In baby hinterland

imageHow to describe this? I’m sitting on my sofa, grey February light outside, and there’s a baby on my lap. He just had a very small feed and is now asleep.

He didn’t exist two months ago. He is now here, a combination of peachy skin, pouchy nose, long, brittle eyelashes under fluffy, barely visible eyebrows. Mouth floppy and tucked in on itself like a mollusc. Superfine brown hair brushing the inside curve of his ear. Half asleep, now, half drinking and huffing at the breast, hands opening and closing. He scratched his cheek this morning with sharp tiny nails that I don’t know how to cut. The little red scratch looks sore on his cheek.

This is a close up description, a collection of nouns and adjectives reporting just this immediate moment of Theo Paredes, because so much of life is like that right now. I’ve been trying to put my mind to a topic to write about but topics won’t come – or they do, but they rise in and out of the brain in barely visible cycles. Abstract ideas and long term trends in my life and emotions escape me. That version of me, the one that thinks and analyses and comes to a conclusion, is hibernating. I’ve been half heartedly trying to wake her but then Theo – or the basic life tasks I fit around Theo – take over again.

I take care of my baby. I’m a carer. That’s what I do, what I am right now. In brief moments when he’s sleeping or off me, and when I’m not also sleeping, I’m racing myself to complete tasks. I choose the tasks based on what’s most important and what will fit into the time I think I have. Shower, make meal, load dishwasher, hug my husband, pour drink, go to toilet. Put sling on so I can carry on doing some things when he wakes up. The time slots are unpredictable because I don’t know how long he’ll sleep or when he’ll want to feed. I experience time and days like I imagine my body operates inside the skin: my needs trigger automatic biological responses alongside a few deliberate actions I choose to make. I’m an Attenborough timelapse film, nature’s systems moving in delicate, beautiful then ugly then beautiful symbiosis.

Each hour is interspersed with the sensations and emotions of being with Theo. Warm fluffy damp hair against my cheek as he droops on my shoulder. The he-keeps-grizzling frustration, the hi-mum-morning-smile joy, the screaming-and-I-can’t-get-to-him desperation in the car. The Felipe’s-exhausted-but-I-need-him-to-help guilt. Slippery baby skin in the warm bath. Sharp release as he latches on to breastfeed.

This is all it feels right to write now. Bigger themes will come back, I hope. But this hinterland is actually ok. Sometimes it’s lovely. I have another person in my life that I love totally, another person to delight in and trust completely. They are rare and hard to find. With this one, I have the most intimate and permanent connection of all. He was part of me, he came out of me, he feeds from me and as he grows and becomes himself he’ll always be perfectly proportioned to me and my love. I’ve no idea what that will look like, but I had no idea what he would look like, what life with him would look like, before he entered the world. No idea at all. And it’s now more real than anything has ever been.

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In darkness, acceptance

I’ve been thinking a lot about acceptance. As these early days go by, I’ve been hyper-judgemental of myself, analysing every ‘negative’ behaviour Theo shows and trying to pinpoint what I did to cause it and what I can do to fix it. In particular, I’ve focused on sleep. If he slept more at night, or more peacefully, I felt good about myself. If he woke up a lot, cried a lot, wanted to feed more often or didn’t want to be put down, I trawled the events of the past day to work out why.

This approach puts an expectation on me and on him that neither of us can meet. Why not? Because he is a two-week-old baby and I am a new mother.

Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he feels awake or wants to be held. Sometimes his instincts or his belly tell him to feed a lot. This is what is. He doesn’t conform to adult behaviour and sleep quietly when I want him to because he is two weeks old. He is adjusting, making sense of a big, bright, busy world where his needs are no longer met automatically by his mother’s body and where the single only way he has to call attention to them is to cry.

I do not always know what the need he wants meeting is. This is partly because I’m new at this. I can’t identify different cries or hold him in exactly the way that might ease a spasm of colic. But it wouldn’t matter if I’d cared for five newborns, or fifty. Sometimes I wouldn’t know what makes him cry. He doesn’t necessarily know what makes him cry. Sometimes he just cries.

