Holding my gorgeous baby girl, I gaze at her in wonder and remember how close she came to never being. I take the time to cuddle and love her, and just watch her, asleep in my arms, with all her myriad noises and fleeting moments of emotion. She glows with a radiant light.
Six years ago, I had my long-awaited first child. I was thrilled to have my dream little family with a dog; a house with a garden, even a white picket fence.
Lachie was a delight, and I loved to snuggle and play with him. I kept busy, sharing baby experiences with friends. My husband worked long hours, but we took care to fit in special times too. The summer Lachie was born was steamy hot, and I remember hours spent skin to skin in a pool of sweat. We’d all escape to the beach and lie on a sandy, damp double towel, laughing and drinking in the salt and the sparkles on the water, on those glimmering days.
I tried so hard to be a responsive parent. I wanted my beautiful baby to feel secure and loved, and to know that when he needed something, he had the power to make it happen. I intuitively followed his cues. I empathised with his need for closeness to me, for comfort, to be held as he cried. I loved the intimacy. But I could only do this by entering the space of my own tiny baby self. I started to feel quite vulnerable.
Over the first few months of Lachie’s life, I opened up a torrent of unfamiliar feelings like neediness, dependence and anxiety about being alone. I was holding him, but who was holding me? At times I became overwhelmed with longing for someone to make it all safe again. I was filled with cold fear.
Unlike Lachie’s, my own ‘baby’ feelings were dealt with harshly. I would tell myself to ‘get it together’, like I could drive them away with sheer will-power. Beneath the surface, this ‘baby’ part of me became increasingly terrified, without anyone listening to and nurturing her. I felt such love when I held my baby and such passion for doing the best by him, why not myself?
Lachie picked up on my growing anxiety, and woke every forty minutes every night, for months. I became desperately exhausted. The only cure offered at the time was listening to him cry at gradually increasing intervals (‘Controlled Crying’). It broke my heart, because I could hear Lachie really needed me and was begging for help in the strongest way he knew how. My whole body ached to respond but I was being told to ignore him, or he wouldn’t learn to sleep.
I became my baby, sobbing there. I was flooded with feelings of terror that nobody was there for me, either. I doubted we could survive it. I kept seeing images of a naked baby lying alone in the snow, screaming. I piled on the blankets to cope with freezing nights.
Lachie eventually slept well once I had support and we both felt more secure again. However, I went up and down over the first two years of his life, struggling with these ‘baby’ feelings, but with no way to make sense of them, except to continue to run away from them. I wore a mask and stayed busy socially, supporting other mums where I could. I worked, part time, as we needed the money. Although the competence I felt there helped a little, I couldn’t cope with feeling I was abandoning my baby.
One day, Lachie cried and I picked him up and held him, as tightly as I could, just thinking over and over again, “Not good enough, not good enough”. In reality, I was responding to him, playing with him, but inside I was spinning out of control, and was awash in the most frightening feelings of vulnerability and desperate longing for someone to just hold me and help me, that I couldn’t stand it. It felt like death.
Lachie must have felt my hopelessness, as I wept and clung to him for dear life. His little fingers stroked my face and I cried harder, feeling like I was failing him. He was so gorgeous and so much himself, and deserved a mother who was coping.
I finally couldn’t keep pretending any longer; I was crying constantly, however valiantly I tried to function. I was diagnosed with Post-natal Depression.
I was deep in grief, I now know, for a little baby me who had never had enough of feeling adored, listened to, and responded to; enough of being able to dump all my messy, painful feelings onto someone and know they’d make sense of them for me. I know all parents do the best they can for their children with the knowledge they have at the time. Sadly, though, generation after generation of parents in my family has pretended painful feelings don’t exist. They have withdrawn from their children or denied their need for dependence when the children’s needs made them see the vulnerability in themselves. Staying responsive to my baby meant I had to deal with these overwhelming feelings.
I ended up in hospital, twice, taking many anti-depressant and anti-psychotic medications, and finally, even having Electroconvulsive Therapy.
It took a drug overdose for me to accept I needed to take some time out from always being the ‘competent’ one. I needed to experience being vulnerable and dependent and having someone, a therapist, support and respond to me and help me understand the difficult feelings. Slowly, I began to treat myself as I treated my child, with love and acceptance. I began to heal.
Now it’s summer again. It’s a warm, bright time and I am enjoying being with my baby daughter and young son. They seem very happy and secure and I am so thankful that the journey has taken us here. I know that my children are better off with a mother who nurtures her own vulnerable self, and so is able to respond to theirs.
My gift to my children is the knowledge that they can reach out and express all their feelings and be understood.
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem