RE-BUILDING THE TOWER
My little boy has changed me. I suppose having a child changes everybody, I just never knew how much. Joey has changed me for the better - I feel far more content and well-balanced than I ever have. But my tower of confidence had to crumble into a thousand pieces before I could get here.
In my pre-baby world, I was happy. There was a time when I didn’t fancy the idea of having children. I didn’t see how having a baby would benefit my life. I don’t really know at what point I changed my mind. Perhaps my husband Greg and I simply decided that starting a family was the right thing to do, after getting married a few years before.
Fast-forward to me lying on a hospital bed, clutching my baby in amazement. He was here! Did I feel that cliché ‘rush of love’? Not exactly. It was all a bit overwhelming, holding a baby that was all mine, forever.
But back at home, I did feel it. I was head over heels for my boy. I couldn't believe this little human being with his beating heart was really ours. I was so relieved to have made it through the last nine months and the birth, to finally meet our perfect, healthy baby.
Over the coming weeks, I didn’t have much time to think. Life was a cycle of feeding, nappy-changing, washing dirty babygrows, trying to rest when Joey was sleeping, and at some points remembering to eat.
It was a while later that it really hit me just how much my life had changed. It wasn’t my own anymore, it was my baby’s. He didn’t belong to me, I belonged to him! Or at least that’s what it felt like. I had to put him before me, I had to keep him alive. If he was screeching because he was hungry, I had to prepare a bottle of formula and spend the next half an hour feeding him and the half an hour after that burping him, before I could even consider going to the loo or getting a drink of water. No real hardship I know, but it was the overwhelming realisation that my needs no longer came first.
Spending time alone with Joey made the days feel very long. Once Joey was a few months old, I would find myself watching the clock, eager for Greg to come home. I needed an adult to talk to. I tried to get out and about, even just for a walk. But I didn’t find it easy leaving the house with a baby and all the required paraphernalia. There were days that, by the time I was just walking out the door, Joey decided to do an up-the-backer nappy explosion, putting me back at square one. It was easier to stay at home.
Before I was a parent, I was zipping around in the car, music blaring, visiting friends, going out for drinks, getting that buzz from getting in deals at work or sharing a laugh with someone. As a new mum, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was achieving something far greater: raising a child, laying down the foundations for his future and helping him develop. Shaping him into the kind of person he would grow up to be, teaching him manners and teaching him right from wrong.
But doing that job day-in day-out wasn’t giving me the same short-term buzz I was used to. And I missed it. I lost my identity. I wasn't quaffing wine and having a laugh, or doing slut drops on the dance floor anymore. Now, I was anxious. When I did get out of the house, it felt like I didn’t know what I was doing. And that overwhelming doubt started to chip away at my already wobbly tower of self-assurance.
If I met the NCT girls in Café Nero, I envied how they seemed to find motherhood so easy. They sat on the sofas with their gurgling babies perched on their laps, occasionally topping them up with a feed to keep them happy. But I couldn’t seem to achieve the same maternal calmness. I tried sitting Joey on my lap, but he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to get down, to move around, to do anything but sit peacefully. He would start whinging and my heart would start to race. How can I get him to be quiet like the other babies? It’s not like I didn’t go prepared. I had formula, snacks, teething rings, toys, obscure objects from home for him to play with, but nothing worked. And when the whinging turned into crying, I gave up. With fumbling hands, I packed everything into my rucksack, strapped Joey into my baby carrier and said a teary goodbye as I ran out of the café, leaving my friends behind.
Over and over I told myself, I wasn’t meant to be a mum. I didn’t have the patience. I had once been one of those people who rolled their eyes at squealing babies, so I didn’t want Joey destroying other people’s peace.
On one of my braver days, I decided to join a music class with Joey, Monkey Music. As I walked there, I had my own mum’s phrase whirring in my mind: Action cures fear. But as I struggled to push the buggy through the heavy door and saw a bunch of mums standing together, laughing and chatting, I was more nervous than I’d ever been for any exam or job interview.
The first class went okay, so I went again the following week. But near the end of the session, Joey lost it. Which made me lose it. My heart thumped as I tried to tuck a wriggling, screaming baby into his buggy. Why aren’t any of the other babies crying? Everyone else seemed so in control. Everyone.
At home, the mums who walked past my living room window, pushing their buggies, looked happy and confident. My closest friends with babies made it look easy, uploading cute photos of their little ones onto Facebook and Instagram. Soon after that, I decided to come off social media. Comparing myself to others was making me feel a million times worse.
I never went back to Monkey Music. I had paid for a bulk of sessions and felt sick at losing the best part of £100, especially because I wasn’t earning. But more than that, I felt sick at quitting. At not being brave enough to continue with music classes that could enhance Joey’s development.
After that, I tried not to go out if I could help it, worried for any more embarrassing ‘look how rubbish I am’ moments. And I hid how I felt from Greg, not wanting him to think I was doing a bad job while he was out earning money to pay the mortgage and bills. But the more I supressed my feelings, the worse they got. When I couldn’t stop Joey crying, I cried too. I felt like a failure, and a lonely one at that. Looking back now, I want to shake myself and say: ‘TALK to someone.’ If I had gone out to see a friend, picked up the phone and spoken to my family, or opened up to Greg, I’m sure I wouldn’t have felt like I was trapped in a deep, dark well, without anyone to help me.
The rest is a bit hazy. But I know it was speaking to my sister that started the change for the better. She encouraged me to see my GP. I gathered what little courage I had left and went to my appointment, then I sat down in the doctor’s room and burst into tears. I told my GP how I’d ended up feeling trapped in my own home. I was isolated and wracked with guilt that Joey was stuck indoors all day too.
Minutes later, she diagnosed me with postnatal depression and anxiety. I wasn’t really surprised at the latter. I had always been a bit of a worrier, overthinking and stressing about everyday things that weren’t really a problem. But I was surprised I had PND. Over the years I had written countless stories about women who had postnatal depression. I even coordinated a national campaign backed by the NHS, to support those suffering with the condition. But of course, no matter how much you know about a subject, it doesn’t mean you won’t be affected by it too.
Soon afterwards, I began CBT, cognitive behavioural therapy. I had to re-train my brain to learn how to deal with my negative thoughts and behaviours in the appropriate way. Just talking to the therapist helped and with each session, I felt a little bit lighter and better equipped to deal with the world.
Don’t get me wrong, there were many incredible moments with Joey in between the grey cloudy parts. He gave me the best smiles, the most adorable giggles and I loved watching him hit his milestones, rolling over, sitting up, crawling… But unfortunately, in the end, my brain allowed the clouds to pass over the brighter times.
I told a few of my friends who were amazingly supportive. I always knew they would be, but I hadn’t been ready to speak to them at the time. I was shocked when they said they had noticed a change in me. I’d been so sure I had done a professional cover-up job, top secret CIA style.
It’s only now I can write all of this down. Just because you have a baby doesn’t mean you will end up feeling this way, but I urge all new mums to keep talking. Talk to your partner, your parents, your siblings, your friends, to fellow new mums at baby classes. Because talking will help you re-build that tower of confidence, whether it’s just swaying slightly, or if it’s come tumbling down like mine did.
Oh and you know those mums who look like they’ve totally got their sh*t together? They totally haven’t. They also get yoghurt thrown in their hair. Their babies have monstrous meltdowns. And they too sometimes sit on the kitchen floor for a cry. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t totally awesome. Nobody’s perfect. And it’s okay not to be okay. Okay?
If you need help, you can speak to your GP or seek advice from:
Association for Post Natal Illness: https://apni.org
Anxiety UK: www.anxietyuk.org.uk / 08444 775 774