One Year of Motherhood: A Survival Story

My clever, cheeky, happy, determined little girl turned one recently.

We celebrated with a party, presents, cake, champagne, and a mountain of chicken wings my poor husband cooked on the barbecue while standing out in the rain (our oven conveniently blew up two days beforehand).

In the weeks leading up to the party I made ‘practise’ cakes, sourced my girl a special birthday outfit (complete with a pair of highly practical cowbaby boots), ordered her gift from us (a miniature red racing car…so far she’s chewed on the steering wheel) and loaded up on so many fuzzy pink decorations our house look as if a pink muppet had broken in and blown itself up.

Admittedly we (I) went a little overboard, as was apparent when my sister found me in the kitchen the night before the party, colour-coding the Smarties for the cake edging.

But it was important to me make a big deal out of my girl’s first birthday. First and foremost because she’s gorgeous and deserves to have a fuss made over her, but also because — holy shit — we made it.

We survived the first year of parenthood.

I know. That sentence seems a little melodramatic….unless you’re currently white-knuckling it through your very own first year of parenthood, in which case you’re thinking ‘There’s a remote fucking chance we’ll survive this? Our bodies won’t finally pack it in from relentless exhaustion and constantly rocking 3–10 kilos of merciless mini-human whilst singing ‘5 Little Ducks’ at the recommended sleep-inducing decibel, during the ideal sleep window?!’

Before your firstborn actually arrives, the idea of new parenthood equating to a 127-Hours-esqe survival slog is just another one of those things people casually suggest to you. Ooooh, buckle up! Everything’s about to change! Sleep when they sleep! And remember, during those first few months you’ll just be in survival mode!

And you nod and smile and think longingly about the ‘emergency’ croissant in your handbag.

But they mean what they say, and of course you think you know what they mean when they say it. But really, your concept of the oncoming shitstorm is abstract.

Your understanding of true, unadulterated sleep deprivation — that bone-deep, nausea-inducing, eye-burning, hallucinogenic strain of soul-sapping exhaustion reserved for new parents — is abstract.

Your grasp of the grim hell that is a breast pump accompanied by a three-hourly pump-feed-pump-feed-pump-feed-cycle is abstract.

The prospect of being hand-milked at 3am by a sausage-fingered German midwife (who presumably grew up on a Bavarian dairy farm given her brutal dexterity) when your milk hasn’t really come in yet and you haven’t had more than 40 minutes sleep since giving birth two days ago? Abstract.

And that psychological avalanche of terror that hits when you leave the highly-equipped medical facility and drive home (in a MOVING CAR! Through MOVING TRAFFIC!!!) with your spindly new mini-human, and realise that you have to figure shit out now because her life depends upon it? Yeah. Inconceivable.

Maybe some people breeze through this stuff before lighting a kale-scented candle and slow-cooking some lamb shanks, but personally I had to crack into the gift hamper champagne on our first day solo.

I don’t know. Has anyone ever arrived home with their firstborn without their knees shaking as the tectonic plates of their life shift irrevocably?

As a brand-new mum, you look down at your baby and the love you feel threatens to swallow you whole. All the clichés are true — it’s that powerful. But when you look around, everything’s different.

Your old routines are gone. Your daily rhythms have changed. The body you inhabit is alien to you, and possibly stitched up like a Sherrin ball. And, for a while at least, the freedom you once had is utterly out of reach.

Despite all the books I devoured and all the questions I asked friends and all the paraphernalia I bought in preparation and all the lists I made to get myself organised, I wasn’t anything close to prepared for it. Emotionally prepared, I mean.

I found new parenthood confronting, terrifying, brutal, relentless and utterly, utterly alien. I felt as if I’d been completely extracted from my old life — from the world, in fact — like a pulled tooth.

Clearly this was a severe reaction, and there were other factors involved (more on that to come), but during those first few months after giving birth, I had to fight the urge to run up to pregnant women on the street and attempt to prepare them for what was coming:

GO TO BED! RIGHT NOW! Lie there and do nothing for several hours! Then read an entire book in one sitting before showering for 40 minutes! Then dress up in clean (CLEAN!!) clothes and go out to dinner — somewhere as fucking far away from your house as you can geographically manage!

Afterwards, go to the movies and shovel popcorn in your mouth using both hands (SIMULTANEOUSLY!) and marvel at the fact that you don’t have to dig an angry, engorged breast out of your shirt at ANY POINT IN TIME. Good God, take yourself to the beach and PACK NOTHING!!!! NOOOTHIIIIIINNNNNNG!!!

