When I discovered I was pregnant with DD I was thrilled. DH and I had wanted to start a family for years and so we spent the next 9 months in a state of perpetual excitement and anticipation, acquiring baby clothes and a cot and a Moses basket and a buggy and toys and all the other random paraphernalia that first-time parents are encouraged to think they need. We spent hours poring over my pregnancy book, looking at the pictures of the baby as she was at that moment (even from the early stages when the embryo resembles nothing so much as a mutant space prawn). We were prepared. Except – we didn’t think to do any reading about what it would be like to have a newborn. I mean, these things come naturally don’t they?
The labour was relatively uneventful and when DD was 9 hours old we found ourselves at home again, this time with a tiny person. That’s when the panic started to hit – we were responsible for keeping this tiny little creature alive. The only time I had been solely responsible for keeping anything alive was when I had a hamster at university. I looked down at baby DD and wondered just how transferable my hamster-looking-after skills were.
That first night was a blur. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that the baby wouldn’t sleep in the Moses basket – that’s what babies did after all! So why wouldn’t ours? DD fed well and grew well but continued to refuse to sleep in the basket for more than an hour at a time. Well-meaning friends and relatives gave us books about babies and being a parent. Great we thought – but all the books had conflicting advice. As did the aforementioned friends and relatives. Everyone had an opinion on what we were doing but no two people agreed.
By the time DD was 6 weeks old I was deep in the grip of postnatal depression. This wasn’t entirely unexpected as I have a long history of depression, so DH was on the lookout for any warning signs. The health visitor was less than helpful – she stood over me as I cradled my crying newborn and ordered me to put her to bed and leave her there. I refused. By the time the health visitor left I had the feeling that I had been marked down as trouble. For the next year if I went more than 4 weeks without taking DD to the baby clinic for weighing I would get a concerned phone call asking me to bring her along so she could be checked, or the health visitor would just turn up on my doorstep with the scales. I felt that they didn’t trust me to look after my own child – and I understood that because I was convinced I wasn’t capable of looking after her either.
I remember very little from DD’s first year but I do vividly remember one night. I remember DD screaming, and DH waking to find me crouched in a corner sobbing. I remember feeling thoroughly overwhelmed and despairing and convinced that it would be better if I died, that DD would be better off without any mother than she would with me. I was lucky – DH convinced me to seek help and I had a very sympathetic GP. She understood that I was extremely reluctant to take anti-depressants while breastfeeding and instead referred me for talking therapy and a course of computerised CBT. These helped a little.
But what helped most was the dawning realisation that although DD wasn’t a typical baby, there wasn’t anything wrong with her. There wasn’t anything wrong with the way we were looking after her. She just required more attention, physical contact and less sleep than most babies. (It wasn’t until DS was born and was exactly the same that I discovered the term ‘high-needs babies’. It was such a relief!). The pressures on new parents are immense. From the expectation that the mother will instantly regain her pre-baby figure to the endless (and ridiculous) ‘Is she a good baby?’ questions, from sleep deprivation to the endless stream of well-meaning but conflicting advice – well frankly I don’t know how anyone navigates the first few months of motherhood without cracking up!
I have gained confidence over the years and these days I have very little patience for society’s expectations of how my children will be. I do what works best for us and to hell with what anyone else thinks. I have no time for the competitiveness that seems so beloved of some parents – breast vs formula, cot vs co-sleeping, purée vs finger foods, strict routines vs benign neglect and all that. While it’s great to have confidence in how you are raising your child, thay doesn’t mean that someone doing it differently is doing wrong.
I am convinced that my lack of knowledge and the endless stream of conflicting advice and methods compounded my PND. Every time I thought I knew what I was doing there was another book or friend or ‘parenting guru’ (usually childless) to tell me otherwise. This is wrong. As a society we need to be more supportive of new parents, especially mothers on whom the main burden of care usually falls and who are recovering from the physical process of labour and birth. We need to care for their mental health as much as we care for their physical health, perhaps even more. The stitches I had after DD’s birth healed within weeks – I’m still recovering from the mental wounds.