My experience of the emotions that come post-baby have left me with the view that there is a spectrum from ‘Baby Blues’ to Postnatal Depression. I think a lot of us sit somewhere in the middle shifting back and forth between feeling ok and like it has all gone horribly wrong. And that first year – to quote Ronan – well, it IS a rollercoaster.
I’ve been on that ride twice myself in the last three and a half years, but also watched friends and family climb aboard and I don’t think I’m speaking out of turn to say that every one of them has found it harder than they were expecting and have suffered from ‘down’ times. The saddest part about this is that most of us beat ourselves up about it – feel guilty for not coping or for feeling less than happy at an occasion that we’ve been building up to in some cases for nine months but for many a longer time. In turn that can mean we keep quiet about how we’re feeling, or even don’t really recognise that something is up.
The best way I can describe how I felt in the months after both of my babies arrived was that I was in a fog. Sometimes it was thick and dark and I felt incredibly sad, other times angry (mostly with my husband). A lot of the time I just felt like what should have been my happy times were in some way suppressed. I couldn’t let go and relax, a constant feeling of anxiety and that there was something that needed doing. That total responsibility for another being felt huge, and my striving to do it brilliantly and to get it right meant I put myself under massive pressure. This often led to the angry exchanges with my husband; he didn’t feel that anxiety so overwhelming and personal, and as far as he could see for the most part we had happy healthy babies, so I should chill out.
I also felt lost and lonely. All the things that had given me identity – my job, my friendships, my body and my marriage – were not as they were and it felt like they never could be. Some women might feel like they’ve found their role in life, and are more fulfilled. I don’t think I’m alone in saying I certainly didn’t feel like this in those first months. A friend that recently had a baby texted me “I feel….up and down & generally a sort of shadow of my former self as all I’m doing is caring for others and have sort of forgotten what I’m actually like or what I do?! That sounds ridiculous but I can’t explain very well”. I think she actually explains it perfectly; for this period, it can feel like everything that previously made you feel good about yourself, or just feel yourself, is absent.
For many of us, this is probably the first time in our lives when we might spend days on our own at home with only little people for company, and it’s literally a very solitary time. Even if I did get out, I couldn’t usually concentrate on a conversation with small kids around and a severe case of newborn knackeredness. My brain would be ticking ahead to the next task – would the baby feed, would they sleep, would I make it home or would I need to wang a boob out on a park bench or stop the car and feed in a layby watched by truckers. My husband would say ‘but didn’t you meet up with someone today?’ and I’d feel resentful of his journey to work where he could read a paper and switch off from home. Depending who I was meeting up with, often the conversations didn’t feel very ‘real’ anyway. When new mums do get out, it’s often with people who don’t know you – your background, your family, your ‘fun’ self. Just another knackered looking bird at the park that gets her knockers out and looks harassed.
It’s also not necessarily that it’s miserable at all times, which I appreciate is confusing to our partners and friends, but I found this inconsistency bloody hard to cope with too.
One day the baby has slept well, feeds have been spaced out and successful, you’ve managed to wash and eat, the house isn’t a train wreck and your partner makes it home for bathtime. On these days, I felt like a lioness. Then it all comes crashing down so very quickly; when the sleeping or feeding goes wrong, you pack too much in, you don’t look after yourself and suddenly find you’re spaced out and close to tears and don’t know what to do to get to the end of the day. The thing that I found most surprising, especially after my first baby, is that this little bundle had total and utter control over my emotions. Their mood, happiness or upset completely altered mine. The difference with the second baby is that you’re prepared for this – you know it, and you also know from experience that each day will be different and there will be some shitty days but it doesn’t dictate that the next day will be another one. You also know that these exceptionally tough first months will come to an end.
Adjusting as a couple takes time; the priority shift, the frayed tempers, the lack of time for each other and oh the resentment. My husband had been working hard recently and I texted him to tell him I loved him and hoped his day was going ok. He said he almost cried at his desk because he knew he had his Stephie back. I wouldn’t have texted that a few months ago as I was too angry all the time, and too busy feeling like the hard done by one in our relationship. With hindsight, a more reasonable mind and some goddamn sleep, I can see that a lot of the time he couldn’t help the things I felt resentful for – he had to go to work, I had to bear the brunt of the childcare and our home, he couldn’t lactate etc etc. He didn’t always help himself. He is after all – and don’t get angry lads – still a man. But I am woman enough to admit that sometimes I may have been a teensy bit irrational.
In both cases, I think I probably felt in a funk on-and-off for much of the first 6-12 months. I can remember a while after having Mabel, my husband and I were in the kitchen and he said something daft and I laughed and we both stopped and looked at each other – it was a genuine, happy laugh and it sounded completely strange. The scary thing is when I was in the fog I didn’t always know it, but I definitely recognised when it lifted. I didn’t feel overwhelmed by this never-ending (but often insignificant) list of things-to-do anymore, I wanted to reconnect with old friends and when I did it was as it always was. I could cope with having the radio on, where for a while I’d found another sound too much for my brain to take. Combine this feeling with a ‘lioness’ day and, let me tell you, it’s a feeling like you’re on top of the world, a choir of angels is singing and you feel ALIVE.
The fog will lift. That first year is tough and I don’t believe you’re in the minority if you struggle. It’s important to work out what makes you feel calmer – help with feeds, holing up as a family at the weekend, getting time out the house or all of the above – and do it. If it feels like something deeper, talk to someone and get help. I went to the doctor when Mabel was a few months old and we came up with a plan in case I didn’t start to feel happier. Going to the doctor was admitting I didn’t feel right, and in itself the action of talking about it helped. It won’t always be that the first person you talk to can ‘fix’ you. And it doesn’t happen overnight; but month by month things get clearer and more consistent and then suddenly you’re coping more than you’re crying. Phew.
I’m learning that sometimes we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, worrying about things that really aren’t important. It’s hard to see that when it’s all a bit foggy, and it feels like you’re carrying the weight of the world on your shoulders. But the world can and will wait. And when you reemerge – and you will – on those lioness days and with a clear head, you can stop and take just a second to see how far you’ve come.
As always, I would love any comments on the post or about your own experiences if you’re up for sharing.
If you want to talk to someone but don’t know where to start http://www.patient.co.uk/health/postnatal-depression-leaflet
Pictures: sad face www.soc.napier.ac.uk; Fog www.dustbunnyinthewind.com; This Too Shall Pass (New Jersey) John Rizzuto photography