It's Time To Be Honest About Being a First Time Mum
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08 February 2019
We need to be honest
This month marks ten years since the birth of my first child. For me, this is a good time to reflect on what that experience was really like. It's time we started sharing more honestly, because maybe, just maybe, we can make it easier for those who come after us.
I hardly know where to begin. Frankly it's rather frightening to commit some of these things to paper (metaphorically speaking), because there are unwritten rules that say we must 'treasure every moment' of our babies. I have never, and I will never say such a pernicious thing as 'remember to treasure every moment' to a new mother. Never.
I think I was traumatised by the experience. The long term psychological effects although minor, are real and measurable. For example, although I still find new babies cute, I feel a huge wave of relief they are not mine: the relief is much stronger than the cuteness. When I see a first time mum carrying a tiny baby, partner in tow, on what is clearly their first trip to the supermarket since the birth, I feel a wave of sympathy. I hold back the urge to stop these complete strangers and tell them that they will be okay, they will make it through to the other side, that I understand how much harder it is than they expected. If the mother looks a little unwashed, or a little stressed, I begin to well up.
The easy bit
Despite fairly hideous and lengthy morning sickness (morning ... ha!) it was a text book pregnancy. I had few fears about giving birth and, as it turns out, my body and I were rather good at it. I had a home birth and after 18 or so hours of labour, during which time my husband watched the whole series of Billy Connolly's Tour of New Zealand, she popped out 'like a greased piglet' ... my husband's exact words. If I was expecting a rush of love it didn't happen: I don't know when it happened exactly, but it crept up slowly over the next day or so. Anyway, my husband made brunch for the four midwives ... there are always two at a home birth, one for mother one for baby, and both of mine came with a student in tow! By lunch time, they had gone and we were in bed eating pizza. The chicken slept through most of that day and that night, and I woke up at 5am feeling pretty damn good. That was the last time I slept through the night for years.
We call her 'the chicken'. We also call other people's children chickens, as in 'How many chickens do they have?'. Like all nick names, its origin is rooted in our shared history. Long before we were married I would say 'When we have children ...' and my husband would interrupt with 'chickens!' which was short hand for 'Don't count your chickens before they are hatched'. So, as we lay in bed that day eating pizza, I said 'So, that's one chicken then?', to which he replied in the voice of The Count from Sesame Street 'One ... one chicken ... ha ha ha'. And we were happy.
The first couple of weeks were pretty much what we had expected, the usual rounds of feeds and poonamis: we both came from families with many children and babies, so we felt pretty confident. Gradually though, we were worn down. This baby simply didn't sleep. At about six weeks or so I think I was the most miserable I have ever been in my life, before or since. On one Sunday afternoon, to help her settle I put her in her pram, and walked her to the park. She screamed the whole way. I felt watched and judged. And to be perfectly honest, I couldn't bear the sound a moment longer. Her crying was at the exact pitch that made my right ear buzz. And she cried a lot. If fact, when she was awake, which was mostly, she mostly cried. I called my husband to come and collect me, which he duly did. Then I put her in her bouncy chair and just glared at her with pure venom for about half an hour.
For weeks my husband struggled too. He physically did everything good husbands are supposed to do and more. But he didn't have a connection with her the way I did. To be brutally honest, he didn't love her yet. He didn't say so: I knew because I knew. It was devastating. I would worry for hours on end that he would never love her, even though we never discussed it. I thought I would have to leave him, because I couldn't subject her to a father who didn't want her, even though he never said any such thing. I wondered more than once if I had made a terrible mistake in having her. Those were dark days. Luckily for me, I had a colleague with two year old twin boys who told me that her husband didn't connect with her twins until they were 9 months old: that she had felt the same desperation. Her sharing gave me context and staying power. Sharing is important. It can be everything.
I think for my husband, his life changed when she was born: he immediately moved to the bottom of the pile. That takes some getting used to. But for me, my life changed when I became pregnant: I had already been making sacrifices long before she came, so it was more natural. And of course I had the benefit of hormones forging an invisible bond between us, replacing the umbilical cord which had literally made us one for nine months. To me, she was as much a part of me as my own lungs: I needed her like I needed to breathe. For him, it would take longer, but the bond grew just as strong as mine in time. Why does no one tell you that? It's important. Not to mention the fact that I was handing him a screaming colicky baby the very second he walked through the door each evening: in truth I had already been waiting for him for hours by then.
The best kind of help
I'd like to introduce you to the people who saved my sanity. My NCT group.
I didn't need birthing classes. I had already read everything that came with the classes, but I wanted company. However, at the first meeting, I honestly didn't know how I could ever have anything in common with any of these people. We were all so different. However, as the babies began to arrive and we began getting together every Tuesday at 11am, they became a lifeline. Of course, we've all drifted apart over ten years because ... life ... but there was a time when the company of those women was the saving grace of my week, and each of their babies truly felt like one of my own.
