I remember the first night that I was in the hospital by myself with my new baby. My family had left, my husband included, as hospital policy (in a public hospital) did not allow the husband to stay overnight. I was alone in a vacuous hospital, lights dimmed, with the constant beeping of machines, other patients around me, separated only by a thin curtain. It was cold too, as the hospital had its air-con blaring.
I was alone for the first time with my baby. I was exhausted after a long and difficult labour. I felt like I’d been hit two trucks, not one. I could barely lift my arms up, let alone roll out of bed and walk to the bathroom. I literally needed my husband and a nurse to assist me to walk the few metres out of my room and around the corner to go to the bathroom.
It was in this state that I was now left alone with a baby.
All night my uterus churned as it shrank. In my delirious, exhausted state, I was convinced that a baby was still inside of me. That the doctors had made a mistake. And yet, I’d look over at the bassinet next to me and see the sleeping baby.
She was mine, right?
Was it she who had resided inside me just hours earlier?
Then what was this movement inside of me now? It really felt like a baby. Maybe I’d actually had twins and the doctors forgot him/her inside me. Of course, the doctors had told me that my uterus would shrink and I’d feel the pain, but my irrational state wouldn’t fully accept this explanation.
I also felt a strange disconnection from the real, out-in-the-world baby next to me.
At the same time I was petrified that I would not be able to keep her alive.
My newborn actually slept for 5 hours straight that first night (alas this was not to last over the next few weeks) and when she finally woke up, and I rang the bell for the nurse for assistance, she reprimanded me for “allowing” the baby to sleep for “that long”. Didn’t I know that I was supposed to wake her up at least every 3 hours to feed her?
Um. No. I didn’t know that I was “supposed” to do that, because this was my FIRST BABY and I HAD NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE, oh and NOBODY HAD TOLD ME WHAT I WAS SUPPOSED TO DO WITH HER. (Two babies later, I know that this nurse was actually incorrect. If a baby is sleeping, they should just be allowed to sleep, and feeding should happen on demand rather than trying to stick to a strict schedule. So not only did she reprimand me and make me feel guilty, she was actually wrong.)
So now I felt like my baby was possibly going to suffer because I hadn’t woken her up for a feed.
Then it came time to actually feed her, and the nurse stripped J of all her clothes and literally shoved her onto me repeatedly, pushing me into J’s mouth. Yes. IT WAS PAINFUL and traumatic.
When I came home the next day, J would not sleep at night for more than 10-20 minutes. I was still in pain from the labour, and in pain trying to breastfeed (she probably wasn’t latched on properly, but breastfeeding for me was excruciating for the first few WEEKS).
On top of this, J was not gaining weight properly. She wasn’t “thriving”. She had some mild jaundice. She was constipated and not passing stools for weeks at a time. And well-meaning relatives around me were constantly looking in and commenting and asking “why isn’t she gaining weight, etc etc…”
I remember sitting on my bed and looking down at my new physical self, with tears streaming down my face. Yes I got a baby out of this body, but I no longer recognised a single part of myself. Everything about me was just so different. I still had the weight that I’d gained from pregnancy, stretch marks crawled their way across my stomach, my chest had swelled from the milk… None of my clothes fit me. And when I did get dressed, I did not look like myself at all. I mourned my pre-baby body. I scolded myself for not appreciating it and constantly complaining about how I had extra chub here or there. I would never look like that unscarred, unmarked by birth, self, ever again.
I remember again, sitting on my bed looking out the window and feel a heaviness descend on me. Tears were rolling down my face. My husband came and simply sat next to me, put his arms around me.
Sometimes whilst sitting in J’s nursery with her in my arms, trying to rock her to sleep, the same heaviness would descend upon me and the tears would once again snake their way down my face. And again, well-meaning relatives would tell me, “you can’t be sad! It will affect her. You’ll pass on your anxiety to her. So be happy!”
Of course, this only exacerbated the guilt I felt for not “being happy” and wondering why I even felt this way, and that omg now it was affecting my baby, wasn’t I just a horrible mother!!
