I reckon something happens around 3 or 4 months after having a baby: it’s like the adrenaline just runs out. Apparently there’s also a dip in hormones. Whatever it is, I feel like I’ve run out of steam. Of course everyone who has had a baby will have good weeks and bad weeks. But if you’re like me, and have a history of anxiety/depression, you gotta stay on top of your mental health. In a way, I’m lucky because I now know the signs of when I’m in dangerous territory. But first time around with baby number one I didn’t have a great deal of insight.
When baby number one came along I was pretty much in shock for the first two weeks. I mean, why the fuck had no-body told me what having a newborn was like? I had absolutely no perspective (and how could I, I had no previous experience, and the sisterhood had completely betrayed me by not telling me anything of childbirth or life with a newborn!). I recall lying on the floor, sobbing, asking my mum if I would ever sleep again. At that point, I was utterly convinced the next 3 years of my life would be governed by painful breastfeeding and a screaming, shitting, spewing newborn that would never grow up. I saw no end to it. The initial shock subsided and I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster. In the mornings I would be absolutely delirious with joy over my new life: coffees in the sun with mothers’ group and our beautiful gurgling babies. By three or four in the afternoon, however, my tiredness and anxieties would increase and I became panicked at the thought of the night of feeding and settling to come.
Slowly, as the weeks went by, I found it harder and harder to get back to sleep at night after breastfeeding. And I became more and more focussed with washing and cleaning. At the time, I thought, if only I can get this last bit of washing done, and get it hung up symmetrically with my colour co-ordinated pegs, and get it dried and folded perfectly, I will feel better. The urgency increased: why the fuck couldn’t my husband get the hanging and folding done the way I wanted it to be done? Hello! Fold the baby spew rags in neat squares! And stack them in exactly equally high piles under the change table in their matching boxes! If you recognise the shrill panic of a perfectionist, control freak, with obsessive-compulsive disorder, you’re on the money. But at the time I had no such insight. Instead, I was stuck inside my own head, on a merry-go round of anxious narratives telling me that I would either accidentally drop the baby on the bathroom floor or purposefully throw it over the balcony if it wouldn’t stop crying. And I wasn’t sure which scenario gave me more guilt. Because pretty much every thought I had was associated with guilt in one form or another. I felt guilty for watching television when I should have been singing to my baby. I felt guilty for exercising, because I wasn’t with my baby. I felt guilty for not exercising, because I knew it would make me feel better. I got heart palpitations and increasingly awoke of a morning with a pressure on my chest like a double-story brick house. I cried more often. And was angry, all-the-time.
Having a baby will push you to your limit. It can be a wonderful, beautiful and special time, but it can also be really tough. It took several years before a few of us in my mother’s group were able to put words to our experiences: we had struggled with post-natal depression/anxiety. It was a term I have never really been comfortable with, because it seemed to define something that I wasn’t: I wasn’t lying on the couch crying all day unable to get out of the house. I wasn’t numb and I wasn’t depressed (although I know this can be the reality of some mums). Instead, I was on the anxious end of the spectrum: wired, hyperactive and unable to wind down.
For others I know, their struggles have focussed on anxieties around their baby’s sleep and settling (is my baby sleeping too little or too much?! I can’t leave home, in case my baby doesn’t get their sleep!); feeding (is my baby getting enough food, or too little?) or an obsession of getting their baby into a “routine” (I need my baby to feed and sleep at these exact times or my world will fall apart!). In all kinds of ways we try to create order and control in a situation in which we find none. Obviously a lot of mums have these worries at some point. But if these thoughts are on high volume in your head most of the day, like a repetitive annoying radio station on full blast that you can’t turn off, it’s probably not that great for your own well-being. With baby number two I’m much more aware of my own mental health, but also the mental health of other mums. If you are struggling, or see someone else struggling, talk about it. And don’t be afraid to get professional help. I did, and it helped enormously.
On the lighter side, thanks to my journey, I now consider myself a pseudo psychologist, and regularly meet up with a good friend who also considers herself the same. Between the two of us we’ve pretty much nailed all the self-help and parenting literature out there. Over coffee, we laugh, and occasionally also cry, over our various anxieties and neurosis. As she remarked ironically the other day “I’m not anxious, I just have lots and lots of small worries that I think about all day, and that tend to snowball until I’m overwhelmed. No, I’m not at all anxious!”. Distance and humour helps. I probably couldn’t have written about this a few years ago. But then again, I was probably too busy to write anything given my unhealthy obsession with washing and folding baby spew rags.
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*ActiveMumma is a pseudonym for an otherwise ordinary person who has daily existential struggles with the responsibilities of parenthood and who has the occasional overwhelming urge to run away (with a good book, or at the very least the latest season of KUWTK) and never return. But, of course, she loves her adorable and perfect little angels way too much to ever abandon them, at least on any long-term basis.