Just sit in the grim

I can’t believe I haven’t written a blog post since last July. Maybe it’s because I’ve had very little in the way of new thoughts or experiences to inspire me to write. Life continues to bring the same daily juxtaposition of joyfest and hellhole, and its demands leave me little room for reflection anyhow.

My little girl is now an amazing toddler, and has a big personality. Raising an extrovert gets more and more fun every day. She develops interests and we follow them – at the moment it’s shapes, people’s names, and climbing. It’s truly fascinating watching her learn the English language. She is still a mummy’s girl and I relish that while it lasts.

Life feels full-on and I crave introvert downtime, but I can’t bear to take time away from her very often. I’m anxious, too – and I often feel I am not coping with that.

I hit a particularly low point over Christmas. My daughter suddenly seemed unable to get to sleep or stay asleep. It just felt too much to deal with on top of 19 months of problematic sleep, for it to go backwards so badly. On top of 7 months of constant low-level anxiety about nursery and bugs, 7 months of illness after illness. Never really having time to be with myself and do the things that tend to restore me. Now I was no longer getting any kind of evening, and rage would bubble up as I found myself taking a turn sitting with her in the boxroom at 9pm, her still wide awake, me with wet hair and nothing on besides a dressing gown.

I did a fair bit of sober soul-searching to understand the rage. I had to admit that I’m generally a grumpy person, and I think in a nutshell what makes me grumpy is when things – or in this case, babies – don’t behave as I expect them to. I crave predictability, order, maybe control. It’s embarrassing. My career recently seems to be all about beating back the chaos in various ways: clarifying, simplifying, taking messy analytical processes and getting them under control, and I do lots of organising in life outside work too. There’s an undercurrent of fear to it all that is uncomfortable to acknowledge.

Having a baby has, of course, injected a huge dose of chaos into my life, and this is why I have found it so very hard.

My obsessive rigidity when she was newborn, with everything kept in its place around me and eating the same things and watching the same film over and over, comes to mind here. I coped with a massive upheaval to my life and the panic of it all by clamping down on the things I could clamp down on.

I suppose you could chalk up my vomiting phobia and general illness anxiety to this underlying craving for order and control. Or aversion to chaos.

I suspect it all reflects a deep-rooted pessimism about life’s ability to turn out OK, or my ability to manage, if wild, uncontrolled, and unpleasant things are allowed to happen. The thing is, I have dealt with difficult things, feared things, a lot over the recent past. I have had fevers, vomiting and diarrhoea. Little one has been ill quite a bit, including fevers, bad earache and vomiting. I’ve held down a job while dealing with all this and bad sleep; I’ve been able to provide the loving care my little one needed from her mum. But I haven’t learned that these things are OK. I’m even more anxious now than I was a year ago. Why?

I guess my feeling is that I only barely coped, and that still leaves room to believe that I could easily be broken apart by something similar. Perhaps it’s like impostor syndrome that never goes away because you can always write any achievements off as flukes.

I read Sarah Wilson’s book, “First, we make the beast beautiful: a new story about anxiety” in January. She analyses this exact problem as follows:

“The problem is that if you’re anxious, you tend to flee (or fight or freeze) before you give the distress tolerance mechanism time to play out. I find this an enthralling idea. I mean, what if our inability to deal with our triggers came down to the simple fact we’re unable to sit long enough?”

She suggests anxious folk should “sit” (in the mindfulness sense) in “grim” – in those situations or places that make us anxious – and just see what happens. Treat it as an experiment.

“For me, the fact it’s a little experiment makes the grimness and the frustration of resisting my need to grasp and fix things a little more bearable. My meta-mission is simply to stay. And see what happens.”

“Sitting in grim is also a defiant two-fingered up yours to your anxiety. I think this is great. For an added bonus, the practice simultaneously forces you to stop the grasping and come in close and to connect with where life is. The simplicity, the inevitability, the flow, the truth of life. … When you’ve been running scared for a long time this idea may come as a relief. You mean that’s all I have to do? Yep, just sit in the grim.”

Perhaps what she’s describing is how to do exposure therapy and actually have it work, rather than re-traumatise you. It can’t really be said that I have “sat” in the grim thus far; I’ve really just gritted my teeth, shut my eyes and waited for it to go away. It would be great if I could get a sense of adventure about it, or (more realistically) even just a little bit of curiosity. How awesome would it be to squeeze some meaning out of this onslaught of fear. I feel like there’s potential for me to come out the other side having actually gained something, if I can figure out how to open myself to it.

