be good at this mothering business. I expected to enjoy every single aspect of caring for a new baby. I expected it to be perfect. I would be the perfect mother, with the perfect child. I expected so much, not realising that what I Should have expected was to be exhausted, confused, completely unequipped and to have a child that clearly hadn’t read any of the parenting books because he just refused to conform.
It all started with the birth. I had planned a completely natural water birth in the nearest birthing centre – no clinical hospital environments or drugs for me! My body was designed to do this. Centuries of evolution made me the perfect birth-giving machine. Unfortunately, the little one didn’t get the memo. He never engaged in my pelvis and I had to have a caesarean. I responded badly to the anaesthetic – my blood pressure just kept dropping – and all in all it was a fairly unpleasant experience.
When they put E on my chest, all I could think was “Oh god, I’m gonna hurl on this baby if they don’t take him away right this second. I wish they would move him. He’s been around for less than five minutes and I’m already a terrible mother.” For the record they did move him. And I did throw up.
Thankfully, the recovery room was a little easier to deal with. E had to be placed in an incubator because his breathing wasn’t perfect – but that only lasted about half an hour until we were taken back to our room. Where I was left with him. With no clue what to do. My mother-in-law’s primary memory of that day is arriving to see her new grandson and being horrified because he hadn’t been dressed yet and was really cold. Another point against me in my fragile state of mind.
In the hospital, I couldn’t sleep. Like, ever. I had just been through major surgery and was on some fairly hard-core pain killers and yet sleep eluded me. I wandered the maternity ward like a ghost and refused all offers from the nurses to place my baby in the nursery so that I could get some sleep. This continued once I got home.
Breastfeeding didn’t even come close to the earth mother experience I was expecting. In the three days that I spent in the hospital my breasts were manhandled by complete strangers more often than I care to remember. It certainly didn’t come naturally. Eventually, it was established that E wasn’t getting enough milk (or colostrum in this case) and the nurses begged me to let them give him a formula ‘top-up’ feed. Big mistake. The mere suggestion had me hysterical, with my husband bewildered and desperate to calm me down. Eventually I allowed the formula and was grateful to find my baby much happier and calmer for it. But in my mind, this was just another example of how I was failing as a mother before I even got to take my baby home. My doctor was generous and kind, and warned me that I may need to seek help for post-natal depression. I ignored her and convinced myself that I was fine. I just needed to get home, where I could adjust in privacy.
Those first six months at home were hellishly difficult. My husband had to go back to work and I was left alone with this tiny person who I knew I loved, yet felt no real emotional connection to. Right from the start, E was a really calm and happy baby. He slept relatively well (oh, to return to those days), he fed well, he never had colic or any of the other things that can make a new born really difficult. Yet I constantly felt as though it was all too much for me. I still wasn’t sleeping and wandered around the apartment at all hours of the day and night trying to find things to fill my time. I couldn’t read, because I couldn’t concentrate for any length of time. I couldn’t watch TV because I was terrified of waking the baby.
I was exhausted and overcome by fear. The biggest was that something would happen to my baby, so I spent hours just watching him sleep and making sure that he was breathing. I was also terrified that I had become a boring woman who would never be able to keep her husband’s interest as he continued to go out into the world, meeting new people and doing interesting things. I mean, he had actual conversations with grown up and world events. All I could talk about was how much the baby had eaten, how much he had slept, how much he had poo’d. To top it off, I was a howling disaster by the time he got home and just needed to hand the baby over. Plus, I felt the size of a house. Everyone told me that breastfeeding would help me shed the baby weight, but the exact opposite happened. I was always hungry and because I was at home bored and depressed; food became a major source of comfort. I did a lot of baking then. How could this fat, unstable, weeping mess of a person be what he wanted to come home to? Especially when I was a stay at home mother who couldn’t wait for her husband to get home so I could just get away from my child. Only to feel guilty about it.
I was controlling and wouldn’t let anyone do anything for E. I wouldn’t even let my friends or family hold him. He was mine and, piss-poor mother or not, I wasn’t letting him go. My own mother and father were far away, having moved to New Zealand years before. I felt like I had no resources or support system. Something I later realised was completely untrue as I have an amazing set of friends and adoptive family. My mother-in-law and sister were particularly amazing. My sister fielded calls at all hours and my mom-in-law was supportive and so gracious even though I was pretty much the new mother from hell.
I don’t remember many details from that time, but one memory does stand out and illustrate my state of mind. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time sitting on my balcony with my baby in my arms as I tried to sing to him to soothe us both and instead sobbed – hoping that the neighbours wouldn’t hear me. I can’t imagine how hard it was for Jay, as he received calls almost every hour, saying that he had to come home because I just couldn’t take any more. He was amazing. How he survived being a new parent and living with a woman who had essentially gone crazy is still beyond me.
Eventually, after six months of feeling completely out of control and filled with grief and guilt, I agreed to see a psychiatrist. In my first session with her I tried to convince her that things weren’t that bad. That I was fine. I laid the bullshit on thick. Thankfully, she saw right through me. But I was still determined to deal with this naturally, without any medication. I was still breastfeeding and it was bad enough that (in my mind, at least) I was a shocking mother in every other way, I wasn’t going to introduce toxins into my baby’s body to compound his ‘raw deal’. It took about four more sessions and failed attempts at relieving the depression with diet and exercise before she managed to convince me to take the meds.
Just agreeing to take that step was a watershed moment for me. I finally started to concede that maybe I wasn’t a bad mother. Maybe I was just a mother dealing with a really shitty chemical and hormonal imbalance.
I’d like to say that things got better immediately, but they didn’t. I was still controlling. I started having anxiety attacks, particularly while driving with Jay. I jut couldn’t handle the loss of control that being a passenger in a car entailed and was convinced that we were going to crash and kill my baby.
But eventually, things did start to get better. I joined a mommy’s group with other stay at home mothers who didn’t have PND and realised that – even though I looked at them and saw perfect mothers who had it all together – they all thought that they could be doing better too. We all felt lost and alone sometimes. None of us really knew if we were doing the right thing and were just muddling along, doing our best in trying circumstances. Those women probably helped save my sanity and I am grateful to still have a core group of them in my life.
About a two years after E was born, I weaned myself off the anti-depressants. It was rough, but I survived. I still have moments where I wonder whether I am completely messing up but, for the most part, I am comfortable with the fact that I am a good enough mother. Not perfect. Probably not the best. But good enough. And if I ever doubt that, I need only look at my son who is a happy, bright, confident and adventurous little person. And so cool. I don’t know where he gets that from, with his geeky parents.
I’m starting to realise that, while I might be here to guide and help shape him, he is and always will be his own person. That takes a bit of the pressure off. And allows me to relinquish some of the control. Because really, if this family survived that first year, we’re probably going to be able to handle whatever life throws at us.