Motherhood has been a very humbling experience for me. Before having Miss Cookie Loves Milk I had this picture of how I thought things would be based on the information I had at the time. I thought I would know what kind of parent I would be and the things I would and wouldn’t do. I almost laugh at some of the things I was thinking. Silly, ignorant woman. Reality was just a little different to the fantasy though and we just did whatever we could do to survive. I would love to say that I was a natural and that sleep deprivation didn’t affect me so intensely, but that would be a complete lie. The truth is those first few months were bloody hard. I thought I knew what hard would mean, but I had no idea what kind of crazy ride I was in for. I had no idea what I was doing and Miss Cookie Loves Milk was so far from a textbook baby that I felt like I was floundering.
Firstly the lie that all babies do is eat and sleep is probably what tripped me up. I saw other babies and thought that she would be the same, but I was wrong. From day one she was alert and aware and ready to be a part of the world. She’s like me, doesn’t like missing out. Unfortunately that meant that getting her to sleep was a nightmare. For the first few months she was feeding every two hours for between 15 to 30 minutes at a time, which is pretty normal. Luckily she quickly became much more efficient at feeding. That wasn’t the hard part though. The hard part was that it would take anywhere from 30 minutes to over an hour to settle her back to sleep, which meant that at night I was only sleeping about 3o minutes to an hour at a time. In the beginning I was so exhausted that I would fall back asleep straight away, but after a while the anxiety from not getting enough sleep started creeping in and I wasn’t really sleeping at all. I was mentally calculating how much (or how little) sleep I was getting, not intentionally, but that’s just how much mind works, always adding and subtracting and analysing. I was constantly asking people, searching on Google for how to put my baby to sleep, reading every single baby sleep book I could get my hands on, when what I really needed to do was to just relax and go with the flow, and ask for help. I was obsessed with sleep, what little of it there was.
I thought I was prepared for the sleep deprivation, but I had no idea what tired actually was. I thought I knew, but it was nothing like what I actually experienced. I couldn’t remember anything, couldn’t hold a proper conversation, had to write down everything, forgot how to sign my own name and the PIN for my bank cards. For someone who people know as being organised and competent, I was anything but. It was a huge shock and I didn’t feel at all like myself. My mind felt like a huge tangled mess and the things that I usually did to clear my mind, I just couldn’t figure out how to do them anymore. I was scared to sit down with a big mug of milo because I was worried about my pre diabetes (oh yes, joy upon joys I have impaired glucose tolerance, which honestly I think the test is flawed as I did not sleep at all the night before which of course affects insulin levels, but more on that later). I couldn’t go for a run because I was still in so much pain from the surgery and I was also really paranoid about getting another infection. I couldn’t go for a swim because I was afraid of leaving her, and also still worried about getting another infection. I couldn’t read because I was too tired to concentrate. I didn’t want to watch TV or movies because I couldn’t follow the plots so I ended up watching very trashy reality TV because it didn’t require me to think. It was cold and rainy most days so getting out in the sun was almost impossible. Some of these were just excuses, but at the time they felt like real obstacles for me to not be able to relax. I worried that the moment I let my guard down that she would stop breathing or she would stop being okay. I see now that it was ridiculous, but at the time that’s the kind of mindset I was in. I was stuck in a cycle of worrying about not sleeping and actually not sleeping. I was just stuck because I had no idea what to do.
I was so anxious about everything during that time and because of the sleep deprivation, I wasn’t able to deal with it and it kept spiralling. For someone who had never had any health issues, I was suddenly crippled with having to take antibiotics and stressing about feeding her. It gave her (and me) terrible diarrhoea, but she didn’t understand what was happening, so we had to change to formula for 3 long weeks. Hats off to all those parents who have to prepare formula because for me breastfeeding was by far the easier option. It was there and ready to go instantly, no guessing and wasting if she wasn’t really hungry. So we were spending all this time soothing her hysterical cries as we made formula and I was expressing to keep my supply up because I was scared it was going to run out. I joked as I was tipping the expressed milk down the sink that it was poison milk, but that’s how I really saw it. It was so sad that I couldn’t give her what she wanted and needed from me. I was worried that it would affect our bond. I was worried about absolutely everything. She had terrible gas and abdominal pain, which I blamed myself for trying to feed her a few times when I was taking antibiotics, worried that I had wiped out all her natural gut flora. She cried hysterically so much in those first 3 months that it broke me. I started dreading when it started getting dark because I didn’t know how long it was going to take to settle her. Some nights it was over 6 hours of rocking, shushing, walking up and down the hall, bicycling her little legs, rubbing her poor tummy, giving her every colic mixture we could get (which also caused me anxiety because I didn’t know what the long term side effects could be).
Add to all that I couldn’t drive so I lost a lot of my independence and became a bit agoraphobic. I was worried about taking her out in public on my own as I had always gone with Mr Cookie Loves Milk or my parents. I was worried about being judged for being a bad parent if I couldn’t stop her from crying in public, worried about feeding in public, worried that she was intolerant to milk protein, worried that all the crying was because I was a bad parent and that everyone could see that I wasn’t fit to have her. I see now how ridiculous some of those things are, but that was my headspace. I didn’t feel maternal. I felt raw, like all my emotions were just bursting through my normally calm surface, yet I felt a bit empty inside as well. I was full of contradictions. I was a mess. But then when people would ask me how I was, I would just smile and say that I was fine, when I clearly wasn’t. I was probably in denial for a long time. I just thought it was the lack of sleep, but it was so much more than that. Even when my husband kept telling me everyone was worried about me, that I wasn’t myself, I kept brushing it off. This was just normal wasn’t it? Isn’t this what everyone talks about and experiences?