In the absence of a therapist to work with, I think it has to start with a regular mindfulness practice. I guess I’ve known this for years. Perhaps it’s time to get serious about it.

If you have any other advice, I’ll take it. Meanwhile I’ll just be over here trying to sit still, in the grim.

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Struggling again

In life with little one, it seems, nothing stays the same for long. The last couple of months have brought some of the hardest times yet. When I think back to the joy of my daughter’s first birthday, I wish we could have paused time there… at least for a while.

The day after she turned one, we began settling-in sessions at nursery – leaving her for periods of time with people she didn’t know, in an unfamiliar environment. I wasn’t prepared for how awful that would be. Picking her up, seeing her puffy little face explode in a desperate cry at the sight of me, just broke my heart.

After a nursery session she would be unsettled and clingy, and want only me. When she was much younger, I used to wonder how attached to me she was, since she was so sociable and happy to go to anyone; now, it’s clear that a deep bond has formed, and it’s a bittersweet revelation, appearing as it has at a time when I have to leave her with strangers.

It didn’t help that my morale and motivation at work had hit a low point, with my project continually being stalled and held back by forces outside my control. It felt like a form of torture, putting my baby through stress beyond anything she’d ever had to deal with in her little life, just so I could go to the office to try and force myself to work on something no-one seemed to actually want.

My mind has churned over and over the situation, looking for any reasonable way out. I must say, I can understand much better now why some mothers choose to stay at home. If you don’t love your job, and if the income isn’t needed or isn’t substantially greater than the childcare cost, why would you put yourself and your child through this?

And then swiftly came the next layer of misery: just as I had dreaded, after a year of impeccable health, she has started picking up illness after illness at nursery. Two nights in a row we took her to out of hours clinics, due to high-grade fever that wouldn’t come down with paracetamol (the first night) and wild screaming and throwing herself around (the second night). It was an ear infection, and the poor girl is now on her fourth or fifth one – every cold seems to trigger them. She cannot understand the pain and doesn’t know what do to with it. And I can do nothing besides give pain medication and cuddles, both of which she often bats away in anger and frustration.

In turn, I’ve been waylaid myself with numerous instances of fever, cold, and awful hacking coughs; I couldn’t eat for two days recently, which was very unlike me; I’ve had eight days of sickness absence from work. Somehow we struggle through… if it weren’t for the help and support of my daughter’s grandparents, and both of us working part time, I don’t know where we would be.

So far, the ceaseless onslaught of illness has made my anxiety worse, not better. I lose perspective and forget that these are just normal childhood illnesses, and that most families don’t feel that sending their little one off to nursery is akin to sending them into a war zone. (I’m awaiting counselling on the NHS… it’s an unhelpfully long wait.)

She has largely settled in at nursery now for her two days a week and seems content there now. However, she still often doesn’t eat well or sleep enough. Submitting her to nursery care means accepting a certain degree of chaos in that way. I often sit uncomfortably at my desk with a knot in my stomach on those days. I’m not sure when or if that will change. Maybe we made the wrong choice of nursery: I’ve felt disappointed, for example with staff apparently feeling it’s fine if she doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, and not offering her the alternative food we packed for her. But there are no spaces anywhere else.

It’s sad to fall into survival mode again, gritting teeth and getting through, guiltily longing for some future time when things will be easier. That confidence in myself as a mum I was beginning to feel when I last wrote – it has been somewhat shot to pieces lately. In fact, I sometimes feel ashamed that I have had the nerve to have a baby, as dysfunctional as I am with anxiety. I look at myself, and I feel sorry for my daughter that THIS is who she knows as ‘mum’.

It’s important to note that there are still happy moments in the midst of all this hell – blissful moments, even. It has been a beautiful summer so far and this year we have discovered the swings (and seesaw, climbing frame and so on) in the nearby park. Many an evening before dinner I stroll over there with her, strap her shoes on and let her explore and play – watching her learn to walk over this couple of months has been a particular joy.

