This Diary of Motherhood is a series of weekly letters to my first baby, my little son who I call Baby Bird. I know not everyone wants to read about the highs and lows of motherhood so you can read non-baby related posts about travel, writing, freelancing or Amsterdam instead. Alternatively read one of my short stories or check out some book reviews and recommendations.
Dear Baby Bird,
I should have known as I typed out last week's entry all about how manageable our week was, that I was heading for a fall. Thankfully not a fall off my bike, by you or me, but a fall in the metaphoric sense. I should have known that after a challenging but overall really, really good week, I was due a faceplant of a bad week. And oh, how it delivered.
After that week of sickness and weakness and poor appetite I wrote about last, I was looking forward to a week of getting back to work, back to higher energy levels and back to normal, whatever that is. Instead, I woke up on Monday morning with a razor sharp pain in my throat and glands so swollen they almost doubled the size of my neck. Swallowing was as painful as forcing shards of glass down my throat and my voice made me sound like I had a fifty-a-day smoking habit. But I got up, took you to daycare, handed you over to your favourite carer there (all the while with a scarf wrapped up halfway up my face to not pass on whatever I had, or to reveal my Frankenstein-esque neck) and then came home. For a while I stood in the doorway staring at my desk, then looking down the corridor towards the bedroom. Somehow my desk won and after wincing my way through swallowing two ibuprofen tablets, I sat down and got to work. That day I ate only painkillers and yoghurt because it was the only thing I could swallow and its coolness soothed my throat. I picked you up feeling like the pain was finally easing and as your dad and I bathed you and put you to bed, I felt optimistic the following day would be better, that this sore throat and swollen glands were just a temporary knock-on effect of all the vomiting I'd done the week before.
Not so. By Wednesday afternoon I was sat in front of my doctor, asking him what the hell was wrong with me? To cut a long, painful and frankly dull story short, after a consultation, some blood tests and two days of uncomfortable, swollen waiting, it transpired it was just bad luck that I have had illness after illness after illness and the only thing "wrong" with me was a throat infection (which I was already taking antibiotics for) and a vitamin D deficiency.
Or was it really just bad luck?
When I look back on the last nearly nine months of motherhood, I'm amazed I didn't get this sick earlier. When I think about all the hours of sleep I was not having from the day you were born until maybe only a few months ago, all the caffeine and sugar hits I needed just to feel human again, and all the times I forced myself to do some sort of exercise when I barely had the energy to wash my hair, it's a miracle I didn't get this sick before. That was why it's so frustrating to fall ill now because I am taking better care of myself; eating healthier, resting as well as exercising, accepting help when it's offered to me, and of course, you are a less demanding baby and a slightly happier sleeper. Furthermore I am now getting three days "to myself" to not only work and take pleasure in doing so, but also - if time allows it - to just sit by myself and read a book, or take a nap. I didn't have that luxury four months ago.
But the body is a funny thing. I'm convinced now that it too has a memory and apparently mine couldn't forget all of the ups and downs it had been through recently. It doesn't surprise me for a second that it also couldn't forget how little sleep it had survived on for so long. Maybe I'm underestimating how smart my body is and in fact, it delayed my nearly five weeks of illness until you were finally sleeping a little better, and I had time - thanks to daycare - to rest more than before. Either way, the last month or so has reminded me of just how important self-care is.
That's why on Friday night, I was in my pyjamas by 9pm, hopeful that another early night would see the infection off for good so that maybe we could all have a nice weekend together. But you had other ideas. Despite going to bed without a fuss, you woke at 9.30 screaming and rather than be calmed quickly by the usual tricks - a dummy in the mouth or a quick rearranging of your body which often gets stuck in one corner or another of your cot, you began to cry. And then scream, and even when we picked you up or I tried to nurse you, you wouldn't, couldn't be soothed. We checked your nappy, your temperature and your writhing body for rashes. You were fine. Except you weren't. At 10.30 your dad sent me to bed and he continued to battle your on-off displeasure with a secret something until nearly one in the morning.
