Two weeks before he was born, Flynn scared me with an episode of Braxton Hicks. I spent a long Saturday night on a pink exercise ball in the lounge. All my organs were dancing and I felt like a soup-bag full of baby feet.
If I went to the hospital, would they laugh and send me home? Maybe he would magically arrive that night in the bathtub, a blissful home birth that all the antenatal class videos portrayed. Nope. Not today, Satan. After Flynn was extracted a fortnight later, I was sent home with some Endone and encouragement: welcome to motherhood, get some sleep now. My husband drove us away from our local hospital with ~ a real live boy! ~ in our white car, a carriage we purchased specifically to safely transport our little bundle of joy. As we pulled up into the driveway, the wind sent white flowers from the pear trees spinning down our street, and it looked like it was snowing. Snowing in spring. Everything from that day forward was turned inside-out, and upside-over.
Trigger warning: this article discusses issues surrounding postnatal depression. If you or someone you know is suffering from antenatal and postnatal anxiety or depression, or you are concerned about them, please visit https://www.panda.org.au/
In an ideal world the human baby would be more… developed at delivery. Think about those Richard Attenborough docos on baby animals in Africa; they’re generally able to walk within three minutes of birth. Unfortunately this would mean certain death for the female of our species, who is not physically able to push out a child possessing a brain large enough to compute the requirements for such a task. Her pelvis would shatter, and/or both parties would sort of destroy each other in the process of trying. So instead we birth at 9 months, and carry the baby around in our loving arms until they’re somewhat less helpless.
Within 6 months of making sure Flynn stayed alive outside of my soft, warm body, I was diagnosed with depression, post-natal depression, and post-traumatic stress. We both wanted him to still be in there (in theory), but I just didn’t have the space. The size of my heart and love for him is endless, but all my other organs had encroached on his amniotic sac. Maybe in years to come we will invent new bodies to inhabit, in which we can coexist with our young in a velvety cocoon of love and safety. Where there are no labour pains because we can stay together for as long as we like. Where we can choose the perfect moment to separate – if only for a brief moment, before returning to each other and sharing our resources in moments of cold, or hunger, or darkness. Who knows what opportunities lay in wait if we were to evolve.
In the early days, Flynn demanded I rock him to sleep and hold him close AT ALL TIMES. If I put him in his crib? He’d open his eyes as soon as he touched the mattress. Was it my temperature? My heartbeat? What was it, that made him utterly reject being away from my warm body – in fact, any warm body? I felt the pain of his solitude and inability to verbalise his needs in my own mental torture chamber of that first year. I plagued myself with ‘shoulds‘. Nothing I did was good enough; nothing I did alleviated his cries. His endurance was admirable. Inside I felt like I was dying. I was supposed to love every moment with this new little person, this kernel of pure love made by his father and I. Instead, I would stare at him and silently beg him to be quiet.
The only way to soothe him was to feed him. Even that didn’t always work. My breasts looked like Dolly Parton’s when I arrived home from hospital, so it only made sense to use them. Nobody noticed Flynn’s tongue-tie in hospital, but a midwife who removed my caesarean stitch quickly explained why I cried in pain when I fed him. After it was corrected with a quick cut of the membrane by a wonderfully supportive doctor, I felt more relaxed with the pain remedied; but Flynn’s hunger was insatiable. I had dressed up as Rosemary from Rosemary’s Baby for a friend’s birthday party during my pregnancy, but now I actually felt like Mia Farrow’s hollow-eyed, paranoid demon-carrier.
The last time I breastfed Flynn was late one night at the end of February. He was 6 months old and charging through clothing sizes like nobody’s business. ‘You’re doing a great job feeding him’, people reassured me. My baby weight was dropping away and my jawbone was deliciously sharp, like the mountain precipice I was about to fall off. I still shudder at the crushing guilt I felt after putting my breast back in the orange-nude stretchy bra for the last time. It was the end of the mother’s milk I was taught to worship and pray to, to build shrines to because of its power. Its ability to heal and shrink my engorged womb. To elicit relationship-strengthening hormones that would fuel my bond with my child. The love hormone. But I think I was somehow immune, numb, to part of that. I don’t think I loved Flynn, truly, until the day he smiled at me. He was four months old. And I don’t think I was in love with Flynn, which I have heard many parents say, until he looked at me one day and said ‘love you’. It sounds more like ‘muv new.’ He still whispers it as he falls asleep with my arms around him, his nose in my ear.
This monumental love was hard won. The first year was not great for me. I’m still on antidepressant medication, and it helps me survive. I have never been suicidal but, during the peak of my PND, I told my husband I wanted to be dead. Each day was frightening to imagine; for the 12-hour shift from 7am to 7pm, I had to pretend that I had something worthwhile to give this baby. That I wanted to give something to this baby. I woke up each morning and wanted to run away. I lost any kind of verbal filter and found myself confessing to people that I had made the biggest mistake of my life; that I thought about putting Flynn in a cardboard box and leaving it on the footpath for someone else to take. I felt terrible for him, that his mother didn’t know how to love him. I could feel sympathy for him and pity for myself, but didn’t know how to channel the emotion into a connection with him. Sometimes you just can’t. And that’s ok. You can’t do everything, and you certainly can’t do everything perfectly. The pressure unspools you from the inside, so instead of shattering into tiny pieces, you just slowly unwind.
Nobody seemed to know how to help me feel less anxious, to even contemplate joy. One particularly significant experience that helped me feel less alone, was when a supportive coworker shared online stories and communities with me about mothers who were at their wits’ end. There was no schadenfreude here; merely a feeling of connection with other people who had hit rock bottom. Mothers who killed their daughters so they would never feel the hell they were experiencing. I wish I could save their babies, save those mothers who needed help. Who were broken and alone, and killed their love, that physical embodiment of their love, because they were completely unwound and there was nothing left. No, I do not sympathise with child murderers: I merely recognise the devastating effects that mental illness can have, because I’ve lived it and I didn’t even hit real rock bottom. I still wanted to die though, and I have no doubt some of these mothers did too.
I used to think mothers who didn’t breastfeed were selfish and stupid (yes, I cringe). Breast is best! The ABA cry rings out. What a falsehood, a terrible and cruel falsehood to spin. I rang them one day, needing moral support about coping with engorgement. Multiple responses were denigrating. You’ll wean him, they warned. Baby-led weaning was the way to go, they said. But who cares – not just about, but for – the mother? The wedding of Western social structures, and motherhood, seem terminally incompatible to me. I yearn for a communal experience, where my cup can constantly be refilled, and I can refill that of others. Sleep, nourishment, love and joy. Impossible paradise? I don’t know why it has to be. Imagine if we had birth sisters, who shared the demands of our respective obligations. Who we could collaborate with, and halve the load. We could avoid ‘losing’ so much that motherhood often takes from us, and instead embrace all that it gives to us. We could respool each other.