Her dad and I even managed a night away, thanks to her grandparents’ overnight babysitting, to see Paul Simon play in another city. What a treat! And even though I woke up in the hotel with a blazing fever thanks to a bout of bronchitis, the whole trip away was fun and unexpectedly transported me right back into pre-baby life – who I am, how I am, how I experience life, how we are as a couple, when I’m not ‘mumming’. It made me realise how completely being a mum has taken over my life. So completely that I hadn’t even really noticed. Perhaps that wants examining, but hey, I’m too busy being a mum. Or trying my best to be.

I suppose I can at least say that I’m here, doing what needs to be done, getting through it, somehow cobbling life together. Putting one foot in front of the other.

An opportunity came up at work for a secondment into the civil service, into a fast-paced role delivering short-notice analyses and longer pieces of interesting project work. I went for it and was accepted. It will start in September. I can’t say I’m not nervous about taking on a more demanding job, given the chaotic nature of family life right now. But the alternative was to stagnate in miserable clock-watching apathy, and perhaps further reduce my hours. My career does still matter, and not just for the money (although, yes, that’s certainly important). There’s not an awful lot of head space and energy left over for caring about it just now, but there will be, I guess, in time.

This too shall pass… right?

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Approaching the end of the first year

Three months since I went back to work. The weather is finally getting warm and my daughter, who this time last year was getting ready to be born, is now rapidly learning to move herself around.

These last few weeks have been joyous in a way that I had yet to really experience in this new motherhood journey. Lately, I have finally been able to say, in honesty, that I am loving being a mum. My three days a week with my little love are immensely precious. I am totally crazy about her. I have happily let the to-do list slide and want nothing more than to be in her delightful company, taking care of her, giving her some fun times, making memories together with her dad. Family time.

There have still been hard things, of course. Issues with feeding and sleep – the two arenas of struggle that are always guaranteed to bring me to my knees with frustration. My sleep cycle is wrecked from nearly a year of being on call and woken up several times a night, every single night. I cannot easily get back to sleep in the small hours, and this insomnia is now the biggest contributor to my often-crippling tiredness. We are actively trying to improve baby’s sleep habits – an adventure that surely needs its own post. But I’m pretty sure I couldn’t sleep through the night even if I had a chance. I’ll need to sleep train myself!

The heartache of having to be away from her all day at work hasn’t lessened much. It doesn’t help that work has been far less satisfying than it used to be, and the soul-destroying commutes that sometimes take more than an hour don’t help either. It’s still true that working is good for me, and there’s something oddly peaceful – luxurious, almost – about being in the office space, with the freedom to decide what to focus on next, and hot coffee on tap… although of course it’s a rather limited freedom… But it doesn’t change the fact that it breaks my heart leaving my baby. No matter how much I loved my work that would still be true.

I don’t begrudge my partner those four months of leave, though. It’s been amazing seeing him taking care of her and getting on top of everything (well, to the extent that is possible with a small child!) and it’s awesome being a team, tagging in and out as we need to, taking it in turns to get a lie-in at the weekend or a bit of time to ourselves.

I have no idea how I produced such a happy baby. She is extremely energetic and excitable, and very sociable. It’s become more fun to take her out, and more fun playing with her as she interacts more and is learning so rapidly to explore her environment in different ways.

But there is more to my new-found happiness than simply having more fun. I think it’s that I’m finally finding my feet, finally starting to feel comfortable as a mum.

This year has been an intense boot camp, a complete immersion in a new all-consuming role with very little preparation. I’d reached my late thirties with no real experience or knowledge about babies. This time last year, I had finished up at work and was passing my days resting up on the sofa like a great big potato. Waiting. Many people assumed I couldn’t wait to give birth. In reality I was no more excited about the baby’s arrival than I would have been about sitting an exam; my days were steeped in the strange, surreal calm of the wait outside the exam hall in which you know it’s too late to do anything more to prepare yourself, and can’t quite take in the enormity of what is about to be asked of you. It seemed preposterous that I was having a baby.

And then she was here, and the sun came out in a glorious heatwave, and I realised I had completely forgotten to anticipate the utter loveliness of having a sleeping newborn curled up on your chest, or nestled in the crook of your arm. But I also wondered how on earth I was supposed to manage the logistics to do a simple thing like buy a few groceries while in charge of this strange little creature whose needs I just wasn’t confident I understood.