This is what is. So, to try to cope with this reality – its tiredness, its unpredictability, my inability to control it – I can try something different. I can look into the heart of the moment, focusing my attention on exactly what happens. His face moves in a tiny grimace. He grunts and squirms in his bed. He’s on the edge of waking up. Either he wakes up or he doesn’t. You can react to this with fear of the outcome you don’t want or simply with observation: he is my baby and he is moving. He is waking up or he isn’t. This moment comes, is, passes and won’t come again. Neither of us are wrong or right, good or bad, coping or not coping. We just are.

Two comments on my previous post have stayed with me as I’ve reflected on this:

‘Because only in the darkness can we see stars.’

‘Your baby adores you and you are the warm sunshine on their face.’

These resonate because they both encourage letting it be.

Let darkness be because it allows you to see starlight, the tiny, pinpricks of light that can so easily be missed when things are blazing bright but that are more lovely than hard, tangible diamonds or a definite, inescapable sun.

Let your mothering and your baby be because it doesn’t matter what you do, or how ‘well’ you do it. You are joy and warmth and light to your baby by being his mum, coming when he calls, keeping him alive and fed, warm, loved. You are goodness to him even when he is screaming and miserable.

In the last couple of days, the depression has started to clear a little. In some ways it makes the challenges facing us over the next few weeks clearer. I can process the routine I’ll be in and my inability to change it.

But that’s ok. I have some extra calmness to allow me to accept this. I have a million moments where I can hold the sensation of Theo’s eyes, hair, skin, smell – or where I can appreciate a period of quiet or sleep while it lasts. I still struggle to extend the quiet times, to ‘fix’ him when he’s less peaceful, or to work out what I’m doing wrong when things feel hard. But I’m not utterly buried in heavy, featureless despair right now. This is a uniquely human, intimate time to endure, to notice, to experience. It will never come again.

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Into the darkness

I almost didn’t start this piece. I’m not sure if I’m going to publish it. My mum suggested not writing when I’m in a dark time – better to wait until I can give a balanced view, like I did in the last post. But that’s not what this blog is meant to be, or what I need it to be. It’s supposed to be a true reflection of my new motherhood, for therapeutic reasons and also because I strongly believe that we must tell the truth. As usual, I don’t know how ok or not ok I am compared to the average. But I am not very ok and I must write about it.

I’m struggling with depression. Not all the time. I have times most days, and even for most of some days, where I feel stronger or calmer and able to see over the horizon of the next few days or weeks. I’m also able to enjoy Theo. He makes me laugh and smile. He makes me feel that my whole life has been leading up to this.

However. I am broken. I am angry with myself, bitterly, for not being able to feel better more of the time. I am so tired. I hate having daytime naps because I’m leaving someone else to deal with the baby when it should be my responsibility and I’m lying in a bed when I should be doing something productive. I barely do anything around the house because I’m mostly holding a baby or feeding a baby or thinking I should try to sleep when he is asleep.

I have little time for how I look and so I look awful – pale, soft, exhausted. I didn’t want to have a problem with a post pregnancy body, but I find the pouchy belly where Theo used to be, creased with stretch marks, sad and unsettling. My body did something so strong and powerful and now it looks like a washed up rag. I think people must look at my drained face and pity me in the street.

In the darkest moments I can’t see how I can go on. I do because I have to. There’s no stepping out of life for a while to feel better. There are two hourly feeds to do and nappies to change and cries to soothe.

I wish the sun would come up. It barely seems to emerge in this miserable January. Bright sunlight, some leaves, some flowers – if only they were there. If only I could run or hike or ride, go to yoga, do something. Unfortunately getting out to do even baby things, like baby yoga, seems like a huge mountain to climb. It’s taken me days to phone and make an appointment for Theo’s birth to be registered. Everything is hard.

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Love and terror and sound and fury

My baby has been born.

There are no words to describe what it’s like right now but I am aching to try to find them. So I’m grabbing time when I’m told I should be sleeping to write this.

