Okay, Mama?

I’ve been wanting to write a post about maternal mental health for quite some time, and as it’s world mental health day there seemed no better time than today. So (deep breath), here goes…

It started with the miscarriage. Nine weeks, although the baby technically didn’t make it past six. Nothing can prepare you for how it feels to see no heartbeat on the screen. Your throat dry, the air so still you could choke on it. A sympathetic touch from the doctor, then back out into the world. Except suddenly it’s different, all of it. And you’ll never be entirely who you were before that day.

After my miscarriage I wrote a blog post about it, and was inundated with responses from women who’d been through the same thing. Private responses, mostly, because they didn’t want the world to know it happened to them too. Of course I understood, because miscarriage is by its very nature a deeply personal thing. And yet. When nobody talks about an issue it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. And the worst part of that is, if it happens to you, you’ve no idea you’re not alone.

Almost exactly a year after my miscarriage I delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. The delivery was traumatic, and afterwards I had to stay in hospital for five long days, hobbling around the room I was sharing with my husband and son dragging a catheter bag in my wake, and being poked and prodded (and, on one particularly mortifying occasion even photographed – yes, down there) by a steady stream of medical students who assured me that my case was very rare (hence the photos). It was, in short, nothing like how I had imagined giving birth to be.

A few days post-delivery aย friend blithely commented in an email that “if women knew what childbirth was really like they’d never do it in the first place. That’s why they don’t tell other women.” I have to admit I take umbrage at this position. Granted, if you’re pregnant you probably don’t need to hear the detail of someone else’s traumatic birth (I learned my lesson sharing my experience with one pregnant friend who I’m afraid I may have scarred for life – if you’re reading this, sorry again), but surely it’s good to have at least a low level awareness that things don’t always go without a hitch. Because if you do go on to have a bad experience you know you’re not alone, and you’re not expected to deal with it alone.

Since having my son I’m not afraid to admit there have been some dark, dark days. I’d read about postnatal depression, but never thought anything of the sort would happen to me. And whilst I’m fortunate that I haven’t had clinical depression since giving birth, nonetheless there have been times when things have felt pretty goddamn hopeless.

I thought the first few weeks would be the worst, when we got home from the hospital and were trying to figure out what to do with this little person in our midst who would need feeding every two hours. And whilst the sleep deprivation was unimaginably hard, I look back on that time now with fondness because in some ways it was a hell of a lot easier than the last few weeks have been. I didn’t know about the four month regression until it hit, and my God did it hit, like a tsunami. One minute we were starting to get more sleep and thinking we had things figured out, the next: BAM! Everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.

Fortunately now (I write this touching wood) we’re coming out the other side, and working with a sleep consultant in the UK has contributed hugely to this improvement. But God, the guilt I’ve felt about it, the weight of people’s judgement when you say you’re trying the crying out method because you’ve reached the end of your tether and you’ll do anything to make things better. And the anguish when your baby is crying and you aren’t able to scoop him up in your arms and comfort him (before you judge I must point out the method involves going in every ten minutes to verbally comfort the baby, not just leaving them alone until they stop crying).

[As an aside, it feels horrible when you’re doing the crying out method but it works. My son now goes to sleep without a murmur, wakes only once or twice a night, and in the morning he still greets me with an enormous smile, so whilst that’s not conclusive evidence he won’t be mentally scarred in the long term, speaking as someone who’s started to get some semblance of her life and sanity back, it’s enough for me].

The point I’m trying (in my own rambling way) to make, is that motherhood is hard. Bloody hard. From conception onwards things often don’t run smoothly. It can be a lonely and emotional rollercoaster, and yet women are expected to deal with it and keep all the plates spinning: work, relationships, family. And the fact a lot of women are too traumatised and scared to share their experiences makes it all the more isolating when you’re going through it yourself. You don’t feel like you can ask for help because you don’t see others asking for help. You feel a failure because everyone around you seems to be coping so much better than you. Well my experience has shown me this is not the case. And it seems that finally the tide is starting to turn. Women are beginning to open up about the challenges of pregnancy, birth and beyond, and receive the emotional support they need. Long may it continue.

mama

 

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Parenting Level 2: Access Denied

This week I’ve learned a valuable lesson, namely that just when you think you’ve turned a corner with parenting another hurdle will pop up in the road and floor you. The only way to cope with such hurdles is to try and keep sight of the bigger picture i.e. you may be facing another setback now, but look at how far you’ve come (answer: very far, well done you). Adopting the ‘this too shall pass’ mentality is also helpful. And keeping a sense of humour is (hard but) vital. [See also: Cake.]

For us, by far the biggest issue to date has been sleep. Sometimes I feel I’m going crazy with my obsession to get C to sleep. There are (many) days when it is literally all I can think about. I look at other mothers (big mistake) and wonder why they aren’t tearing their hair out over this issue. They don’t worry that their appointments clash with baby’s nap times, or refuse to leave the house until their little ones have slept at least twice. Are their babies just better sleepers than mine? Or am I making too big a deal of it?

Last week we started a two week sleep routine, working with a sleep consultant in the UK. It didn’t get off to the most auspicious start as, on the very first day, I got struck down with a high fever and stomach bug and C developed a cough that has since turned into a cold (which, as I type this I can feel the beginnings ofย  in my nose and throat – joy!)

Despite these issues, by some miracle we saw an almost immediate improvement in C’s sleep. Indeed for several nights he slept virtually all the way through from 11pm until 6.30am without any night feeds (you may remember that previously he was waking three to five times a night for feeds). It seemed so easy I didn’t dare to tell anyone of our success, which is just as well because right now I would have a serious amount of egg on my face.

Fast forward a week and we seem to have had another full on regression. Those halcyon nights without wakings or feeds have been replaced once more with broken sleep and – worse even than before – fits of hysterical screaming (to say he’s found his voice would be an understatement) that cannot be abated with the tried and tested sleep methods. It’s hard enough leaving a baby to cry for ten minutes at a time during the day. When it’s the middle of the night and you are in the same room it’s virtually impossible. Last night, after almost a solid hour of screaming I gave in and went against all the sleep training rules – rocked the crib, picked him up, fed him, you name it. And still he cried every time I put him down.ย His day naps have got worse again too. Last week there was one day he slept for a glorious hour and a half in one go. I didn’t know what to do with all the time! Then yesterday we were back to fighting for a paltry thirty minute nap every few hours. When you only have two (fragmented) hours in your day where baby doesn’t command your full attention it’s a very different experience…

With all the angst of the (not) sleeping it’s easy to lose sight of the wonderful things about being a mum. C is, in the most part, a delight. His little smile lights up my day, no matter how hard things are. I absolutely would not be without him. And in my more lucid moments I know this is another phase and it will pass (and that motherhood is made up of such phases, and I just have to learn to live with that). But by God are some of the phases challenging. This one has been especially so because the sleep training requires us to be at home most of the time, eschewing all non-essential trips out (read: coffee and sanity checks with friends). I have been optimistically telling myself it will be worth it if we manage to crack the sleep problem, but now I’m beginning to wonder if ‘cracking the sleep problem’ is too ambitious a goal. Either way, I’m conscious I am in dire need a mental health break, so today I’m breaking the rules (again – sigh) to meet a friend for lunch. It may mess further with his naps, but if it helps mummy take a step back from the ledge I’d say it’s worth it…

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It’s a good job he’s cute…