Mind: I’m worried.
Heart: just relax.
Mind: but I’m totally lost right now.
Heart: just follow me.
Mind: but you’ve never been there before.
Heart: trust me, you’ll love it.
Soul: if you two would shut up I’d show you the map.
Facebook tells me I shared these lines almost exactly a year ago and seeing them again – well, it’s like a window to the past. I can feel myself then with complete clarity. It was the last time I was only me. The baby sat inside me and kicked but I was still just me, and saw everything in relation to me. I was the centre of my world and I didn’t even question that because it was so natural.
The baby wasn’t a baby and it certainly wasn’t Theo. It was a heartbeat on an ECG and a watery ultrasound form. It made my belly skin jump. It made my hips, back and pelvis hurt. It was practice contractions. It was also the preparations: small white clothes, a hospital bag, a half-assembled crib, breathing exercises while swaying on all fours. But mostly it was a cliff edge. I knew everything afterwards would be different but I couldn’t possibly imagine how, and mostly, I couldn’t imagine loving him as much as I was supposed to.
My perinatal psychiatrist wrote a letter to my GP recording my last session with her pre-Theo. She said I was worried about whether I’d love him enough and how soon the love would kick in, worried about postnatal depression, and worried about taking care of myself when the new baby was here. I’d said to her that I thought I might crash, and that I was worried bulimia might flare up, that I was already struggling not to comfort myself with food and feeling a blurring loss of control when I tried to stop eating. I didn’t know how I would be able to not sleep and looked at the space next to the bed where the crib would be in a kind of panic every night. I was afraid the baby might come between me and my husband, having read so many things about the pressure it puts on a relationship.
Some of those specific concerns did happen. I did have a short but very severe bout of depression in the first few weeks after he was born. I have been finding food hard, and yes, bulimia has crept back in at times, mainly when I struggled to deal with the lack of control over my time while I was on maternity leave. The lack of sleep was devastating physically but also mentally, mainly, again, because I had no control over it. I still furiously resist the fact that I can only sleep when he’s in bed (even if my husband sorts him out, I can’t get to sleep till Theo does). And the relationship thing is hard. It puts pressure on a couple like nothing else. You lose the ‘just us’ life you once had.
Thankfully – and I’m still stupidly grateful for this – the love for Theo was the one worry that didn’t come true. I loved him instantly. If I hadn’t, I honestly don’t know how or if I’d have crawled through those first few weeks. One particular memory illustrates this. About 10 days in, I hit rock bottom, sitting downstairs one morning while Theo and Felipe slept in the bedroom. I cried dreadful, wretched tears. I thought about going to hospital and telling them I couldn’t live my life anymore, that they needed to take over. I thought, this is it, I’ll finally be an inpatient. I thought I was finally, actually, mad. That this was it.
Then I thought about Theo and Felipe sleeping and I knew I had to stay and carry on. A voice seemed to say, come on, you have to push through. Get up, have a shower, go upstairs to your family. They need you and you love them.
I’ve never got through a mental crash like this before. The whole ‘pull yourself together’ thing was, and is, a stupid and dangerous response to depression. It doesn’t work and stops people getting the help they need. But just this once it was what I did.
Obviously, this happened alongside the medical help I was getting. That help was a non-negotiable part of me pulling through – and I got it much more quickly than most do because I knew what to ask for, something that isn’t the case for parents whose postnatal depression is their first experience of mental illness. But love played its part too, kicking me up the bum enough to get me back upstairs with my husband and my son.
Now I look back on the immediate pre- and post-natal period with a year’s perspective. I can see it with a clarity I haven’t had until now. What stands out? What makes sense that didn’t before?
1. Not being my own number one priority makes me happier. I tried so hard to make myself happy before, and my happiness, or contentment, had gradually crept up over the years, helped by a man, a career, a bit of yoga and some decent therapists. But still there were times when I felt ripped apart by emptiness. Afternoons off work when I’d plan to treat myself to a manicure or write a poem and would find myself sat uselessly on the sofa, eating or crying or running three different trains of thought through my head all at once. That happens less now. I am for Theo first and then for me, and it’s not a martyr thing, it just is, and I like it. Me time is more precious and more enjoyable but the non-me time matters more.
Which leads me to…
2. The emptiness has gone. I haven’t felt it since Theo was born. Believe me, I didn’t expect this. Having children has absolutely never seemed like the meaning of life, but somehow, for me, it kind of is. Or it’s given my life a fuller meaning, filling in the gaps in between the other meaningful things so that there isn’t any emptiness left.
3. Fear was absolutely irrelevant because it didn’t take account of Theo. All the things I was worried about didn’t factor in Theo, and Theo was the answer to them all. The fear was real all right, but still. Everything changed when the baby appeared and that’s just how it is. That’s it.