Her dependency terrified me. Early on I had a couple of episodes of waking up with a high fever and needing to see the out of hours doctor, and it filled me with panic, being ill while needing to feed around the clock and generally “be there” for the baby. I became intensely afraid of what could go wrong with my health, especially in light of a somewhat complicated delivery. I also became extremely protective of my little one. Nearly every night I would wake at some point convinced she was in the bed with me and being suffocated under the duvet.

These recent days, I watch myself packing up the bags for a day out, confidently loading up the buggy, taking her out, entertaining her on the bus ride, finding what facilities I need on the go for feeding her lunch or changing her…. and I hardly recognise myself! Finally, it seems those mum skills are coming together, as swiftly as her gross motor skills are doing the same.

I know there will be numerous challenges ahead that I cannot prepare for – the next big change will soon come with her dad going back to work, and the necessity of putting her in nursery. I’m nervous, but ready, I think.

It feels like I have come out the other end of a dark tunnel in which I have been stuck like a lost, scared little girl. It’s a sad place to have spent the bulk of her first year, her baby days, which will soon be gone. But I’ve done my best. And I feel that I’ve done alright, actually. I’m ready to celebrate her first birthday, for my own growth as much as for hers. We are both changed beyond recognition.

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The first three weeks are done. I’ve officially stepped over the threshold into the “working mum” phase of my life. It’s kind of a relief, no longer to have it looming in the future… no longer to feel panicked at how fast time is going by. No longer to wonder and worry about how it will be.

They say it helps a baby to cope with separation from the mother – to be able to go to sleep without her – if they are given an item of mum’s clothing that smells of her, to use as a comforter. Well, since I am the one with the separation anxiety, I took one of my daughter’s worn cardigans to work with me on the first day, so that I could discreetly hold it to my cheek and breathe in her scent from time to time. I left her sleeping and headed out into the dark February morning to rejoin the throngs boarding the bus into town, then the tram, then into the office, everywhere smoothly moving through its workday routine as if nothing had happened, as if I was merely waking from a very long dream.

It was a long day. By the time I stepped off the bus on my return, I was crying and my feet were running, taking me down the street to see my baby as fast as they could. She was eating her dinner and as I appeared in the kitchen doorway smiling through a tearful greeting, she looked momentarily confused, and then beamed at me. She touched my face all over with her sticky hands and I stroked her baby hair. We had a lovely few minutes… and then, for her, it was as if I’d been there all day – completely back to normal. (I was still a mess all evening!)

By the second or third evening, I wasn’t crying and by the fourth evening I didn’t even need to run down the street. It helped that I could see she was doing just great with her daddy, and that she didn’t appear to be upset with me for being gone.

But the days are still long.

The abrupt switch of focus, spending 7 and a half hours a day on something completely unrelated to my baby when I formerly could hardly snatch half an hour away, is strange and feels like a difficult thing to demand of my mind. There is a sense of dislocation in being suddenly immersed in a world that has been carrying on without me. It doesn’t help that it’s a new work area and a new team. It might be a while before I get to feel productive and satisfied. I don’t believe “baby brain” is real, but some days I am just so tired I have little confidence in what I’m doing.

I hadn’t realised that being in the office again would remind me of being pregnant. But of course! The last time I was working there I was hardly aware of anything but how pregnant I was. And it was all ahead of me – giving birth, the summer and a big period of leave with a baby I had yet to meet. I was wrapping up my work; now I’m unwrapping again and there is something quite sad about knowing that here begins the rest of my life as a person split in two. Where my little girl used to keep me company with her kicks and rolls in my big belly, now I drift around the office with a too-flat tummy and a heartache – walking wounded, as if the placenta has only just been ripped out of me.

As if to make up for this, we are having more togetherness during the night than ever before. Around a month ago she began refusing to go back in her cot after her first night waking. She will go back to sleep in our arms, but, as if by some sixth sense, knows when she’s being lowered into the cot and immediately wakes up and complains. So now me and her spend the rest of the night on a sofa bed in what was intended to be her bedroom. It’s incredibly cosy and sweet, and we both sleep just as well as we could.

She typically wakes me for her final night feed some time between 6 and 7am, after which I make sure she’s gone back to sleep, and then creep out of our little den and get dressed and out the door as soon as I can: thanks to flexitime, the earlier I get to work, the earlier I can come home.

It is exhausting getting up that early when I’ve been woken at least twice during the night. I am concerned about my ability to cope with this in the long term, unless I can somehow persuade her to give up night feeds and sleep through – which seems like a pipe dream just now.

