Yesterday my mother-in-law came round for a coffee and to see the children, like she does most days, and she brought with her some photographs of my eldest daughter which were taken when she was a very young baby, probably around the same age that my youngest daughter is now (nearly 9 months old). At first I was struck by the resemblance. Laying there on her changing mat, another wrapped in a towel, sitting up in a Bumbo seat; with the exception of those eyes, I could have been looking at a photograph of Freya. That might not seem like much of an event to you; I am sure that most mothers note those family resemblances as they add to their brood. But it was remarkable to me, because I am not able to remember what my eldest looked like when she was that small. I can’t remember feeling overwhelmed by her beauty as I am with Freya, and yet they are almost identical. And just a few moments after I stared at that photograph in wonder, I was struck by immense guilt and sadness and a sense of regret that I didn’t see it then.
Perhaps it is normal to forget? After all, there are 11 years between the two girls (wow, that makes me feel old!). Should I be able to remember? Do you remember? Somehow I feel I am in the minority. But then I think perhaps I am actually one of a majority who would prefer not to admit that their first child was actually a bit of a blur, and that the memories they believe they have can only be recalled with a visual prompt, a photograph.
Well, if it isn’t normal, then I have a good idea why this would be the case with me.
I fell pregnant in 2003, a year after I married my husband, just as planned, just when I planned it. We didn’t even have to try that hard, we were lucky to fall very quickly, and I prayed for a little girl (I wouldn’t know what to do with a boy!). The pregnancy was pretty uneventful, and on the 14th August 2014, on the very day that she was due, she came into the world, just as planned, just when I had planned it. The labour was relatively easy until Eliza got herself into a bit of trouble, and her movement down the birth canal became a game of two steps forward, and three steps back. Eventually I was prepared for an emergency Caesarian section, but was taken to theatre for a ventouse delivery when my baby girl decided she would begin to make her exit without my help (I had been told to stop pushing by that point).
I rejected her the moment she entered the world. I don’t believe it was intentional, you see I was shaking uncontrollably from head to toe by the time they released me from the stirrups and I was so afraid that I would shake her right off of me and onto the cold, hard floor. Also, the blood stained creature wasn’t the image I had been provided with in any of the movies I had seen, and I wanted a clean, rosy-cheeked darling to be handed to me like I had imagined. Instead I shook, and I cried, and I turned my head towards the wall. The one opposite where the midwife held my baby. I will never forget the first words I heard from the midwife, words that rang in my ears for many years (even now); “I am weighing your baby, are you not even going to look?!” And there it was, my first evaluation as a mother, and I had been judged and found not to measure up.
On reflection, I believe the tone in which I remember those words were quite probably different in reality. I think that the moment my daughter was born, the chemical reaction that would unbalance my mind and create feelings I didn’t feel, and thoughts I didn’t think, sparked into action.
What happened over the next three years would take more than these pages to cover. And that is how long post-natal depression took from me, before I was fully able to appreciate what I had in front of me and learn how to love. Indeed, even on my daughter’s 3rd birthday I was discussing the notion of divorce with my husband; I truly felt that so much damage had been done (by me, by the illness), that we couldn’t come back from it. But we did, and we are still here, except despite swearing not to have another child for fear of history repeating itself, we are now a family of five! Funny how things turn out.
One of the most poignant memories I have during those three years was just after my daughter’s 1st birthday. I had struggled through that year, undiagnosed. I say struggled, but actually I was so convinced that I was fine and that everyone else had a problem and were trying to send me mad so that they could take my baby away from me (oh yes, I was really that crazy!) that I wasn’t really conscious of a struggle. However after a number of incidents that I am thankful to say didn’t quite turn out as my mind had planned, I sought help and was diagnosed with severe post-natal depression. I refused medication (as you do) and went on a waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. And then, just after she turned one, my husband and I took our little girl on her first holiday. We set off to the Maldives; who could be sad in Paradise..?
My memories of that trip to the Maldives are a bit clearer now, and I do remember there were some fun times. There were also some scary times, like the moment we nearly lost Eliza in her pram to some strong winds as the tail-end of a tropical storm hit the island, but that’s a story for another day. What I mostly remember, if I am truly honest, is the misery of washing and sterilising bottles. The constant battle with a buggy in the sand as I pushed my fractious baby round and round an island without pavement to try and get her to sleep. I remember being mostly alone (I wasn’t), and I remember being mostly sad (I was). I remember walking along the beach with my husband and saying “If we can’t be happy in paradise, what chance do we have back home?” Jeez, how must he have felt? I was so absorbed by my own misery I didn’t even stop to think about that…
Anyway, back to the point, this blog started with a photograph. Shortly after we came back from the Maldives, the photographs were developed (yup, old) and my husband handed them to me to look through. The usual stuff; sunsets, sand, sea, smiles… Hang on! Smiles? Who the hell was that?! And that was a defining moment for me, one that made me truly understand the power of the human mind. It had the ability to distort memory and reality, enough for me to question who the hell my husband was cosying up to in this picture…
I had felt for months like I had forgotten how to smile. In fact I felt like it was physically impossible for me to show any emotion whatsoever on my face. I felt numb, like all my facial muscles had died, rendering any expression impossible. And at the peak of my illness, my brain told me that the girl had to be someone else, because this girl could not smile, and this girl was too unhappy to be that one.
Crazy, right?! I asked my GP at the time how that could happen (after my “Who the f*** is that?!” was met with utter bemusement from the recipient), and she explained that your mind is like a filing cabinet, and when you want to recall a memory a drawer opens and the memory pops out. Except in my case this nasty bitch Depression was was holding all the drawers shut and scrambling the messages. I never realised the brain was capable of such trickery.
And that’s the thing about depression; it tricks you into believing that the world it has created for you is reality. It applies a sadness filter to everything your eye beholds. Your own reflection in a mirror looks like a stranger to you. Things that should bring you joy do nothing but reinforce your misery. You become so accustomed to the darkness that you lose any desire to see the light. And the longer the illness goes unchecked and untreated, the deeper it’s nasty tentacles reach into your soul. By the end of it, it’s a wonder you even remember who you were.
I believe depression applied a sadness filter over my view of my first born baby girl. A filter that would steal her beauty from me, and trick me into believing I was indifferent towards her. How could I not have seen what was in front of my eyes? I will always be sorry that I missed those early years, and as grateful as I am that I am getting the chance to do it again with my youngest, just as I had wished it could have been, it will never be enough to alleviate the guilt that I feel now.