My memories of my son’s early days are quite hazy, primarily due to sleep deprivation, depression and the wrong medication. But here are two very bizarre days which I remember with complete sharpness. I am now genuinely questioning whether this first incident did actually happen or if it is a Little Britain sketch I saw 15 years ago. Around six week’s after giving birth I somehow found myself sitting in a draughty portakabin, massaging a first aid doll since my Own Actual Real Life Baby had screamed, thrashed and eventually gone to sleep on the foam mat. I should have just politely left and agreed to come back the following week but the overly enthusiastic group leader convinced me that I should stay. So while the other mums smoothed lavender and tea tree onto the folds and creases of their newborns’ skin, I spent most of the time wiping excess essential oils onto my maternity leggings as, unsurprisingly, the plastic doll didn’t really absorb it very well. I tried to make a joke of it but most of my fellow participants avoided eye contact because, of course, a woman massaging a nappy-wearing resuscitation doll is just disturbing.
Around the same time, my nipples were more likely to draw blood than milk, so I went along to a breastfeeding group to get some help on the recommendation of my health visitor. However, it was either poorly targeted or mis-sold to me, and turned out to be more of a boob appreciation society than a support group. The members seemed more like BF hobbyists – most had fed at least two children already and collectively had so much milk they posed a flood risk for Central Scotland. Which would have been great had anyone had reached out to share their wealth of experience. I remember pushing my son’s pram home on that blazing hot day, fuming literally and metaphorically, bleeding like hell with raw infected stitches rubbing against what was once aptly described by Caitlin Moran as the ‘barbie matress’ jammed between my legs. I also clearly remember being racked with paranoia and anxiety, obsessed with the idea that my baby was dying of heat stroke despite a pram hood, a parasol, appropriate clothing and sunscreen. Being compelled to stop every few minutes to check he was breathing meant it took an age to get home. When I did get back, I went straight upstairs, stripped naked and lay on the bed with a cold wet bath towel across my vagina. It felt good to just do what I needed at that moment, rather than what the idea of myself as a mother should be doing. Because when you have a baby one of the phrases you always here is ‘Oh there’s no instruction manual!’, yet you are constantly bombarded with things that you should be doing from a whole range of sources.
One of the ‘shoulds’ is definitely The Baby Group. I have always been an enthusiastic joiner of girl groups, from Majorettes to Brownie Guides and my more recent adventure on the Write Like A Grrrl course, so The Baby Group seemed like something I should be good at. I love having a commitment to stick to and somewhere to see familiar faces. For many women I know, all kinds of mother and baby groups have been an absolute lifeline, but in those early days they just weren’t for me. My health visitor told me that being able to speak with other new mums about how I felt would help my recovery from PND. However, looking back, it felt more useful and therapeutic to speak with a small handful of people who weren’t going through what I was right at that time. It was necessary for me to see beyond the baby bubble, to be reminded that things move and change, that life is an evolving process. It wasn’t always easy to open up but talking to others with a bit of distance from my own experience helped me to see the role of mother as part of the bigger picture, rather than compartmentalising it.
I was fortunate enough to have a partner and a small group of friends who were willing to explore the physically and emotionally ugly aspects of becoming a mother for the first time. I couldn’t have rocked up to a church hall and told a bunch of strangers about my burning vulva (great band name, no?) , a fortnight of constipation despite drinking lactilose by the gallon and how one moment I was suicidal and the next I thought I had the solution to the problems in Gaza. However, for many women this would have been easier than speaking with those close to them and for others it might have been the only opportunity they had to talk with anyone. I just couldn’t ‘go there’ with someone new and resisted making that emotional investment with unfamiliar people. I loved the idea of new mums supporting each other but not everyone has the capacity to take on the heavy yet fragile emotional load of others. Since then I have periodically beaten myself up for not spending enough time with, or showing enough compassion for, other new mums along the way. But compassion for yourself is necessary if you are going to be present for others – I was dragging myself around weighed down by shame and guilt that I just wasn’t doing a good enough job. There is a social expectation of women, whether they have children or not, that we should be able to look after the emotions of others whilst keeping everything else ticking along and it really isn’t fair.
A quote by J. Cole perfectly fits my experience of becoming a new mum – ‘The bad new is that nothing lasts forever. The good news is that nothing lasts forever”. Despite PND, I experienced a great deal of joy and contentment during those early months with my baby. But now that he is a happy little boy about to start school I am also pleased to be navigating our way through a new phase of life that seems to fit me a little better. And there is another positive that I carry with me from my experience of giving birth and looking after a new baby. That perhaps I did help someone after all. That there is a woman out there somewhere who went to a baby class once and, every time she feels down, reminds herself that – no matter how bad things get – she will never be as ridiculous as the creepy doll massaging lady.