Wanting to give your dad a lie-in, I shook off my tiredness on Saturday morning (after you'd woken us up a handful more times in the early hours) and after breakfast, I put you in your buggy so we could go for a walk. Pushing you, optimistically wearing workout leggings and my running trainers, I yawned away my tiredness and the stubborn but admittedly less aggressive pain in my throat. As I crossed the River Amstel I started to feel good again. Yes, I've got this. Even if it has been a bad week, we're back on track. I upped my pace and smiled at you, thinking you would soon take the nap you were due.
Not so. For some reason that is still unknown to me, you literally spat your dummy out and started doing this chest-belly thrusting action, trying to bust your way out of the harness on your buggy. You repeated this a few times with a grunt, grimace or a groan and when you realised it wasn't going to work, you started to cry. And then scream. Again.
Like the night before, I didn't know why you were so upset. You weren't sick. You weren't due a feed. Yes, you were tired, but you normally found it easy to sleep in your buggy. I was flummoxed and frustrated. A few miles from home already and nowhere near to a suitable place to stop, all I could do was keep walking. With each scream, I felt like a worse and worse parent. I know I should be so much more at ease with you crying by now, but I'm not. It's torture for me and I can't help but want it to stop as soon as it begins. All I could do was keep walking, hoping you would stop.
But you didn't. And it got to the point where I didn't even want to get you out of the buggy because you're too big now for me to carry while pushing it for any length of time and it was too windy and cold for us to just sit down on a bench together, like I often did when you were a disgruntled newborn last summer. I had to keep walking but every step you seemed to grow louder. As I pushed you screaming at the top of your little lungs, I avoided eye contact with contented couples walking hand-in-hand and lithe limbed joggers running around us. I didn't know what to do.
However, I knew what I wanted to do in those long, shriek-filled minutes. I wanted to give up. I wanted to hand you over to a better parent than me, and say in my croaky, sore voice: "Here you go. You deal with him. I'm not cut out for this." I even messaged a few friends saying how defeated I felt, admittedly in a self-indulgent plea for support or reassurance.
If I didn't say it before - and I'm pretty sure I didn't because how can a mother say this to their helpless newborn child? - this is exactly how I felt for much of the first few months of your life, and Friday night and Saturday morning this week were a cruel reminder of how soul-destroying and heart-breaking it is to feel that way about something you should love more than anything in the world, something that is the greatest gift in the world. I'll be even more honest now and say that it sort of got in the way of my love for you. It absorbed too much of my energy and focus, and detracted from the other things I was feeling; joy at how well you took to breastfeeding, gratitude for how healthy you were, delirious pleasure at how cute you looked when you slept, and perhaps most tragically of all, delight in the honour of being a mother to you. All of these wonderful feelings were buried under my anxiety and my disappointment in myself. I can see now that it wasn't you or me making me feel this way, but it was postpartum depression.
I'm regularly haunted by this time - and fear I will be for months, maybe years to come - in the same way that my body also held on to the duress it was under and eventually succumbed to it, but I want you to know that this was not a bad thing that I felt that way then. Because of all the angst and sadness I felt then, I'm so much more aware, thoughtful and sensitive to the connection and happiness I feel now. Had I not felt so desperately unsuitable for the job back then (and this weekend just gone) I wouldn't take so much pride now in the days when I do feel up to the task.
I suspect that by now you're wishing I didn't over-analyse everything so much, that maybe that's why I was susceptible to PPD (and you're right, clever one). I can almost hear a future you telling me to just chill out, relax, to accept that there will be good days and bad days and that's life (and you may or may not have a voice similar to your dad's) and yes, I often wish I could do so more naturally, that I could be less aware of my feelings, but this is who I am. And of all the things I've tasked myself with doing, being your mum is unarguably the most important to me, and I suspect it's a little important to you too, so forgive me for once again dwelling on this defining time in our journey. And forgive me for also taking time to acknowledge these blips and bumps and moments of "I can't do this", because I know that that's all they are now. Just brief, blustery moments that get blown away by the wind as you change and grow, and I change and grow.
But they exist and I'm not going to ignore them because that would be to ignore a huge part of what it means to be a parent, because being a parent is hard. And I'm not going to add a "but" onto that.
Being a parent is hard. Full stop.
Your talking-normally-and-all-better-now-I-hope, still-perplexed-about-that-crying-fit-on-Saturday-morning, grateful-I-didn't-give-you-away-because-you're-my-best-buddy-and-your-dad-would-have-killed-me, crazy-in-love mother x