“We promise we’ll have her back within the hour,” said my mother-in-law.My daughter was 6 weeks old. And my parents-in-law had come over from Sweden to see their son’s first child as well as to give us some relief. But I couldn’t let her out of my sight for that long.
It had been a difficult 6 weeks for us all; as new parents we had no idea what we were doing.
After three days of no sleep, I’d thought. “I’m not cut out for this? What the hell were we thinking?” And then the thought that no new parent wants to think; “I’ve made a hideous mistake.”
But there was no way out.
During my pregnancy we had both been going through the separation of our previous relationships; hormonal and insecure in my new household arrangement I had become increasingly anxious. And a hellish birth didn’t make me less so.
Nevertheless I struggled through the day to day, hinging my childcare around routines, measuring the intake of my daughter’s milk to the millilitre worrying whether she’d had enough. After the first two weeks my mother returned home and I crumbled. I had no idea what I was doing and my anxiety reached fever pitch. So I went to the doctor. Ashamed as I was at displaying my ‘weakness’, it was compounded by her telling me that it was probably hormonal and that she wasn’t going to ‘normalize’ it by giving me any medication. Apparently what I was feeling was within the bounds of ‘normality’.
I felt like dying. There was no hope of reprieve. This was what my life had become. Frantic worry about what I might or might not do to damage her. Not all the time. But any time I was alone with her.
As I was breastfeeding, I took the night shift. Frozen awake for hours, hearing her breathe on my chest until at 6 o’clock I heard his alarm go off ready for the morning shift. Minutes passed as he got out of bed and went to the bathroom. Inwardly I cursed at him desperate for him to come and relieve me of my agony. And the time he dared to brush his teeth before coming downstairs I screamed at him for his selfishness. Neither of us knew what the hell was going on. How had becoming a mother turned me into this maniac?
I used to imagine what would happen if I stumbled down the stairs, how the sharp corners of the banister would rip into her soft skull. How I would have to tell my boyfriend – her father – what I had done. How if anything happened to her, we wouldn’t be able to live with the pain. All this screamed through my mind moments before I took the first step down the stairs. And it was the same before I went out. Every car was trying to run us over, even if I knew logically that I was mad.
Over a period of months, I struggled to get out of the house. We laughingly called it my ‘wheel phobia’ as I worried that every bump of the pram made her cry a little bit more; I managed to get to friends’ houses where I could relax with them and their babies. The world seemed easier with other adults. And my boyfriend said
‘Yeah, looking after a baby is so boring.’
Not boring. Terrifying.
When she was 8 weeks old I started work again missing her desperately but inwardly relieved that I was not wholly responsible for her care. Our nanny took care of her downstairs whilst I worked and worried, running out of the bedroom at every cry. And then the nanny would leave and I would be in charge for 2 hours, whilst fear needled my stomach of what might happen. If my boyfriend got home from work even five minutes after the hour, I would be irrationally and disproportionately upset. I wasn’t able to talk to my daughter, so instead I sang. Singing calmed the inner beast. She sings a lot even now my daughter.
When we moved to our island which has no crime and no cars, my daughter turned into a different child. She was laughing and happy. Little did I realize that it was because I felt far safer than I had done in one and half years. My parents in law lived close by, and not much could happen to Maya on our little island. I was also pregnant once more and my hormones seemed to be doing me a favour. But going to the mainland with her on my own was out of the question and after Freddie was born the anxiety returned ten times more. The same thought occurred to me –
‘I’ve made a hideous mistake.’
In countless untold stories my anxiety has been untenable; it is heightened when we are in unfamiliar situations and when I am away from my routines. Friend’s houses, travels abroad and in many cases simply being outside the home. And yet I had it so much easier than most, that I simply denied what I was feeling as utter weakness and unjustified stupidity.
‘Get out your violin, Louisa has to look after her amazingly easy and adorable two children for two hours.’
It was suggested by a friend recently that I was going through postpartum depression. But the doctor had checked me for that. And I’d spoken many times to the nurse about my anxiety levels, without any concrete response. Because it wasn’t depression, it wasn’t recognized. I worshipped both my children. I didn’t feel sad. I ran a business. I laughed. But I was also terrified on many occasions. I was rarely able to concentrate on what anyone was saying to me if my children were around. If my daughter cried, it wouldn’t be long before I burst into tears myself. My cuticles were ripped to shreds. My eyelids were twitching and the occular migraines kept on coming. I hadn’t relaxed properly in three years. But as a ex-executive, I was used to coping with extremely high stress levels. So I pushed on.
Then last weekend, we had the opportunity to leave the island for a night out with friends. Our first since the birth of my son. Babysitters were arranged. But the whole week I dreaded leaving the island. And in the morning of our departure I burst into tears. I didn’t want to go out. Me, the former party queen …had turned into a recluse. Of course we went. I forced myself to go. And we had a great time. But that’s the thing about postpartum anxiety – lesser known cousin of postpartum depression – in most cases you can manage. But not without screamingly agonizing levels of fear and worry.
‘I don’t want to deny what you think you have,’ said my boyfriend. ‘But it’s difficult to know you have anything. I mean you do everything you’re supposed to.’
But I know. Post partum anxiety is what I have. And until last night I didn’t know there was a name for it. Tomorrow is my daughter’s birthday, which means it’s been three years. Three goddamned years of hell.
My children. My precious, precious children, have been the unwitting focus and particularly my daughter. I’m so, so sorry about it. She is highly sensitive and resistant to change. It’s a direct consequence of my anxiety. Three years of worry has taken away so much joy from my life; it’s made the burden on my boyfriend that much harder, destroyed our sex life and worst of all it’s damaged her. How much we won’t know until later.