My baby has been born. Theo has come into our lives. A slippery bolt from the blue on the early morning of New Year’s Eve, at the end of a year that many of us will hope never to see the like of again. He came fast and furious after a three hour active labour that took me and the understaffed hospital by surprise. The pain was extraordinary. Utterly unlike anything I’d been able to imagine. And it reached its peak (‘transition’) before anyone was able to leave the emergency next door to give me anything – at all – to dull it.

I was put in my own room after an hour and handed gas and air. I clung to the mouthpiece for the next two hours as if it would save my life. Pushing started with each contraction. I didn’t know what it was, and no-one told me, but a part of my brain locked on to the possibility that the baby might be coming. That I might be further along than we thought. I was afraid, but also able to hope that this might be the end in sight, and that what I’d thought was a prelude to the peak was actually the peak itself. No-one told me to push, but I started joining in with the automatic gut need to do it. Me and my body just pushed, wondering if we were bringing out a baby.  

We were bringing out a baby. Midwives ran in and my Theo was born at 6.23am in two sweet, wrenching, awful pushes that I will never ever forget. A crying creature, wriggling and wet, was put on my chest, in my arms, and I kept asking, checking, that this was really it. It was my baby. We had done it, me, him and my husband, almost alone, me on my side, leg propped on the bed frame. It felt like something medieval and maybe it always does, whatever the circumstances. Theo stopped crying and I stopped asking, and I looked at him and he looked at me, and we started a thing that will never be broken.

Now four days have gone by. I am spinning and floating in a whirlpool that I never expected or even knew how to expect. I love him. I see every tiny thing in him, and every movement, every smell or sound, and it sticks to me like pollen on a bee being carried back to the hive to make life-giving honey. I love this creature and it is a thing of joy and pain like no other. I know many mothers find the feeling comes later. I thought I would be one of them, but no. I’m one of the immediate ones. It is another unknowable surprise.

I am also terrified. The times that are not subsumed in basic caring for him, when I fall into an absorbed, almost meditative state, are mostly frightening. I am afraid of everything. Anxiety disorder combined with more hormones than I’ll possibly ever have again in my life combine to make this an awful as well as amazing time. I’m afraid something will happen to him. I’m afraid I will break. I approach every night with growing conviction I can’t do it, I can’t make it through, I can’t not sleep. Then I do, and I do, and the night itself passes as they do, and in the morning I remember it’s ok.

I watch for depression on the skyline and fear that it will descend. I don’t know how much I’m in it now or how much this is normal. Now is the peak, they tell me, for the hormones and the overwhelmed emotions. Maybe it’s like my labour: I’m scared of it getting worse and I don’t think I can take it. But it’s at its peak and I am taking it. I should be able to trust in the enormous well of strength that brought him into the world. I’m trying to.

I’m reaching out for all the help there is. GPs, midwives, specialists, friends who have experienced mental ill health, friends who haven’t, and my core people: my husband, my mum, my sister, my dad. They are as incredible as this whole experience, giving time and love to me and Theo. Trying not to feel guilty. Now is a time when I need help. I am getting it and it will all be ok. We’ll make it.

Now Theo is waking up. Thank you, little one, for this time to reflect.

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Help me get over the line: surviving the anxiety

Last night was a difficult night, and this post is a difficult post.

The waiting for labour to begin has been increasingly hard. I’d hoped, but not expected, that I’d hold on till after Christmas. I did – and then continued to hold off until my due date, 28 December, and now a day beyond. I haven’t planned much of anything to do now because I thought it was going to happen. So I’m somewhat blindly pushing my way through unstructured time, interspersed with bouts of adrenaline when cramps start or a practice contraction rises up.

Last night this came to a head. I switched off my light, feeling ok, but couldn’t fall into sleep. My mind started going faster but I can’t really remember thinking about much at all. I was scared but I don’t know what of. I started shivering. Violently, all over. Then I was crying. Then hyperventilating. My husband rubbed my back, asked what was wrong, got no answer, and sat quietly because there was nothing to say. In a little while, with some effort, my breathing started to slow.   

The small panic attack wrung me out and I dropped off to sleep not too long after. This morning’s been better, though mornings are usually easier than nights. I don’t know what triggered it, unless it’s the simple waiting. But I’ve been trying to think encouraging thoughts, hoping to get through the next however many days until something starts. One thought popped into my head and kept repopping up, so I want to talk about it now. It’s about my grandpa.