In the NCT class we were six couples. Shortly after the babies arrived we grew to nine. We collected new mothers and swept them into our group as if they had always been there. The first addition was H, collected in a baby massage class. She was by far the youngest of us all, so when she invited us all to her house for lunch when it was her 'turn' we whispered if we should offer to bring lunch along, or if it was fair to expect her to cope with a turn. H was a lesson in not judging a book by its cover. I grew to admire her tremendously. She had a small but immaculate home, always produced home baking and proved to be an incredibly natural, attentive and dedicated mother. So our six women became nine, with six baby girls and three baby boys.
It was clear early on that the chicken was not like the other babies in our group. I felt as if I were constantly surrounded by other people's contented sleeping babies, while the chicken was always awake, and even when she didn't cry, she was alert like a meerkat, always looking around and fascinated by every little movement. Years later, one of the other mothers wrote to me after having her second daughter (we were living in Vietnam by this time). She said 'I always felt sorry for you, as I could see you were having a really hard time. But now that I've had C, I realise I didn't feel nearly sorry enough!'. Here is her second baby, all grown up, wearing a Scarf Monkey t-shirt! Perfect.
When the chicken was about 8 weeks old, we decided that she would go to nursery for two lots of three hours every week. I needed to sleep and we didn't know how else to achieve this. Of course, I didn't actually sleep. Any new mother can tell you the pain leaving your baby causes is excruciating. So instead, I lay on my bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering if she would be crying the whole time, knowing I was a terrible mother for leaving her when I had nothing else to do. Even this was a welcome relief: better than actually listening to her crying. At that time, it was hard to know if being with her or without her was more painful.
It was about that time I gave up breastfeeding. It was making me house bound. Breast feeding caused me no pain and I had oodles and oodles of milk, but she was so distracted by every little movement and sound that feeding in any kind of noisy environment became impossible. She was constantly pulling away and looking around. I started planning to always be home for her feeds, so we could be in a quiet, dark room. There was more to it than that though. She was losing weight. She had what the health visitors and doctors call 'just reflux'. 'Just reflux' meant that she vomited most of her milk every time. ‘Just reflux’ meant that she was always hungry, always too hungry to sleep, and always too tired to eat. ‘Just reflux’ meant she was always in pain with colic and a poor digestive system. ‘Just reflux’ meant every week when I took her for a weigh-in the health visitor would shake her head and interrogate me about how much she was eating, and muse over whether we needed to see a doctor, sometimes deciding we did. The doctor would declare it to be 'just reflux' and we would go around in circles again.
One day, I decided to express a little milk and instead of milk I produced eight straight ounces of cloudy pink liquid (the thirst quenching foremilk) before, eventually, the heavy nutrition rich hindmilk came. I stared at the full bottle of pinky liquid and felt sick. She never drank that much, so was she never getting to the nutrition rich, thicker milk she needed? Was I just producing too much? Was this causing her reflux? Was I poisoning her? This time the doctor prescribed Infant Gaviscon, which comes in powder form, and has the delayed effect of turning the milk in babies’ stomach into jelly. It makes it easier for them to keep it down. If you are breast feeding, you dissolve it in boiled water and squirt it down their throat with a syringe before feeding them, or if you are bottle feeding, you just add it to the bottle. We tried the first just once. She screamed blue murder and turned purple. 'That's it! I'm never breast feeding again' I said.
Here is the chicken (left), a little jaundiced, caught in a rare moment of peace with my best friend's daughter. I had driven to London to visit, desperate for some advice from a friend who had had her second baby. At the point I left home, the chicken, and therefore we, had been awake for 24 hours straight.
Here they are again (the other way around) nearly ten years later!
The health visitor made her disapproval of my bottle feeding clear. But the Gaviscon and bottle feeding were the beginning of us beginning to cope. She continued to be too small, too thin with too little sleep, but she improved. At 16 weeks all the health visitors started saying 'It'll get better when she is weaned', while declaring the benefits of exclusive baby led weaning (give me strength). At this point, I was gaining confidence and gaining skepticism too. Not one of these people, with all their disapproving advice, was the person at home with the skinny, screaming baby. I made my last visit to a health visitors' clinic at 18 weeks. I had been giving her baby rice for a week and she gained half a pound and had cried less. 'Oh well done' pronounced the sour old bat 'What did you do?'. When I said I had added baby rice to her milk she turned pale with horror and said I mustn't give her anything to eat until she was six months old. I went home deflated. After much thought, I decided we would be much happier without any more advice than without the baby rice, so we never went back. When she was six months old we started all food with a fury; I even researched which foods had the most fat and the most calories. So, she ate avocado, fromage frais and cheese in copious amounts, and finally she grew healthy. It was a full year before she stopped vomiting all the time and before we stopped giving her Infant Gaviscon, but she had, by then, become a happy, if still rather over-alert, little firework.