It’s not like I can really recover much on my days off. After all, days off aren’t really days off any more, and it’s been painful adjusting my habitual expectation that a non-working day means as much sleep as I want and a chunk of time that is my own. Even though I haven’t had a day like that in nine months! – it is just another association with work, I guess.

Since her dad has now taken on the role of primary caregiver, though, there is certainly the option for me to do other things – and I have a list of jobs as long as my arm and a big drive to get them done. But I feel terribly guilty for wanting to do anything other than be with her. It feels awful that sometimes I would rather buy furniture online or research future childcare options because these things take less energy. It’s all a balancing act. I also need a bit of down time – and so here I am typing this post in a cafe while her dad has taken her with him to a band practice.

We are all surviving, I guess. And that’s a positive?

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In the autumn I took part in a women’s therapy group, hosted by a local postnatal mental health support service. I had been struggling with anxiety, mainly on the theme of health worries, but surprisingly, every week that I went along I seemed to find myself talking mostly about breastfeeding.

I guess it’s been more of a source of stress than I had realised. Bear with me while I therapeutically blurt out the litany of complaints:

  • Pain, in the beginning. I think nipples have to toughen up like guitar-playing fingers do.
  • Several periods of oversupply. I never would have guessed that my little molehills would turn out to be such overachievers…! It’s an understatement to say I do not enjoy lactating – it’s so weird to have body parts that have always just been lumps of meat, come to life and start doing this bizarre thing and suddenly you find yourself dripping milk when you step out of the shower. I particularly hate seeing my breasts full of milk and can’t bear to touch them like that. I dread the engorgement that is likely needed for me to get off this breastfeeding train eventually.
  • One bout of mastitis so far and constant fear of recurrence. Several episodes of blocked milk ducts.
  • Very fast letdown which the baby struggled to cope with for the first few weeks or months.
  • Having a baby who is so interested in the world around her that she cannot focus on feeding. Coupled with the fast letdown, this results in mess and embarrassment. The only saving grace is how little time on the breast she actually needs to get the milk into her – five minutes or less.
  • Worrying about whether my baby is feeding enough. As well as the distraction, she has had spells of flat out refusing to feed. She’s only on about the 15th percentile in weight, although she is a bundle of bouncy energy. I think breastfeeding works best for the type of person who has a lot of faith in “nature” and is comfortable not to even notice how many times the baby feeds per day, trusting that everything is just working out. For a person like me who likes to take detailed, quantified notice of everything, it’s a recipe for stress.
  • Having my nipple bitten. This happened one day when her first two teeth were new and razor sharp, and she actually drew blood. The shock! No-one ever tells you how much trust will eventually be required in putting your nipple into that little mouth… and how horrible it will feel that you can’t trust your baby not to hurt and injure you in this intimate place.
  • I have lost a ton of weight, which alarms me. I would also like my cycle back as I worry all is not quite right. In short, I would like my body back; long after pregnancy is over I still feel it is colonised, not quite my own.
  • Being solely responsible for feeding her, being unable to leave her with anyone for more than a few hours (and even then, having to pump – which by the way is also very weird and makes you feel rather like a dairy cow)… doing all the night feeds, every night… just feeling very tied down in a way that enlarges the gulf between my experience and that of baby’s dad.

All that, and yet somehow I have made it through eight months – and am still going.

I did introduce a bit of formula along with solid foods at around five months. We were going through a breastfeeding crisis – she was complaining and refusing every time I offered during the day, so that I had to sneak the boob upon her during naps, or else give her expressed milk from a bottle instead. I was beside myself with frustration and worry over my full and leaking breasts, whether she was getting enough, and somehow taking the rejection personally and feeling very upset. So I decided to start, one feed at a time, replacing breast with formula.

It didn’t quite work out like that. I replaced one feed out of the 11 or 12 she was having per day. I let one or two more feeds simply go since she was eating solids so well. It took about two months to feel that my milk supply had adjusted to accommodate this, so that stopped me replacing any more.

And at some point, the crisis passed and she seemed happier again to feed from me, happier than she’d been for a long time… and I found I wanted to continue. It felt as if we had tried to break up our symbiotic milk-exchange relationship, found it too heartbreaking, realised we wanted to make it work after all, and were both making a renewed effort.

