It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s supposed to feel like your insides are full of warm honey. It’s supposed to be like falling in love, but much, much better. You think of an interview with Angelina Jolie that you read. She described motherhood as finally feeling like she was complete. You are ten days in and rather than feeling complete you feel as though you’ve been put though a meat mincer and what’s left is something unrecognisable. You remember who you were ten days ago: you loved banana bread and Charlie Kaufman films and you had an almost-finished manuscript in your bottom drawer. Now your mind is pulverised and you walk into rooms and forget why you are there. You can’t eat. You lie in bed at night, between feeds, mentally listing all the child-safety hazards in the house and you know that if you don’t get to sleep soon you won’t be able to stand – let alone look after a baby.
Before the baby was born, you folded all the tiny clothes and arranged them neatly in the new dresser, you bought a linen-covered box from Ikea to hold the nappies and hung a mobile over the change-table. Now you stand next to the change-table, where the baby writhes and screams, and you riffle through the dresser drawers trying to decide what to put on the baby while tears stream down your face. Your world feels as though it has tilted on its axis and you grasp the side of the change-table to steady yourself.
Even when the baby sleeps, you can’t. At all.
You knew your husband was a good person: trustworthy and loving and funny. But this… He paces and paces with the baby and talks to it and tells you to lie down while he takes it for a walk. He is calm and patient and you panic whenever he leaves the house, even if it’s just to take the rubbish out. You don’t want to be alone with the baby but you don’t tell him that, you just cry. He looks at you with worry in his eyes. You know he is wondering where his wife has gone.
You don’t know whether to wake the baby to feed it during the day, because you know you must teach it day from night. But you don’t know day from night. You read and re-read the baby book, looking for instructions, but the answers are opaque and wishy washy and you just want someone to tell you what to do. Wake the baby? Let it sleep? Hold it all the time, bouncing from side to side because that’s what keeps it from crying? But it has to learn to go to sleep by itself, doesn’t it? Otherwise it will be five and you’ll be trying to hold it to your chest while you walk it to sleep with its feet dangling down to your knees.
This is the biggest mistake you have ever made.
You remember all the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome literature you have read. You must be careful the baby doesn’t get too hot in the night. But maybe it is too cold and that’s why it doesn’t sleep. Will it die in the night? Do you want it to die in the night? What sort of monster are you?
You do the ironing and imagine pressing the hot iron down on your hands. You close the kitchen door so you can’t see the knife block.
You ring your mother and cry. She says you are doing really well. You see yourself dropping the baby on the tiles. You see yourself putting your hand over the baby’s mouth. If anyone knew what was in your head they would take you away and put you in a mental hospital. You want to be taken away. “I need help,” you tell your mother. She says you are doing really well.
“No Mummy. I need help.”
Your mother rings the hospital and they tell her the number of the Adult Mental Health Crisis Team. The Crisis Team finds you a psychiatrist to see. The baby is bundled into the car. It wears a red beanie your mother-in-law made.
The psychiatrist asks you what is wrong, but there are so many tears you can’t speak. She says you will be alright. She has seen so many women like this: high-functioning women, lawyers, doctors in the same position as you are in. She prescribes anti-depressants. And sedatives. You don’t want to take them but you have to trust her because what else can you do? You leave her rooms and all you have in your mind is that Ramones song: I want to be sedated.
Your husband takes time off. You see the psychiatrist often. There is a good day and then bad days. You take one at a time. Up and down. You learn to give yourself space.
A year passes. A whole year. Your son eats toasted cheese-sandwiches and loves baths and dogs and the word duck.
You still take medication, but you look at your boy and your husband and you know you are blessed. You savour every bed-time story and every cuddle and you know now what it is to be a mother, even when you’re tired.
Your heart swells.
You take the medication and give yourself space.
You will be alright.
“Grown don’t mean nothing to a mother. A child is a child. They get bigger, older, but grown. In my heart it don’t mean a thing.”*
As our children grow and become more independent, we might become a wee bit complacent about their existence, lost in the daily grind and focusing on the world outside the home. But it doesn’t take much to realise how shockingly fragile human life is, and how quickly childhood will be over, though the connections and feelings that bind us will remain for eternity.
* Tony Morrison (American novelist, editor, and professor)