The thing is, I felt that I couldn’t quite comprehend nor grasp the momentous transition that I’d just experienced. I couldn’t believe the pain that I’d been through to birth this child, I couldn’t comprehend the physical separation, and I couldn’t cope with the intensity of my feelings for her, which mainly manifested itself in anxiety and fear over her health. Every little thing that did not “go right”, such as her sleeping, her feeding, her constipation, her slow weight gain…everything… I couldn’t be rational about it. I felt that it reflected my failure as a mother, because I didn’t even know what me as a mother looked like and I was terrified of hurting her in some long-lasting way.
When I think back to those initial months, I can literally feel the stifling heaviness and anxiety that I experienced.
When I had Z, I thought it would be easier given that I “had experience”. But I was to learn keenly the lesson that “every baby is different”, and therefore you have to change and adapt to them. Although it was easier to fall into the newborn cycle with Z, she also was not a good sleeper, had colic, fed for hours, and did not want to be put down during the day.
So most of my days with her were spent on the couch feeding her, with J watching TV for hours (even though I tried to set up ‘play stations’ for her), and the time in between carrying Z in a baby carrier and trying to cook, or clean, or play with J whilst my back suffered from the constant carrying of a 4kg baby. Come around 7pm, Z, overtired from a day of not sleeping for more than 45 minutes at a time, would scream for around 2 hours and nothing, nothing that I did would calm her.
Again, I felt that familiar heaviness. That creeping, uncomfortable anxiety that I wasn’t doing things right. That sense of fear and insecurity about the health of my newborn, and this time, of the boredom of my eldest and frustration that TV was the only way we could get through those early days.
Anxiety was not unfamiliar ground for me. A few years before having J I had experienced anxiety disorder and panic attacks for quite some time.
Maybe this history of mine meant that I was predisposed to experiencing post-natal depression of some form after giving birth. I had feared that I should expect it whilst I was pregnant with J, given my history.
The midwives would ask me those standard questions, where we’d have to tick off on a checklist how we felt, and this would determine, supposedly, how ‘depressed’ or ‘sad’ we were. I remember a midwife who came to visit us at home after J was born told me that I had the “blues”. She left it at that. She didn’t really tell me how to deal with it.
Looking back, I would tell that fragile-as-a-baby new mother to be easy on herself. I would tell her, yes, you have been through an incredibly harrowing event that will mark the timeline of your life, that will unalterably and significantly change who you are as a person.
I would tell her that it’s ok to mourn for her pre-mother self. But that slowly, vestiges of that self would slowly creep back in, only this time she would be coloured and brightened by a new self, a new role, a new mission that will guide every decision that she makes henceforth.
I, I’d tell her that things will get easier. In those early weeks, it feels like the days simply drag on and that your baby will never grow, never sleep, never settle.
I’d tell her that “the days feel long, but the years are short” my dear. And if only I knew then how quickly the years pass, how quickly the fussy newborns morph into children of strength, curiosity and brightness… I would tell her to cherish the soft soft skin, the untainted smell of baby, the wondrously small toes and fingers…
And difficult as it might seem, I’d tell her to cherish this time when there is no other responsibility in the world but to care for this baby… even though some of the time this knowledge itself can exacerbate the anxiety. There will be years ahead to dedicate yourself to things outside your children… there is only a small window of precious time when it is just you and baby…
Giving birth, regardless of how it happens, and bringing that baby home is an incredibly difficult, strange and challenging time. Without proper support (I’ve written about what support should look like before) it can be almost impossible to cope with. The physical separation of mother from baby is itself a contributing factor I believe to the post-natal depression that women experience.
So to all mothers, mothers-to-be, mothers who have experienced the crippling anxiety and the weight of heaviness descend upon them during a time that is supposed to be the ‘happiest time of their lives’, I want to reach out and hug you, and tell you, it’s alright. I promise it will get better. Remind yourself to have shukr (roughly, ‘gratitude’) for the beautiful being you have helped to bring into the world. Steel yourself with positivity. And when you feel that sadness, accept it, let it wash over you, but know that it will pass. It does not mean you are a bad mother… it just means that you are human, and that you have just been through a surreal, yet completely natural transition, and yes, you will experience an array of feelings.
And that’s ok.
Brightness is not a dim place on the horizon, you carry it within you, you carry it in the love that you have for your child… and this will carry you both through…
*Images via Akira Kusaka. Featured image is “Dawn” and second image is “Stray”.