Hindsight is a funny thing. Looking back on that crazed time I have no idea why I wasn’t able to ask for more help. Mr Cookie Loves Milk and my parents and my in laws were all so amazing and wonderful and helped me so much when I couldn’t even help myself. They cooked and cleaned for me, took care of her while I had an afternoon nap, drove me to where I needed to go, were there for me when I didn’t want to be by myself. There are so many reasons why I couldn’t just let people help me. I was too proud, too tired, too confused. The truth is that I didn’t know what was going to help me and I couldn’t articulate to anyone what I was thinking. I was ashamed that I was a bad mother because I couldn’t do it all on my own. I just didn’t know where to start.
I didn’t think that I had depression. I’m not sure if I felt that I didn’t fit the criteria or if I was just so determined not to be that way. If anything I was very anxious, but that’s just a part of myself that I had come to accept. I didn’t feel like I ticked all the boxes though. They go through those checklists at the appointments with the maternal and child health nurse. I wasn’t suicidal, I didn’t think about harming my baby, I wasn’t crying everyday and unable to get out of bed. I was still doing all the things I needed to be doing, admittedly more like a robotic zombie than a person. I had a shorter fuse, I was more emotional, but I also had moments when things were okay and I could still smile and laugh and see the funny side of things. Like I said, I was full of contradictions and I didn’t feel like I had depression. I wasn’t in denial. I just knew I wasn’t the best version of myself during that time. Something wasn’t quite right. It was hard to have any insight.
Eventually after so much arguing, so many meltdowns, so much uncertainty, I started seeing a counsellor. I went to a PND support group. There were some really low times when I was so far from what I knew myself to be that I contemplated taking antidepressants, but I was too scared of not knowing how they would affect me. Was the anxiety worse than the side effects or would it be the other way around? I just thought all my problems would be solved once I got more sleep. The truth is, for me at least, what I needed was time. I needed to sort out my feelings and expectations. I needed some strategies that I got from counselling to deal with the anxiety and the emotions and get me through the rough patches. I needed people to just cut me some slack, and I needed to stop being so hard on myself. I needed time for Miss Cookie Loves Milk to sort herself out and I needed to trust that she would, which she is slowly doing.
It started getting easier (not easy mind you) around the 4 month mark. She was smiling and responding and the crying and sleeping were still issues, but nowhere near as bad as it had been. 5 months was when I really started enjoying it. The 6 month mark was a real turning point for me though. I felt like a fog had started lifting. I’m not saying that it’s all smooth sailing from here and that I’m going to just miraculously feel amazing all the time because that’s completely unrealistic. I just feel more like myself now, which I haven’t felt in a long time. In a few days she’ll be 7 months and memories of those early days are slowly dissipating. I still remember them in a logical kind of way, but not in an emotional way. I remember the steps and the day to day, but it’s no longer weighed down with heavy feelings. It’s hard to describe. I’m starting to look forward to the future again rather than just taking it day by day and surviving the day. I used to dread when she woke up, but now I actually enjoy it because I know that she’s okay. It’s okay that she doesn’t sleep because she wakes up so happy (most of the time). I no longer feel that irrational feeling that she’ll never sleep again, because I know she will. She won’t always do it when I want her to or when she needs to, but she will. Everything is temporary and it will pass. At the time it feels endless, like there’s no way out, but now I have learned that it does eventually stop.
I’m not really sure why I’m writing this now. Maybe it’s because it’s the first time in a long time that I’ve been able to see clearly and have any kind of insight into myself. I was going through the motions for a really long time and there’s so much that I feel like I’ve missed or can’t remember. I feel so sad for that lost time when I was stuck in this crazy fog. It’s hard to talk about but I don’t think enough people talk about it, the misalignment of expectations and the accompanying anxiety.
I’m starting to take note of all the little things she does and that wonderful feeling of contentment of just sitting with her, watching her grow and learn new skills, seeing how she interacts with my husband. I love these tiny little details. Details are amazing. I like being in the moment, which is something I’m usually so terrible at doing because I’m always on edge anticipating what’s happening next instead of just enjoying the moment. These little snippets pass so quickly and I worry that I miss so much because I’m either stuck in the past or future, worrying about things that actually don’t require my attention. I won’t ever get that time back.
I haven’t loved and enjoyed every single moment of parenthood. It’s such a ridiculous notion that I got hung up on, thinking that if I wasn’t enjoying it I wasn’t a good parent. It’s honestly bloody hard some days. I’m not built like other people where everything is manageable and rosy and lovely all the time, who can push through all the difficult times and only remember the amazing moments. That’s not how I’m wired and the more that I make peace with that, the easier it becomes for me to recognise that it’s okay to be that way. I’m always going to be an anxious person and I’m always going to worry that I’m stuffing everything up, but each moment is also an opportunity to learn, grow, fix mistakes and move on. I know I’m never going to be a perfect parent, if such a thing actually exists. All I can do is to just keep trying my best and making the best decisions at the time with the information I have at hand.