One week in and I’d failed. Or at least that is how it felt as I lay my screaming, inconsolable newborn in the centre of my bed and knelt over him. I brought my face close until we were nose-to-nose and started crying and apologising over and over: “I’m sorry, baby, I’m doing the best I can, I promise you I’m doing the best I can.”
A week ago I didn’t have these problems. Feeding him was as simple as making sure I remembered to eat. But it wasn’t just the painful breastfeeding I was crying about, I was crying about everything. I was crying because of the trauma of childbirth, the physical pain of healing, the fact that my life was falling apart. I felt so helpless and inadequate and this precious red-faced child did not deserve any of this. I wasn’t just overwhelmed, I was drowning.
“Why didn’t anyone warn me?” I asked no one in particular indignantly. I had many friends who were mothers and they never let on it would be like this. The mantra I kept reciting was simple: “Other people have raised functioning human beings with less capability and resources than I have, therefore I can do this.” Not very punchy or inspirational, but it kind of helped.
“Why won’t he stop crying?” was the other question that preoccupied me, along with “Is this normal?” A few surreptitious conversations with my mother-friends was my way of asking-without-asking. In theory, I know I could have been more open and explicitly told them that sometimes I looked at my child with a frighteningly cool detachment and wondered how such a small person could come with so many problems, or that once in the middle of the night I woke up feverish and delirious with exhaustion and wondered aloud whose baby was this lying next to me. “Who left their baby here?” I asked the twilight.
I know I could have been more open, but it was a lot easier to talk about the specifics, such as breastfeeding problems, rather than the general, all-consuming feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness. Even then I didn’t tell them that sometimes I cried nonstop as I was feeding or that me and my own mother were arguing daily, with one such argument ending with her casually stating, “well I never starved any of my children!” Nope, all of that went unsaid because my dear friends had already supported me through other unrelated tragedy and drama in the weeks leading up to giving birth, and as ridiculous as it sounds I didn’t want to be that friend forever ‘dealing with stuff’.
It wasn’t until a close friend came to visit that I consciously acknowledged what I was feeling. Maybe she could tell that my mood was off, but she simply asked if I’d been feeling depressed. That calm, even-toned question felt like it gave me permission to feel everything that I had been fee
ling, and as she told me that she herself suffered from undiagnosed postnatal depression, I felt a calm wash over me that had been missing for a while. This – and I – was normal.
Now ordinarily, I know what depression is. I’ve been diagnosed and treated for it before, and I’ve always tried to be pretty open about it, consciously trying to shake any feeling of taboo. For some reason, however, this time around I couldn’t recognise it. Furthermore, it’s not like I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk about it already. The midwives who had come around for checks had asked me how I felt “in myself”, and every time they did I felt like I was about to burst into tears. Instead I took a deep breath, smiled weakly and mentioned something about being tired while trying not to let my voice break into a wide sob.
That moment was a small breakthrough though. That verbal of acknowledgement allowed me to give myself permission to let go of the expectations I had unfairly held on to, and which were partly to blame for how I had been feeling. Despite what everyone had told me about being prepared for the unexpected, I secretly clung to my hope of a calm-gas-and-air-only water birth. I believed in it so much I began to actually look forward to childbirth, but instead of earthy bliss, I was blessed with a long and painful labour involving a lot of drugs and ending with a mad dash in the early hours of the morning to the operating theatre. Almost everything that I didn’t want to happen, happened. Then my hopes of personally redeeming myself through exclusively breastfeeding as I was supposed to were dashed once again as my little baby continued to lose weight after he was meant to start gaining, and one of my nipples was so badly damaged that I lost all feeling in it completely. I felt like I had been sold a dream, and I had bought into wholeheartedly.
In one of her more supportive moments, my mother helped me put things into perspective. “Be thankful that you had access to skilled doctors and surgeons,” she said. She reminded me that labour can often be a life or death situation for mothers and babies who experience complications without the skilled health practitioners on hand to assist with delivery. “And some women in the world physically can’t produce enough breast milk due to malnutrition but don’t even have the option of formula, be grateful that you do!” It took this reminder along with a few more encouraging conversations with friends – both those with and without children – before I finally let go of the disappointment that comes with naïve ideals. No sooner had I been unburdened from my self-inflicted expectations that I then began to notice the details among the monotony that made me finally enjoy motherhood, all the small wonderful things that had been crowded out by my preoccupations.
I understand now why mothers don’t necessarily talk about how hard it can be at the beginning. It’s not malicious, and most of the time it’s not even a conscious decision. Thrown into the deep end of motherhood you don’t think about much else apart from getting to grips with caring for a brand new baby. As you begin to master the intricacies, you begin to enjoy it, satisfaction consumes you, and everything else before feels like a bad dream. Besides, you don’t really have time to brood over your emotions and experience, unless like me, brooding and indulgent introspection is what you do. It’s not that you forget the early struggles (or the pain of childbirth for that matter), but you don’t try to remember either, because as you kiss your little one’s impossibly soft cheeks, feel their shallow little breaths against your chest, or watch them work their way to their first puzzled smile, all of it – even the tears and hopelessness in the beginning – feels worth it.*
So yeah, a couple months ago I didn’t have these problems, but I also didn’t have these amazing moments either. I know there are more challenges to come – teething, weaning, toddler tantrums and teenage ones – but with them comes the warm, fuzzy stuff too. I have no idea how I’m going to handle these uncharted territories, but when the time comes I know I’ll figure out what to do. Someone told me that motherhood doesn’t get easier, you just get better at it, and they were right.
*Of course there are other reasons for not talking about it. Many mothers suffer from postnatal depression quietly and don’t speak for the weight of taboo that rests heavy on them as well as the fear of their precious baby being taken from them at any visible sign of incapability. With them in mind, I feel the need for others to talk is even more urgent, so they know they’re not alone, and that they’re not failures by any means.