I am not a perfect mother. Far from it. Like any human being, I have my faults. I get irritable when I’m tired, I procrastinate, I have a tendency to forget things and some might consider me a little flaky. Oh, and I have crippling depression.
When my daughter was born, I didn’t reach out to hold her. The nurse laid her on my chest, “skin to skin contact is very important for the bonding process”, she said, with a joyous smile. “Get her off me”, I hissed in reply, tears streaming down my face. Her smile quickly faded and her expression became one of disapproval and confusion. These tears were not the tears of joy you envision when you have your first child. They were tears of fear, fear that I would not be a capable mother to this tiny being who needed me so desperately. Tears of remorse that I did not want to hold her, knowing that I should. Tears of pity that this beautiful little girl had me as a mother.
It was a traumatic birth. My daughter nearly lost her life when an emergency C-Section was not performed through negligence on the midwife’s behalf. Despite being in a hospital, my daughter ended up with stitches on the back of her head where they had split her scalp through sheer force in the hurry to vacate her. The trauma left her jaundiced and abnormally sleepy in her first 24 hours of life, and we wondered if she would ever present signs of brain damage. The first night alone in hospital was terrifying. Besides being incredibly high on morphine, 23 stitches later and using a catheter, I realised I had no idea how to feed or change her, let alone raise her. Gingerly, I wriggled her lethargic body closer to me, peering into her dark eyes, marveling at her remarkable talent for cell division. I counted her tiny fingers and toes in an attempt to feel that overwhelming love people have told me you feel when you first meet your newborn, but I felt like I had just adopted an alien by accident.
I would imagine that the majority of people would be upset, or angry after going through such an ordeal, however, I could barely react. I wouldn’t say I didn’t love her. But I didn’t not love her either.
Later, in the dim overheated hospital ward, I could hear another new mother across from us, cooing and softly singing to her newborn. She was a natural. A perfect mother.
I can barely remember the first 6 months of her life. Every day felt the same, dragging my exhausted body through the fog of sleeplessness. Baby cries, get up, feed her, burp her, nappy change, back to bed. There was no energy reserved for anything else. The majority of my time was spent draped on the couch, telly on in the background, subconsciously choosing to stare into space instead. Even the thought of going outside became inordinately difficult. Slowly I withdrew from coffee groups and post-natal classes, making the excuse that I hated those women and could not stand to be around them when in reality, I envied them. They all seemed so happy. A perfect husband, a perfect house, a perfect birth, a perfect life.
As the months went on it became even harder to interact socially. I distanced myself from close friends and family, becoming angry with them for no reason and frustrated when I was forced to hold a conversation. All I wanted to do was sleep and not have to wake up. My fiancé gave up, he could not understand why I was so unhappy and neither could I. Our relationship waned and the days of being excited to see each other and talk nonsense together were long gone, replaced by mere grunts of “pass the ketchup”.
There were mornings where I’d lie in bed, gazing blankly at the ceiling, hearing her cries of hunger or boredom and just hoped she would stop. It took every inch of determination I could muster to react to those cues. I blamed myself for being lazy, I told myself I was a bad mother and that I did not deserve this tiny person. I often thought she would be better off with another family. Or even better off if I had not had her at all…
The days became hazier, time felt slower, feelings escaped me. Conversations sounded muted, tastes became bland, my body immune to touch. I was numb. My attention span could no longer exceed one minute at a time. More staring, more blankness. Shrouded by a dark cloud, apathetically wading my way through the thick, dense air one hour at a time. Weights felt strapped to my wrists, ankles and lungs, just breathing was a chore.
My daughter reached her milestones as the months went on, no sign of brain damage, for which we were relieved. I drifted through the days like a phantom, a shell of a human. Present yet not present. I barely saw her thriving, nudged occasionally by someone close to us saying “Wow, look how much she’s grown!”, or “I didn’t know she could sit up already! What a clever girl!”, to which my response was always a façade of excitement and happiness. The façade was how I wanted to be. Happy, blissfully relishing the newfound love that comes with motherhood, but the black dog itself would not release me of its jaws.
It was so cold. So quiet… Not a leaf moved. So dark outside. The streetlamps had all but shed their strongest light long ago. The concrete pillar beneath me dug into my bones, damp seeping through my clothes. Shivering, clutching at a cigarette, inhaling the smoke like it was my last breath, I stared down at the motorway below.
“I tried so hard it isn’t funny,
Tell me how I, how I should have done it,
And I keep on looking,
Will you tell me something,
How long do I have to keep on running, running?
Can I keep on running?”
Andy Bull’s lyrics reverberated through my head like a broken record. I turned up the volume and pressed repeat. I did try so hard to snap out of it, I tried to be a good mother, I tried really hard. I didn’t know how else to do it, I kept looking for help but never asking for it, I waited for someone else to notice and tell me something, how long did I need to keep on running? Running away from the shame of failing, of the defeat, of the remorse and the regret. I absolutely and unequivocally thought I could not keep on running.
I stared down at the motorway below. Feet dangling precariously over the edge of the bridge. I’m terrified of heights but this time I didn’t flinch.
“Can I keep on running?”
My hands grasped the edge of the concrete railing.
“Can I keep on running?”
I took a deep breath and leant forward.
“Can I keep on running?”
In the distance, lights ahead. A car approaching. I closed my eyes.
“Can I keep on running, running?”
I felt a rush of air at my feet as the car drove under the bridge. The slight sensation jolted me upright, I spun around and threw myself on the path so quickly I barely noticed what I was doing. Quivering, I quickly lit another cigarette and pressed my back against the wall so it hurt. “What am I doing”. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to wake up every morning but I don’t want to die. I want to see my daughter grow up, see what kind of person she becomes, I want to know every idiosyncrasy she possesses and what her favourite book is. I want to know which vegetable she hates the most and which animal she likes the best. I want to know everything about her and be emotionally available for her.
I can keep on running.
After 8 months of hell, I finally sought the help of my local doctor. I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Post-Natal Depression and it was also concluded that I had a history of undiagnosed Depression and Anxiety. I was given medication and not only did it save my life, more importantly, it saved my relationship with my daughter. Now I understand the unconditional love everyone was talking about, every time I look at her little face my heart almost bursts! If she so much as sneezes I feel so proud of her. My little girl, the one who loves to laugh, the one who vigorously shakes her head when she’s being funny, whose favourite books are Winnie-the-Pooh, whose most hated vegetable is spinach, who likes Giraffes the best. Although I grieve for the time I missed with her while I was suffering, I cherish every moment I have with her now. I will forever feel guilty and inadequate, I constantly doubt myself, I live in perpetual fear that the mighty jaw of the black dog will crush me once again but until that day, I will strive to be a perfect mother.