When my two kids were three years and three months old respectively, I took them along to an early childhood music group at the community centre. It had been a mad rush to get there that day; I was flustered, hot and anxious, fuelled by adrenaline and a fuzzy sense that what I was doing was the sort of thing a good mother did.
We arrived to pandemonium – sounds of wild screeching, a girl pulling viciously on her mother’s hair, a boy telling his mother he hated her, an older girl in a sobbing tantrum about what exactly no-one could ascertain. Twins clawed at their mother’s clothes, demanding feeding, so she sat awkwardly and balanced one on each hip, at each breast. My older son clutched nervously at my leg and the baby spat up milk to soak coldly into my shirt.
There were about five other women there – each with two kids of their own – and I knew them all. I knew that each was sharp, brilliant and creative. I was filled with horror, and something of grief, that they were being subjected to any of this, were bound to it and by it. My ears rang, my heart pounded and the room closed in around me. Let’s get out of here I wanted to urge them, let’s leave the kids and run.
I didn’t know it then but I was at flashpoint, careening towards an episode of post-natal depression that would take months to be acknowledged. My experience that day was doubtless coloured by my headspace at the time, but even those with the sturdiest of mental health will at some point be confronted by awfulness as a routine part of motherhood.
Most days in my small town I run into friends who are mothers. Our movements are like ground-hog day – a choreography of steps traced to and from schools, supermarkets and homes. How are you? We ask one another. Oh, you know. Can’t complain. And few do, though we are all in a logistic tangle, dragging unspoken burdens of mind and body.
Upon having a baby we are told – ‘the first six weeks are the hardest’, and then ‘the first three months’ and ‘the first six’ and so on. They say you’ve survived the worst when your kid turns one, and the same again when they turn two. Parents of adolescents tell you the worst is yet to come. When I began to feel really awful I waited it out, based on the borrowed wisdom that it could surely only get easier.
Well-meaning pieces of advice, such as ‘they’ll be grown up and gone before you know it’, ‘this too shall pass’ and ‘enjoy it while you can’ seem universal. A clinic nurse once looked me in the face and said ‘this is the greatest time of your life – don’t’ wish it away’. I stared back agape and horrified. To somebody who is finding each hour unbearable, who finds the day hard to face, these sentiments risk glossing over instances where families and individuals are in fact at risk of psychological or even physical damage; such instances can be the difference between a mother who is empowered and supported or one who is silenced and unable to rise to the enormous task at hand. These offerings of comfort come to be expected from family and friends, well-meaning members of the public and wider community, but it’s problematic if they are the standard offering of health professionals.
Some time after that day at music class, I decided I needed help. I was having panic attacks, and encountering anger for the first time in my life. On bad days I was rendered immobile by a mixture of terror, rage and guilt. I took myself to a psychologist for a session in which she told me motherhood was challenging and that it was ‘normal’ to experience what I was experiencing.
‘Normal’ was a word she used several times. To me, in my condition, this suggested I was overreacting completely and needed to accept my feelings as the reality of my situation – to ‘put up’. I now understand that she meant to reassure me my experiences were common, but the damage was done and I pushed valiantly onward, attempting to be a peace with my new state.
After another month or so, things only worsening, a friend encouraged me to finally make an appointment with a GP. The female doctor – a mother also – again used the ‘n’ word, before regaling me with her own motherhood woes and how little sleep she got. I left the surgery that day effectively empty-handed and at rock bottom. It was in no way comforting to me to know that everyone else felt, or had felt, as awful as I did. Just as in the music class I was appalled, and added to my already crushing anxiety a dark layer of grief for my kind. Everywhere I went I began to see mothers in horrible predicaments, only just keeping their heads above water. I withdrew from friends with children, avoiding the empathetic angst.
What I needed was options for how to fight back– tools, tactics, possible ways out, examples that it could be done. On my worst day I called a helpline, a chance stumble towards what I needed most. PANDSI (Post and Ante Natal Depression Support and Information) was an organisation staffed by women who listened deeply without attempting to counter with cold comfort or stories of their own. They welcomed me as me, as distinct from my ill-fitting new identity. In their hands recovery was central, and very real. Together we made a map of return from the woman I had become back to the woman I felt I was. We found the edge between what needs to be endured and what need not.
We discovered that sleep had likely been my biggest vulnerability at the onset of PND. For months I would sleep in one- or two-hour blocks, totalling about five or six broken hours a night. To me, six hours seemed workable, normal, but I had no concept of the importance of adequate REM sleep – the brain’s requirement of it in order to defragment. When this is lacking, over consecutive days and weeks, the cracks begin to show.
Being sleep-deprived is a cornerstone cliché of motherhood; a subject of jest and condescension. That sleep will be scarce is perhaps the most frequently acknowledged aspect of mothering, or as others will gleefully tell you, ‘you’ll never have a good night’s sleep again’. To normalise sleep deprivation, to co-opt it as part of a collective, generic experience, is again a dangerous tendency. There are many aspects of the sleeping habits of babies and young children that need to be accepted, worked with or around, but there are other aspects that can be better understood and most definitely improved on, if you know that is a possibility.
Like the staff at PANDSI, my wily community health nurse didn’t let me brush off the difficulties I was facing as if they were an inevitable condition. She gave me the license to desire change and the practical means to set it in motion – in this case by referring me to a sleep school. Upon arriving at the centre I was immediately given a new framework in which the mother was central. It was okay to be unhappy with my current situation, indeed it was okay to want to change it, and I probably could. What’s more, I was encouraged to see that if anyone knew what was right or wrong, or what needed to be changed, it was in fact me.
I emerged from the facility hugely empowered, armed with practical knowledge, trust in my intuition – a plan. Each hour of sleep I was able to cobble to the next repaired me by degrees, making me only more able to wrest control of my mind and life. With new clarity and determination I was able to address other struggles that had, until that point, been accepted as inevitabilities. It required my dedication and work, but this in itself was a powerful message. The solution was within me, once I was able to dismantle my own belief that motherhood equated suffering.
It was profound to me, that life could be improved by such small increments and simple measures. It was sobering too, that so many other women might never consider the notion of change, might never be encouraged to. Not any one solution works for every person, but certainly everyone deserves an option to try.
Normalcy suggests order, conformation, predictability and a fixed state, whereas each woman’s experience of motherhood will be distinct. We must find commonalities, to draw wisdom from the diverse experiences of others, but we must also remain sharply aware, to meet motherhood’s many challenges with self-awareness and self-determination, to kick back against the awful.