My grandpa died around 12 years ago. He’d been in my mind yesterday because Debbie Reynolds died, and my mum wrote on Facebook that she’d been one of his favourites. My grandpa had his favourite Hollywood stars – Reynolds, Doris Day, Deanna Durbin – and he stayed loyal to them all his life. They were his girls.

We were also his girls. Me, my mum and my sister. And he stayed loyal to us, loyal and uncomplicated and delighted in us all his life too.

I’ve never experienced such unconditional regard, such simple happiness in my presence, as I did from my grandpa. I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know I loved him that much while he was around. Over the years, I’ve waited for the amount I miss him to subside. It hasn’t. It’s not exactly grief. Just so many moments where I think, I wish he could have seen this. Of course I’ve thought that I wish he could have known I was pregnant and that he’d meet the baby. But that wasn’t what I thought of today.

Today I thought, he’d know I could do this. He wouldn’t even have any doubt. That was the thing about him. It would never occur to him that I couldn’t. All that would occur to him is that I’d carried a baby for nine months, as he knew I would, and that I’d carry it until the day labour began, and that I’d give birth to it, and that this would be wonderful. He’d come into the room to meet his great grandson, look at me, and be happy, and it would be simple.

I don’t have that kind of belief and simple happiness doesn’t come easy. Grandpa did. He’s not here any more but his trust in me is still there, in my head, and it sometimes provides the extra little boost I need to get me over the line. Stay with me now, in my head. We’ll get over this line.

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How to keep busy without feeling pathetic

Before I started maternity leave I was incredibly worried about all the unstructured time ahead of me. Work may be stressful, but it anchors me. Time without things that I have to do is something I’ve always found really hard.

I honestly don’t know if this is more common than I think it is, but it often seems as though I’m the only one who feels this way. Most people talk with reverence about the prospect of lounging on the sofa, watching TV, reading, wandering round town, whatever. I don’t. I can’t feel this.

What I do feel is not even boredom, it’s fear. Do too little, or too little of ‘worthy’ things, and anxiety rears its ugly head. It tells me I’ll fall into a trap of doing nothing, ever. That I’ll start instead to do lazy, bad-for-me things, that I’ll lose control, lose the ability to be positive, slip into depression. It’s a vicious circle of the fear of poor mental health actually causing poor mental health. And yes, I do know how ridiculous that is. I’m also excellent at beating myself up for beating myself up, reminding myself how incredibly much worse so much of the world’s population has it and despising the fact that I can’t just chill out.

In actuality, the time hasn’t been quite as hard I as expected. I’ve kept myself busy. But there are times, like now, when I’m physically so much less able to do anything because the baby feels so imminent, that I find it tough.

So I’ve asked myself what I can do to not just fill time – that seems so pathetic, such a waste of precious life – but to make me feel I’m achieving something meaningful. That’s why I’ve started this writing. In the process of doing so, I’ve discovered that the concepts of ‘achievement’ and ‘meaning’ are not quite such a helpful pairing as I thought.

Achievement tends to imply things that the outside world would objectively value. It should be a measurable success, as judgeable by the outside world. But my idea of what the outside world thinks is pretty negative, and I’ve realised it’s not much more than a benchmark for my critical inner voice to judge me.

Meaning, on the other hand, speaks more to what’s inside you. It’s about reflecting my inner experience, or sensing something subtle and not easily defined, or facing something that scares me, or being overwhelmed with beauty or sadness. It can also come from being with people, especially when being honest or vulnerable.

I’ve always attached importance to achievement, in the terms described above. Get it right and it can make you feel great. But get it wrong – fail – and the activity makes you feel worse, not better. That in turn can make you scared of even starting something. As maternity leave progresses, as I work more with unstructured time, I’m finding it easier to focus less on achievement and more on meaning. I’m making more space for my own thoughts, feelings and worldview in the activities I do. This is quite nice.