Then on Christmas Day, she began refusing me again. She had had her last overnight feed at 6am and I couldn’t get her to feed again until 2:30pm. On Boxing Day, even her bedtime feed was a wrestling match with both of us in tears.

So in early January I had to conclude it was basically the end of daytime breastfeeding. I was due back at work soon anyway, so it wouldn’t have been able to go on very much longer. I’m now pumping once a day and the plan, believe it or not, is to continue doing this at work and bringing the milk home for the next day’s mid-morning bottle.

I didn’t know that brief happy phase would be quite so brief, and now I may never again breastfeed her sitting on the sofa with daylight streaming in – something that’s been such a huge part of my daily life for months, is just gone.

I still have the big bedtime feed, and the night feeds, lying cosily side by side in bed. Those have always been the best. And I guess there is something quite special in it, a closeness that only I get to experience with her.

In so many ways it would be much easier doing formula. There would be no more wondering whether she’s getting enough – I could measure it precisely. No more over-producing and spilling. No more constant fear of mastitis.

So why haven’t I stopped? Why can’t I bear to let it go; why does even the thought bring tears instantly to my eyes?

Incidentally I think she learned not to bite me from my reaction to that one incident – I startled her by crying out in pain. She’s a sensitive wee soul. Now whenever the teeth graze me she stops herself and watches me cautiously. I had been saying “no” firmly every time I felt them come near me, and at Christmas I was wailing with guilt at the thought that maybe I’d scared her off feeding altogether – although, as my partner said, who can really blame me for being scared of being bitten?

Why am I so attached to breastfeeding when she doesn’t seem to be? Perhaps the whole “breast is best” thing has got under my skin; a case of mummy guilt, wanting to continue giving her some passive immunity to common bugs, the least I can do for her while I’m not around all day. Health anxiety undoubtedly plays into that.

Or perhaps it’s just that breastfeeding has been an intense and significant part of our relationship so far. Perhaps I’m worried it’s the one thing that makes me “mummy”.

Probably it’s a mix of all these reasons. I’m not sure how much longer I will go on; I’m not setting any goals or deadlines. I wonder how I will feel in the future looking back on this time – will I wish I had just spared myself the stress? Or will I gain a clarity that I lack just now?

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Another four months

Another four months have passed since I wrote about the first four months with my baby. My partner has just begun his four months of parental leave; we are overlapping by two weeks, so that we can all adjust, and I can finally get some time to do my own thing – which includes some writing.

I have so much to say… so much to work through. Do I even know how to write any more?

I’m having a tough time these days. January is always a hard, tired time of year. The sleep situation is not great right now, and prominent among the mess of feelings around restarting work is the dread of having to do it on little sleep. The worst effect it has is on my mood and ability to feel positive.

But, it will pass, sooner or later. Everything is so very temporary.

I’m looking forward to work itself. I visited the office a few weeks ago, and the head of service, service manager and team manager all sat down with me to tell me about new projects coming up that I may be involved in. It sounded exciting, and it was awesome to feel I haven’t been sidelined or forgotten about – and for them to agree so easily with me reducing to four days a week. It was also lovely to have this whole chat with baby on my knee, as if to demonstrate there is no conflict between these different elements of who I am now.

But as I face the end of my maternity leave – the end of this strange period in which me and her have existed in a bubble – I find myself grieving hard and this takes me by surprise. I knew it would be hard to go back to work, but it’s more than that; it’s the loss of something I can never get back to.

I think back over the summer and one particular day keeps coming to mind, as a focal point for my sentimentality, even though it was like so many other days and nothing remarkable happened. She was two months old. It was a warm day and we took a long walk along the shoreline, her in the buggy and me pushing. We came all the way back and ended up at our nearby shopping mall. We sat in the bar area by the water, I had a diet coke, she had a breastfeed, and she fell asleep in my arms. I was in a T-shirt and she was in a sleeveless romper; after spending the entire pregnancy bundled up in jumpers and scarves feeling yuck, I was grateful to rediscover long walks and light clothing – and to have this beautiful little person to share it with.

The strange thing is that I wouldn’t even want to wind the clock back. Mothering a baby is bloody hard – the early days particularly hard when everything is so new and overwhelming. I cannot imagine how anyone finds the resources to go through it all a second time – pregnancy, labour, birth and recovery, establishing breastfeeding, all the many stages of sleep deprivation… Do we just forget it all in time?

