Six days after he was born, they started talking about medication. Anti-anxiety medication. Something to help me sleep. Because I wasn't sleeping, even when my baby slept, which much to our surprise, relief and joy was a lot at both night and day. But I still wasn't sleeping. "They" were my maternity nurse and my midwife, two calm, kind and caring people tasked with helping me in the first few days and weeks of this postnatal period. They'd got together to have a talk about me after I spent much of this sixth day of post-partum life crying.
"It's just the baby blues," I said collecting sodden tissues in my lap.
But when they suggested that it could be more and while that would be totally normal it was something we should tackle early, I couldn't deny that I was having moments of real anxiety. These moments came when I was supposed to be resting - half-lying, half-sitting on my bed - with my son gently snoring on my chest. I had been sweetly sent upstairs to rest by our wonderful maternity nurse, but inevitably I'd end up staring out the window for hours feeling physically shattered and emotionally drained, and yet still awake. She would pop up a few hours later and ask me if I slept. Sometimes I would lie and say I had, but then I realised I had to be honest and I would try to explain.
"I don't sleep so easily, not when there's a lot going on, and there is quite a lot going on," I said, tapping my head to show her where all the "going on" was happening.
So we would try again, me climbing the stairs to my room an hour or so later after eating something or giving my baby son a bath. But it had the same result. Frustratingly, I would then fall foul of worrying about worrying, wondering why I couldn't shake this feeling of alertness, or rather being on high alert, of questioning every single thing I was feeling. Yes, I would curl my hands around my new son's body in these quiet moments when my other child was being taken care of elsewhere, and I would treasure his new presence, his small weight on me, his delightful snuffles and squeaks, but I would do so with the love sort of clogging me. I felt overwhelmed by it all, but not in the way you can surrender to and just sort of "bluescreen" into a drowsy haze of happiness. No, I was wide awake and sleep-dodging and subsequently feeling all the pressure to eradicate any remotely unpleasant feeling because it was from these unpleasant feelings that more serious problems grew, right? And thus it was a vicious circle and not one that responded well to witnessing the additional new fragility of my firstborn, nor the deluge of hormones my body experienced as my breasts swelled with milk, and my uterus cramped as it shrank, just a few of the many physical sensations that were also making sleep hard.
With a little hindsight - now at the end of my second week postpartum - I am somewhat surprised anyone expected me to sleep on demand. Surely a general sense of restlessness is completely normal when you are experiencing a huge physical and emotional change?
In some ways, and at the risk of using a terrible comparison, it's the same restlessness I sometimes get on holiday when you are somewhere set up for relaxing but you still just can't. At least not for the first few days. You have to ease into it. Allow your senses to first become acquainted with some of the new. The new person you have birthed. The new way your family is. The new way your eldest son looks at you when you're holding or feeding the baby. The new way your body aches and stings, but also feels stronger and more capable than it ever has. The new rhythm you have to adopt because the physical act of birth took so much from you; it's going to take weeks, maybe months, for that energy to return. The new story you have inside you, of how he entered this world that you find yourself replaying because you can't quite believe it happened and yet your mind and body remind you with every passing minute that it did, that it hurt more than anything you've ever known, and that it was the bravest you've ever been.
"I will sleep... eventually," I said. "I know I will."
They didn't seem convinced and I couldn't blame them because of the experience I had before. My firstborn struggled to sleep for more than an hour at a time in his earliest weeks and months, Once he did go longer, I found that I was still unable to sleep much more than this and I'd lie awake during those two or three hour stretches he slept. Ironically, because I was so exhausted, it took me months to realise it was a deep and dark anxiety keeping me awake, rather than the normal new mother worries and restlessness.
I'm perversely happy now, therefore, to say that I believe what I've been feeling this last week is the normal new mother worry, because it comes and it goes, and it does let me sleep, some of the time at night when my son is sleeping. And in between feeds, and nappy changes and being with my other son when he's at home, when I'm supposed to be sleeping, as I stare out of the window I entertain some of those normal worries. I think about how helpless my new son is, and how responsible I am for his life, and how the future is filled with unknowns. I also entertain some of the happiest thoughts in my life. I think about what we will look like as a family of four over the coming years. I imagine my sons playing together when they're older. I imagine lying in bed and reading them both a story, the three of us cuddled up under the covers. I also live in the here and the now. I smile at my son's snores, at how his eyes sometimes don't focus at the same time leaving him cross-eyed, and how my three-year-old has a very different definition of "gentle" and "careful" to us. I also marvel at how much I have forgotten about newborn life; how different (and amazing!) my breasts look filled with milk, and yet how sore and heavy they also become. I smile ruefully at how much preparation goes into just going to bed at night. I don't just brush my teeth and wash my face, I have to change my underwear and stick a new sandwich-sized sanitary pad in my underpants, find new breastpads to insert into my bra, fill a large bottle with water, take two paracetamol, lay a towel down under where I will lie, check I have a couple of dummies to hand, apply lanolin to my nipples, and I do all this in the dark and near silence as at least one of my son's is asleep. There are also moments, as I lie in bed, staring out that window - a view I will now never forget long after we leave this house - where I don't think. I just focus on feeding my son and giggling at the squeaks he makes as he sucks with a determination bigger than him. And as often as I possibly can, as I watch him fall asleep I let myself feel all the love I already have for my baby son. I let it fill me, awkwardly and heavily, and I close my eyes to it clogging me up, until it feels sort of comfortable in the way that uncomfortable things eventually become so familiar they are comfortable, and I do this because as unnerving as it is, I do feel it; the love, that very special mother's love. Because last time - thanks to anxiety - I didn't, couldn't, wouldn't for months.
"Okay, well, we will keep an eye on you," my midwives said with warm smiles. And they have, they are, with near daily phone calls and constant offers for a listening ear should I wish to call them in the interim.
Before and after each of their phone calls I have checked in with myself. Am I okay? Am I worried this could all go horribly wrong again? Am I prepared to ask for help if this does end up going down the same road towards depression and anxiety? Does this really feel so different from last time? Am I going to be okay, whatever this time turns out to be?
The answers, by the way, to all these questions is Yes. I honestly am feeling okay. I'm also feeling scared, apprehensive, relieved and optimistic, but I know which of these feelings serve me best. The fact I can see this is what is so different from then. Back then there was something in me that clung to dark, sad thoughts and worries. The pull towards negativity was magnetic; I couldn't resist it. So far, I don't feel the same way. I may not see it always, but most of the time I have a clear understanding of the thoughts and feelings that do serve me and it's these that I'm going to nurture and grow, using the many ways I've learned to do this from all the therapy and help I had last time, as well as the help and support being offered to me now.
So yes, I have faith I will sleep eventually, and if I don't, I know I will ask for help, accept it, and if needed, take the drugs. Whether that happens first or not, I know it will all eventually get easier, calmer. I know I will stop bleeding. I know I will only need to sit on a specific arrangement of cushions for a few more days, weeks at most. I know my breasts won't ache and sting and burn forever. I know I will not sleep on an old towel for the rest of my life.
I know sometimes things will be hard. I know sometimes things will be truly wonderful. I know I will be okay.
Frances M. Thompson
Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before putting down some roots with her Australian partner and having a baby boy in July 2015. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her son around Amsterdam.
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Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.