In October last year, I had a baby. In November, I started driving again. At Christmas, I hosted a 5th birthday party for my daughter and a family gathering. In January, I was sent to bed for three days on doctors orders. I lasted one day and three hours. Then I got up and carried on as normal.
Baby Isaac was low birthweight, arriving by crash emergency caesarean when his heart rate was dangerously low during labour. On arrival we struggled to establish feeding as he was so weak - cue many visits from the community midwife and health visitor to monitor us both. Eventually after four weeks he had gained enough weight to breastfeed by himself without the medium of a bottle of expressed milk. So I was permanently hungry and feeding him every two hours and feeding myself every 90 minutes.
A couple of weeks later, when things seemed to be settling, I took myself off to bed with a streaming cold, aching body, tired all over. Apart from feeding my son and accepting food brought to me from my husband, I did nothing but sleep. It was good. Then I got up again and carried on as normal.
Some friends came round; they had heard about these episodes of illness, exhaustion and wanted to encourage me, pray for me, support us. People at church brought me cake, daffodils, sent emails.
‘It’s to be expected’, people said. ‘You’ve just had a baby, a general anaesthetic, you’ve not had enough sleep, your immune system is weak. Give yourself a break.’ Which is fair enough, obviously. I would have said the same thing to anyone else. But underneath that thin veneer of competent and capable motherhood (I was still smiling after all!) were some emotions that really hadn’t figured prominently in my life before.
Firstly, extreme anger; mainly at myself for finding things hard when I knew others were worse off than me. Anger that, only weeks before, I’d been a self-motivated, full time working parent in a job I enjoyed and I had faced what felt like a wide variety of personal and professional challenges in the past. Why then, was I finding life with this baby so hard? Not only that, this wasn’t my first time round! How come I had sailed through the early months before with such ease? What had happened to me? Where had the extroverted, fun loving, confident and generally positive me gone?
Secondly, the anger turned often into anxiety and worry, a constant gnawing sense of dread that something would happen to my baby or my daughter. Standing at the changing table in the middle of the night, my whole body would jolt as I had a thought of something terrible that could happen to Isaac. In the middle of the night, this is a very frightening place to be - heart palpitations, sweating, inability to sleep. After night feeds, I would lie awake for hours trying to compute whether the pattern of feeds we now needed to follow that day would leave me any time to get things done. Time was this elusive currency by which everything ran smoothly but which also held me to ransom. In the midst of these artificial deadlines of feeding, centiles on growth charts and milestones of development, I was sapped of any energy or motivation and felt increasingly defeated while the house got dirtier, the laundry pile got bigger and my ‘to do list’ got longer. A vicious cycle of wrestling control from outside factors as well as managing my own intrusive thoughts.
Thirdly and perhaps most tellingly, I felt bombarded with implied and sometimes very direct pressure to be ‘back to normal’.
Even now, writing this all down, the pressure kicks in. Hundreds of thousands of women have given birth in this country already this year (that’s not exact obviously, but you get my point!) and as far as I was concerned, they all bounced back to normality, facing each day with great joy, new baby in tow, back in skinny jeans and chatting away in coffee shops. In amongst that excessive positivity, my inability to great dressed for school pick up let alone drop off seemed ridiculous but I just couldn’t rouse myself enough. I’d go to bed each night with good intentions, positive plans for getting through the ‘to do list’ and getting out the house, but each day seemed to bring worry and anxiety which would cut down everything I hoped to achieve.
Talking to some dear friends, I was directed to resources online about postnatal anxiety. I hadn’t really connected with any of the ‘criteria’ for depression which does the rounds in the immediate weeks after birth. And no one really talked about postnatal depression after the first few weeks. Implication being ‘if you’re going to get it, you’ll have got it by now.’ But suddenly, the word anxiety struck a deep, deep cord, resonating with all those tearing, raw, unfamiliar emotions which were so physically tangible as to be a lump in my stomach or throat.
Now, I have a confession to make - apart from a visit to the GP about a breastfeeding issue where we discussed some of my concerns and it was suggested I returned in two weeks time – I have had no treatment. Something clicked with that recognition; postnatal anxiety gave a reference for what I’d been working with.
It is probably not the right thing to say, but I have to confess too that I am done with doing the right thing. So much of our identity as women is about conforming to the expectations of others – matching up to the impossible and sometimes downright dangerous criteria that society lays out for us. In my work, there are things to attain, pieces of work to be completed, targets to be reached and strategy to develop. Suddenly, the world I live in has nothing whatsoever to do with such things – and it has taken me a long time to realise that.
That doesn’t mean that ‘motherhood’ doesn’t have targets, milestones etc…it does and they have massive downsides. I went back to work after three months with my daughter – financially I had no choice. But I had none of these emotions, almost because I had no break between those two existences. I was hardly off work before I was back again, so my identity remained firmly rooted in my work and being a working mum and milestones just became part of work and parenting with no division between the two. Having my work entirely focused on looking after my children and the home too has forced me to recognise just how much my identity is bound up in what I do rather than who I am.
Part of my journey (which is still very much ongoing) was recognising that I knew myself better than anyone else. I needed to understand that no one could place expectations on me that I wasn’t prepared to accept. If I felt inferior or judged, I needed to take responsibility for that – either by challenging those expectations (which I have done in ways I can’t put in writing!) or by taking decisive actions with myself.
So, I made some decisions to stem my anxiety. I stopped going to mum’s and baby groups – I found that being with first time mums just increased my anxiety ten-fold because they had worries and concerns that I didn’t share. I didn’t need to take on more worry, much as I knew it was good to make friends and get out the house. But instead, I did start hanging out more with school gate mums, some of whom had school age and younger children like me. It was a more realistic view and I learnt to trust my own instincts a lot more.
Recently, I have been to a couple of people’s homes and have been welcomed in and taken it as I’ve found it - full of stuff, piles of kids shoes, the usual paraphernalia of life. I’ve found it exhilarating, comforting and welcoming. I realised that as I look beyond the outer layers, so do others with me – perhaps I need to give myself a break and just be myself.
Within all those practical decisions there is the ongoing thread of dialogue with God, coming back to him for truth on my identity, on his plans and purposes for my life. In despair, in the pit there’s a clarity in prayer which I haven’t found before. It doesn’t make it easy, far from it but it does simplify it. When you have nowhere else to go, you have to look up: I lift my eyes to the hills, from where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. Psalm 121
Today, I’m functioning – school run: check. Social interaction: check. Preparing for return to work: check. I have patches of time where I am physically exhausted by thinking too much, worrying about the ‘what ifs’ – and that’s a cue for me to go shopping, wander out for a brisk and pointless walk or do some baking and switch off. I’m trying to get the balance between busyness which masks the struggles and positive occupations which give me space to relax and be with those who add to my emotional well being.
I’ve had some conversations with health visitors about ongoing anxiety issues – and am continuing to read around the subject. In a postnatal context and in terms of support available, the USA are way ahead of us, I think. Check out http://postpartumprogress.com/the-symptoms-of-postpartum-depression-anxiety-in-plain-mama-english as well as the rest of this site.
Alice Smith lives in Essex with her husband and two children and is Chief Cake maker and Tea Drinker.
She blogs at www.funkydoofamily.blogspot.com and can be reached by email on firstname.lastname@example.org