By the time we reached this one year milestone, I was already four months pregnant. No really. When the chicken was about 16 weeks old, I said to my husband 'We need to get pregnant straight away'. You'll understand his skepticism, but I explained 'This is awful right?' he nodded. 'Well I don't want an only child' he nodded again, we both have many siblings, 'so ... when this gets better, we'll never want to go back, we'll never do it again: right now, we have nothing left to lose!'. The gap between my children is 17 months. It would have been smaller, but there was a miscarriage in between - something so incredibly common, we should definitely talk about it more too.
When 'the boy' was born, it was like I suddenly understood all those women who loved having babies! He was so gloriously fat, I had to clean between his folds in the bath; he was deliciously cuddly and endlessly, endlessly, endlessly happy. And he slept, oh my goodness he slept. Of course, it was partly us, more relaxed and frankly 'been there done that got the t-shirt', but to be honest, he was just different in his soul. He still is.
She was already herself
I can see now how much her personality was already there as a baby. She is still skinny and a little undersized for her age: she is not a fussy eater, she just has no capacity for volume. She's also super alert, absolutely nothing passes her by. Her ears are everywhere. She is distracted by, and interested in, everything. She scours 'YouTube Kids' to learn how to do new things - previously finger knitting, currently how to do french and dutch braids on her hairdressing head. She is fascinated by the details of childbirth, so we watch ‘Call the Midwife’ together. It's a rare opportunity to snuggle with my prickly cactus, and a good opportunity to discuss some of the difficult things in the world. My kitchen is regularly turned into Armageddon as she 'experiments' with what happens when you mix this with that and that with the other. She struggles with sleep still: staying awake late and waking up early, and we talk about how she can fill this time and manage this reality. And she talks and talks and talks.
Here they both are - see how her little brother is much bigger, and he's an inch taller - which just isn't fair of course!
Those hard days are long behind us. We have been in blissfully easy times for years now: even the boy's terrible-twos tantrum phase, while spectacular, was a walk in the park in comparison. We are parents for a long time. We cannot all be fabulous at all the different phases of our children's lives. We cannot all be fabulous mothers of babies, as we cannot all be fabulous mothers of teenagers. Perhaps some of us will not come into our own until our children are grown and flown, when suddenly we know how to nurture their independence with just the right touch.
And what of my NCT group? Hard times come to each of us for sure. Some have had miscarriages like me. Some are split from their children's fathers. Some struggled with second children, as yet none have three children, while one had such a traumatic birth that she was resolute in having only one. One was made redundant for being pregnant. Two have children on the autistic spectrum. One mother had a much harder time than me with her son's life threatening food allergies and severe eczema that left open wounds: she had a two hourly routine morning and evening with creams and treatments, he even had allergies to standard eczema creams and screamed when he was put in water, and her husband responded by working longer hours. She is one of the strongest women I have known; in truth I have nothing to complain about. Even the lovely H struggled when her first child started school, where her tireless determination has made all the difference to his progress. All are still alive, which is a blessing in itself.
What have I learnt?
One of my (many) cousins had a baby, and I sent her an email congratulating her. I also wrote and told her about my experience with the chicken. I heard nothing for a year. I wondered if I had offended her? Perhaps she was a hearth-mother-type who loved every minute and was offended by my suggestion that she might struggle? So, a year later I sent her son a birthday card in case bridges needed to be built. This time my cousin wrote back. She said it had been the hardest year of her life, but when she thought she couldn't cope, she would read my email and it made her feel better. I ugly cried when I read that: the revisited trauma, knowing the same thing happens to women everywhere, being so glad I had sent her that first message because I nearly didn't.
I have learnt to tell people about my experiences. Because sometimes they make a huge difference, they help people to feel less alone.
I have learnt never to presume what another mother is experiencing. Telling her about my experiences isn't the same as telling her about hers.
I have learnt that a mother's mental health is more important than most debates about breast/bottle feeding and weaning.
I have learnt never to tell people they should be enjoying their babies, or their children for that matter. We can't treasure every moment, that's ridiculous, there is absolutely nothing to treasure in some moments. We don't need to say 'treasure every moment' we can say 'How lovely, congratulations. I found it hard sometimes, is there anything you need?' instead.
I have learnt that every phase will pass. The good and the bad.
Before making it public, I shared this blog with my old NCT group, and someone reminded me that I took the chicken to a Cranial Osteoath for babies. It was definitely a big help, she immediately slept more and cried less - overnight. It didn't 'fix ' her, but the improvement was remarkable.
This week, I've been using a vintage effect to improve some of my designs. What do you think?
Thanks for reading!
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