She alone has been constantly with me through these days. I’ve been her world and she’s been mine. We’ve survived together. Somehow, she seems to be thriving, even if I’m not, yet.

It’s hard to put into words what I feel for this baby. I know her like I know myself – although she is constantly changing. I’m completely enchanted by her. I feel a fierce compulsion to make sure she is well and happy and has everything she needs. And I’m exhausted by caring for her. Becoming a mum has shone a spotlight on weak points like never before, as I’m frequently pushed to my limits: My need for sleep. My need to be productive, efficient. My need for a bit of breathing space now and then.

My need for safety – I’ve been frightened by the responsibility of looking after this dependent little person, although my anxiety has calmed down a fair bit since I last wrote. The challenges of breastfeeding require their own post, but we are now also dealing with establishing solid food. I brought a big chunk of the “old” me to this task, starting with educating myself on what the latest studies say about when to start and what foods to give; planning in what order to introduce new foods, and in what form; then making lots of puréed food and freezing it in small portions… But while I can plan her feeding schedule and quantify her nutritional needs all I like, I cannot make her comply with this plan! She is generally doing really well, but there are days she throws me curveballs and refuses to breastfeed, or mealtimes become a lengthy struggle with an increasingly stroppy baby who merely wants to grab and play with everything that comes near her rather than eat – and I find it very hard to be relaxed about it.

For a while I was disturbed by the contradiction of loving her and finding her hard work. Delighting in her one moment, then a little later tearing my hair out because she won’t sleep or won’t feed. Crying my eyes out at the thought of having to go to work and leave her, then crying because I’m desperate for a couple of hours to myself. Spending a frustrating hour getting her off to sleep at night, furiously lamenting the lack of an evening… only to sit down afterwards and do nothing but look at photos of her on my phone.

But the contradiction just has to be embraced. Otherwise, it produces endless guilt, at the gulf between my immense love for her and the superhuman resources I would need to be the perfect mum. There is tremendous vulnerability in allowing yourself to love that much and hold that love in tension with your flawed self and your own needs.

Perhaps evolution has bequeathed parents with permanent rose-tinted glasses towards our children precisely because of how hard a work it is. The glasses hide the permabags under the eyes. They ensure we will, somehow, find the resources for this.

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Becoming a mummy: the first four months

I first saw her at twenty to one in the morning, at the end of 30 hours of labour that culminated in a forceps delivery in an operating theatre. I was very unwell from the spinal block, uncontrollably shaking, and I looked at this little face and felt she was a stranger. A stranger I was to mother, beginning in such a bad physical and emotional state I couldn’t even bear to hold her.

My newborn

Several hours later, recovering on the ward, we began getting to know each other. Gazing at each other for the rest of the night, we began to be enveloped in the primordial mother-baby love that, biologically, predates and underpins all other loves. A love that I was primed for by the cosiness of kicks and stretches distorting my pregnant belly, but that is still surprising at turns.

A peculiar possessiveness in which I resented the constant stream of visitors and the social obligation to hand her around. An acute, aching sense of her vulnerability and the continual wondering if I was taking care of her adequately. Remembering the hospital midwife’s comments that she was a great little feeder and was desperate to feed, and crying my eyes out at the thought that I might have been letting her down somehow.

So much crying (me, not her); missing the hospital stay, in which me and her existed in a little cosy bubble and were taken care of; feeling grief at being discharged from the community midwife who had been seeing me weekly – somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that this would come to an end and feel like a loss; welling up uncontrollably at an animated film in which a baby was left by his mum at an orphanage, and again at a book in which a brown hare tells its baby “I love you to the moon and back”.

Saying goodbye to my mum who had stayed with us for 10 scorching summer days. Then being left alone with baby at 4 weeks when her daddy went back to work, which was so overwhelming I spent the first few days in tears.

Missing my “old” life, not for any particular thing, but just longing for the familiar and safe.

Figuring out how to take basic care of myself while caring for her, which just seemed impossible. Debating whether I could justify taking two minutes to put cream on my horrendous post-birth haemorrhoids after a shower when she was already crying out for me. Wondering what kind of sick society leaves a new mum so unnaturally alone to care for a baby, which did not seem like a realistic one-person job – but knowing that having maternity leave at all is actually fortunate.