Writing is sort of showing me the way. If I have to think of something to write, I have to reflect on what thoughts are in my mind, particularly the more buried ones, and how I might order and express them in a way that makes sense in our language and media. It allows me to transcribe ideas but also to create them. It connects an inner, feeling, slightly unknowable part of me from a part that can be read and understood.

And this is good for self-esteem. I’m listening to what’s inside and taking the time to set it out in the words of the outside world. I’m saying to myself that it matters. I know self-esteem is an ever-present buzzword and that I’m being earnest and navel gazing. But behind the buzzword, self-esteem is something so fundamental and so hard to count on for many of us that it should matter. It should matter to everyone.

It matters to me. I don’t have enough of it and I should. People around me, including my son who is coming, need me to have it. So I’ll keep writing and see where it takes me.   

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To the women who have given me balance this week

Over the last few days I’ve been to two very different gatherings for pregnant women and new mothers. The first was a get-together in a cafe for women who go to a pregnancy pilates class near me. Time being time, some of the women now have their babies. Some of us don’t. It was sociable, friendly, cake-based and pretty light.

The second was much more focused. A Breathing and Relaxation class run by the local NHS, it brought women in their third trimester together to learn about deep breathing techniques, releasing fear during birth and how we can work with pain.

As I say, very different. Surprisingly, though, they had one important thing in common. Several people at each told me: it’s not as bad as they say. And mostly they were talking about childbirth.

This I find extraordinary. Most of what you read, and most of the mythology around birth, tells you you can’t even imagine the pain. It will be the worst pain you ever experience. One helpful article asked me to think of the most painful moment in my life so far and then triple it. Thanks for that. Then, along with the agony, you’re told your body will be ripped to shreds, you’ll be bullied into interventions and positions you don’t want or need, and you’ll only get through it by imagining your miraculous baby in your arms at the end.

I don’t doubt that all of these things can be the case. A woman today told me about her two complicated births at the hospital that will be taking care of me, itemising everything they did wrong five years ago and finishing up by singing the praises of the far-away hospital she insisted on being transferred to when things weren’t going to plan.

To be fair, she did ask me if I really wanted to hear her story. I said yes. And I understand my hospital did have a poor record until fairly recently, when it had more money and staff fed into it to improve the service. Things can go wrong, the NHS is overstretched, and I’m certainly trying to be prepared to fight if I don’t think I’m getting the right care, or to deal with the emotional impact of a traumatic birth if it should happen anyway.

But I’m struck by the fact that many women, in these final days leading up to my own labour, have taken pains to tell me that their own experience, while hard, while not ideal, wasn’t as bad as they expected. Because you know what? I always prepare for the worst. What if that isn’t helping me? What if these reassuring women have come into my life right now to nudge me into a bit of positive thinking? That might be just what I, and many others, need.

Know the risks, know your rights, know that your birth plan may not go in any way to plan. But let’s not portray it as a mythical horror or a catalogue of disasters waiting to happen. It’s a process a body will go through, step by difficult step, just like billions of bodies have done over the centuries (but many, many times safer than it was for most women in those centuries). Will terror help us get through it?

It’s not just birth that brings out the horror stories. The first few weeks of motherhood are often fair game too. But, as with birth, women I’ve met recently have reassured me. There were times when it got really hard, they said – the baby cried through the night or you couldn’t put them down or breastfeeding was incredibly painful – but, again, it wasn’t as bad as they expected. Most actually said it was good. I am so, so grateful for these stories.

The reality, I’m sure, will be somewhere in the middle. For some people, maybe those who have dreamt of this moment all their lives, a reminder that new motherhood won’t be all sweetness and light must be very useful. I know I’ve heard many women say no-one ever told them how hard breastfeeding could be, for example. To me, this is unfathomable. All I’ve heard is how hard it can be! But that points to my confirmation bias: I pay attention to the negatives because I comfort myself by preparing for the worst. Others may comfort themselves by doing the opposite.

So I don’t want this post to end as a rant about horror stories or a snug endorsement of positive thinking above all else. That would be naive and wrong. What I do want to do is say thank you for the reassurance I’ve had in the last few days. It’s been a reality check for my worrying mind. We all need some balance, especially when approaching a life-altering event, and this been mine.

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