As a new mum, maternal mental health is something that I feel pretty passionate about.
I suspect that like me you initially think 'post-natal depression' when you hear the words 'maternal mental health' and absolutely post-natal depression is an incredibly important subject and something that should be discussed and supported more widely.
But that's not what I want to talk about here.
You see being a mum is tougher mentally in ways that fall outside of post-natal depression. My experience of being a mum, for example, has taken me to darker places mentally than I had ever expected.
It's not post-natal depression and it's not talked about.
My daughter has just turned 7 months old. She is characterful, charming, curious, engaged and engaging, thoughtful and full of smiles and laughter (mostly!). She's desperate to get moving so all her limbs are in motion pretty much all of the time. Exploring the world with her, learning her as she learns me and learns herself has so far been the most fascinating, life-altering, heart-burstingly glorious time.
I'm lucky because that has been the main part of the story I have to tell about becoming a mum. But it's not the whole story. It has been hard too.
It's harder now in fact for me, 7 months down the line, than ever it was when she was a newborn. That's been a huge surprise to me, as I was expecting to be totally rocking the 'I got this' momma attitude by now, but I don't feel like that at all.
In reality I have, to coin a phrase, 'lost my s#*!' in terms of feeling on the edge of sanity more in the last couple of weeks than at any other time in her life. And it's scary to feel like that, really scary.
At the root of it all I believe is that sleep deprivation robs me of a reasonable grip on perspective. So I should sleep more, I get that. But even mums of newborns will tell you it's hard to 'sleep when the baby sleeps'. At this stage in the game, 7 months in, it just feels a weird ass mix of slovenly and as though I have in some senses 'failed' if I do ever capitulate and crawl into bed to sleep whilst she sleeps.
There is so much else to do after all.
Here is what I believe is the second root of the problem, the 'overwhelm' of motherhood where our expectations of what we can and should be doing play out against a background of days where you are as blind as your partner and those around you to ALL the stuff you are doing. Take Wednesday for example. If you were to ask me what I did I would say I took A to get weighed at the Health Visitor clinic in the morning and then later I took myself for a doctors appointment (with A obviously!).
This clearly misses off the getting us both up and ready. It misses the breastfeeding and the preparation of finger foods; it misses the time spent allowing A to play with and explore breakfast ('food is fun until you're one'....), repeated again at lunch and oh yes again at tea time. It misses cleaning the bathrooms and making up the bed in the spare room for the guests we had coming that night, it misses washing, drying and folding her clothes, it misses preparing a roast dinner later on that evening and it misses, in an enormous way, that all of this was done against the backdrop of feeling and being quite ill (nb 'and then later I took myself for a doctors appointment').
But the first version is the one that I remember, the one that I repeat when my other half gets home and asks what I did today. I did two things, I say. Three if you include 'keep the baby alive', I might jokingly add (yes jokingly...).
And at my back I always hear the list of things I didn't get to. So the mismatch between what I expect to be able to do and what I can do is pretty significant.
The third root is actually there's an enormous amount of stuff going on in terms of my own identity, which has changed significantly and which continues to change as we're now figuring out return to work, childcare, being able to pay the mortgage against that balance of being paid and paying out for someone else to look after my daughter. There's my identity as person who reads and writes but who can no longer stay awake long enough when she goes to bed to do the former, nor get up early enough before my daughter wakes to the latter.
And finally there's the change to the relationship with the man I love, the father of my daughter. He experiences freedoms it's hard not to resent (he can go to the pub straight from work or plan a weekend stag do away from home without having to figure out the logistics of what do to about A) and experiences pressures it's easy for me to overlook (the responsibility of being the main breadwinner, the increased importance of doing well at work because of this, the need and desire to still be the person who can work late/go out with his mates as well as be the dad, husband, lover).
We're having to constantly redefine who we are and to do that against a backdrop of perspectiveless, sleep deprived me, whose confidence and happiness can teeter on the head of pin.
Not the only mum...
Most of the time I know I'm not the only mum whose baby isn't yet sleeping through the night. Much of the time I can even accept that this is just for now, just for such a short period of time that will pass quicker than a fleeting season. I can acknowledge and recognise that the weaning process is actually going pretty well, that health and happiness abounds and the wealth stuff will get figured out in time.
More often than not I can see that the beauty in our family life, that this extraordinary expansion of love and adventure and joy far exceeds the momentary frustrations of finding myself in an unexpectedly gendered cage or my fears of not being a good enough mum or a sane enough wife to deserve to be loved. But on those dark days, in those darker hours, when perspective is as absent as sleep, I stare down a deep dark hole, heart heavy, head hot and throbbing, throat sore from shouting or sobbing and I think this, this is not written about.
At those times I feel alone, but as my other half points out with what feels like a never-ending supply of patience, 'do you think you're the first mum to ever feel like this?'.
These are only tiny, fractional points in time. As my sister, friends, coach and wider family remind me, the answer is not to do more, but to do less, self-nourish. Self-nourishment for me is drinking tea, having a bath, reading a book. It's going for a walk in the woods with A, or planting out sunflower seedings in the finally warming up May sunshine.
I don't know if this article will get to or speak to any momma's who feel or have felt dark and like they are only just holding on but if it does then all I would say is to pass on this nugget of kindness given me by my tribe - let other people help, they really really want to. Other people can give you the space, the time, to take a deep breath, to self-nourish, to take a second to look after yourself, so that you can get on with the big business of looking after your family. Oh and sleep, whenever, however you can!
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