Figuring out how to get myself and her out of the flat… one of the first such attempts resulted in uncontrollable crying in the chemist’s and having an audience of staring fellow patients as I tried to console her. I grew to hate all attention we received, especially when she was upset. Hating the starers, hating the people who would look over sympathetically at the baby and ignore me, and hating those who came up to indulge themselves and coo over the baby with no sensitivity to the fact that she was in distress and so was I. Hating the commentary some people would give me, the inaccurate interpretations of my baby and unsolicited advice. “He’s crying for his bottle!”

Breastfeeding. Getting through the toe-curling agony initiating each feed that would go on for the first few weeks. Trying to assimilate confusing information: finish the first breast first, before offering the second, so baby gets the calorie-dense “hind milk” – but when is the first breast finished? Does it really take 30 minutes regardless of breast storage capacity, flow rate, and baby’s feeding efficiency? Then, fire-fighting engorgement and lumps and having to forget all about fully emptying either one of them. Suffering a bout of mastitis weeks after I thought it had all settled down.

Dealing with a flow so fast it frequently choked her and sometimes resulted in vomiting the entire feed back. Then weeks later, after she’s learned to cope, dealing with her being easily distracted, coming on and off every few seconds, so that I find myself flashing a milk sprinkler, making a huge mess again, and avoiding having to feed in public because of this.

Night feeding. Dragging myself out of slumber, often drenched in postnatal night sweat, anxiously wondering if I am ill again or just feeling it because my body wants to be left asleep. Lifting her into the bed beside me, lying down and letting her drink her fill and fall back asleep. Picking her up for a precious sleepy cuddle before tucking her back in. Then trying to resettle myself and my confused circadian rhythm.

Staying in bed as late as she will, sometimes as late as 10am. Often not finding a suitable moment to have a shower and get dressed before it’s lunch time, as she only naps in my arms or out in the pram (so much for “sleep when baby sleeps”). Not much liking this slow, lazy pace of life that’s forced on me.

Light and carefree summer walks with the pram, discovering parks and cafes I hadn’t known were on my doorstep. Enjoying walking again after the heaviness of the third trimester had slowed me to a snail’s pace. It benefits both of us to leave the four walls behind, even if we never go very far. To the nearby shopping mall several times each week, just to walk around or get a drink. Lifting her up to watch the people roller skating and see the disco lights.

How unbelievably gorgeous she is. Her perfect little button nose and triangular mouth, the way her bottom lip twitches as her tongue plays in her mouth, as if she’s mouthing some unheard story… the way her face blossoms into the most beautiful baby smile. The innocent curiosity as her beautiful face looks around at tree branches from her moving pram. The wee hand that is ceaselessly, playfully exploring, doing its own tiny dance even as I feed her. The way she kicks vigorously while playing, with such a determined expression on her face. Her developing sense of humour, the delicious little chuckles as I make silly noises and faces and blow raspberries on her bare tummy.

The sensual decadence of cuddles, kissing her soft cheeks, letting her nap splayed out on my front. Going round Tesco with her sleeping in a baby carrier attached to me, her head resting on my chest, the pure luxury of getting this continuous warm hug while grocery shopping.

Being intimately acquainted with what her bowels produce; having her little mouth leave its saliva on my nipples… the unexpectedness of these physical intimacies. Finding it perfectly natural to pick bogies out of her nostrils or wax from her ear lobes, things I would never do for anyone else, as if she’s almost an extension of me.

Slowly getting to know some other new mums living nearby over coffees. Wondering how on earth to cultivate deep, supportive friendships through a haze of sleep deprivation and in the presence of a fussing baby.

Finding myself creating the stability and security I crave, in strange, desperate ways: always having everything I need in exactly the same spots around me – glass of water, lanolin cream, notebook, tissues, muslin cloth. Watching the same Disney movie over and over and over, day after day, then eventually trying another one and watching that over and over and over again. Making the same banana jelly dessert again and again. Eating the same protein bars every day.

Feeling unsettled by the changing season and the earlier darkness. Anxiety crippling me, drowning me in a general dread of future motherhood challenges I fear I am not going to be able to deal with. Getting worked up about her immunisations and how unwell she may feel afterwards. Worrying about my own health, picturing medical crises and engulfing myself in silent, sweaty panic in the dead of night.

Telling myself to think of some point in the future when things will be easier. Then feeling awful for wishing time away.

My four month old

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