Yesterday we had the paddling pool out for the first time. Caterpillar had a lot of fun and then wanted to come and sit with me where I was watching from the picnic blanket. I wrapped him in a towel and we snuggled down and cuddled, looking at the sky and talking about the sun and clouds, singing songs and tickling each other. Not an unusual sight for a mother and toddler, but a moment perhaps more significant to me than it would be to someone who hasn’t suffered Postnatal Depression.
At one point my son gave me what we call a “hands kiss” (a kiss on the lips while putting his little hands on your cheeks) and I almost wanted to scream with the love I felt. Screaming may seem a little extreme but that’s how it feels to me – whenever I have a wonderful moment with my son – like I’m consumed by joy and relief. Because, for a long time, it was nothing like that.
As a pregnant woman you hear much about the magical and instant bond you will feel with your baby. It’s a given that you will feel a love for them that is beyond any other emotional connection you have ever experienced. The love you feel for your partner or parents will simply pale in comparison. You’re told that yes, parenting is hard work but the love and happiness you get from your baby will make everything worth it.
I couldn’t help but be excited about experiencing this completely new kind of love. I already felt very bonded to my bump and loved the magic of feeling my baby move inside me, I couldn’t wait until the moment I saw him for the first time and felt that lightening bolt strike me.
The reality was a little different.
Caterpillar was born by emergency section when his heartbeat dropped dangerously low after 12 hours of labour. When he was born they had to whip him off to suction mucus out of his throat. I was unable to feel or move any part of my body besides my head. Twenty minutes later I laid eyes on him for the first time. He was a metre or so away, and pretty blurry as I’d had to remove my contact lenses before the surgery, and I couldn’t hold him as I was unable to feel my arms.
He was so cute, wide-eyed with beautiful skin, and undoubtedly mine as he shared so many of my family’s features. I was so relieved to see he was okay after spending the last few hours convinced he was dying. There was relief and familiarity…but no lightening bolt. No overwhelming protective instinct. No “instant bond.” No euphoria. I just felt tired and nauseas.
For the next eight hours I drifted in and out of sleep, vomited several times, and waited for my body to come back to life. I was vaguely aware of Hubs holding a small bundle in his arms next to me. The next morning when I was finally able to hold Caterpillar I sobbed and told the nurse I felt I was seeing him for the first time.
Whilst in hospital I mainly felt anxious and useless. I assumed motherhood would come naturally but it didn’t. My milk didn’t come in and I couldn’t get him to sleep much at all. Aren’t new mums supposed to want to hold their baby constantly, and never want them to leave their sight? But when the nurses offered to take him for a couple of hours to allow me to rest I felt only relief.
Back home we began to find our groove but my emotions were all over the place. I would cry every night around bedtime as I knew we’d be up every three hours, if we could get him to sleep in the first place. None of this is unusual, this is how life is during the first couple of weeks with any newborn but in addition to the usual sleep deprivation and steep learning curve I was dealing with a terrifying internal struggle: do I love my baby?
That awful, paralysing, guilt-laden thought kept whispering across my brain with increasing frequency until it got so loud it was all I could hear. I don’t think I’m enjoying this. What’s to enjoy? I’m just tired and drained. I thought these were meant to be the happiest days of my life. He’s so adorable, cuddles are nice but is this really my life now, forever? Oh my God, why am I thinking like this? Do I not love him? Is there something wrong with me, I should be happy to take care of him, shouldn’t I?
I cared about him a great deal, I found him beautiful, and I felt duty-bound to protect him – but that was the thing, it felt like duty, not overwhelming, uncontrollable love.
I believe it was these few thoughts about how I felt about my son and my new life as a mother than sparked the anxiety attacks which led to my PND diagnosis. I wish so deeply that I had known then what I know now.
That not everyone feels an instant, overwhelming bond with their baby. That the first few months of your child’s life may not be the best time of your life. That newborns don’t give much back, but they sure take a lot. That just because your bond isn’t instant it doesn’t mean you won’t have an amazing relationship in the future. That different people are suited to different ages and areas of parenting.
I wish I had known that I didn’t have to worry, that I would fall in love with Caterpillar. That as he grew, and as I got my anxiety under control, I would grow to love and enjoy so many things about him. That slowly, eventually, I would begin to feel overwhelmed by that love. That the love you feel for a child is unique but maybe not in the way you imagine; it’s complicated and conflicted and huge, sometimes so big you think you might explode with it.
I wish I had known that one day, two years later, I would lay with him on a blanket in the sunshine and want to scream with how much I loved him.