This was internal-me whenever I saw a pregnant woman:

Thankfully I curbed that lunatic impulse. Because you know what?

No one can tell you. No one can prepare you. And most sane people don’t want to frighten the maternity pants off you by trying.

I get that now.

But all the same, as I ate a piece of my daughter’s double-buttercream-iced, colour-coded birthday cake, I considered what one-year-on me could hypothetically tell 8-months-pregnant me.

What advice would I impart to my old self, the me that existed before that stormy June evening when my waters broke a month early but I refused to leave the house until our ancient printer reluctantly crapped out my (utterly irrelevant) birth plan?

I suppose I could tell her this:

Stop watching ‘One Born Every Minute’ and PACK. YOUR FUCKING. HOSPITAL BAG. Right now. Oh, and those two novels you’re planning on packing for the ‘downtime’ you’ll have between contractions? Yeah, you can leave those. Use the free space to pack more food; RPA is apparently where uneaten plane food goes to die.

Midwives. Many are human angels, but some are power-tripping ghouls who prey on women at their most vulnerable.

You’ll meet plenty of the former, but unfortunately a few of the latter too. One will delight in casually suggesting you’ll kill your baby girl unless you do things her way (which also happens to contradict the instructions the NICU midwives give you).

You’ll never regret kicking her out of your hospital room. Not for a single second.

Napisan Vanish. The pink spray bottle. Buy 1000 fucking units of it right now (along with Baby Love nappies…ditch the Huggies).

Your gal is a poop-up-the-backer for the first three months of her life and a spewer for the first seven. Thus Vanish Spray will be liquid gold in your household, second only to breastmilk — which you’ll spend much of your time harvesting until your girl is able to latch. Often while crying, as you peer anxiously at the ml measurements on the bottle and desperately hope you’ll have enough for her next feed.

Which brings me to that dreaded breast pump. Let me tell you a glorious secret: one day you’re going to pack that groaning, mastitis-inducing mechanical little fuckwit up, and shove it into storage whilst giggling like a Disney witch. It won’t forever be attached to you, despite what you might think those first months.

I know you’re not awesome at group socialising (or, you know…socialising), but mothers’ group doesn’t completely suck. It actually does help to talk to other women wrangling the same cluster fuck as you at any given time. Sleep regressions, Wonder Weeks, bleeding nipples, blebs, bottle-refusal, mastitis, reflux, struggling with weight gain (baby’s), struggling with weight loss (yours), the infinite unfairness of your husband having no boobs and thus being able to drink whenever he wants.

Basically, mothers’ group is all about having someone to sit next to on a burning, runaway rollercoaster.

Breastfeeding. Hell, why not. Let’s crack open that can of worms with a rusty axe.

You’ll eventually be very proud of your breastfeeding efforts. Not because you’re a smug breastapo member who thinks they’re better than formula-feeding mums, but because of what it will cost you to do it.

The first few months (fine…the first 6 months) will be invariably excruciating.

I’m talking cracked nipples, blebs, constant over-supply, 8-freaking-rounds of mastitis, and once your daughter’s teeth come through — bites. No, that’s not in the brochure.

Despite what people will tell you, it doesn’t hurt because your nipples are too small, your daughter’s mouths is too small, your let-down is too forceful, you aren’t feeding her enough, you’re feeding her too much, you’re feeding her too often, you’re feeding her for too long, you aren’t using the right hold, you’re using cream on your nipples, you aren’t using enough cream on your nipples, you aren’t ‘airing’ your nipples, etcetera etcetera etcetera.

Allow me to call bullshit on all of this for you: it hurts until it doesn’t hurt anymore.

That’s it. That’s the raw (red raw) breastfeeding deal. It’s like your boobs just have to undergo their own (long) Rocky training montage to toughen up until they can handle it.

The silver lining to all of this is that your beautiful girl will thrive on it, and at around the 7-month mark it will become as painless as breathing. You’ll continue to breastfeed her until she’s 14 months old and decides she’s done.

But.

Knowing what I know now, I wish I could convince you not to agonise over it so damn much.

I wish I could make you understand that an occasional bottle of infant formula is not the IQ-evaporating, crystal meth gateway some would have you believe.

It’s perfectly okay for your husband to give your daughter a bottle of it when the pressure and the exhaustion leave you with nothing left in the tank. Like when you’re crying with desperation over only being able to pump 30mls, or when you’d give anything for three consecutive hours of sleep.

I wish I could convey to you that — for some — the collective physical and emotional toll of breastfeeding can sometimes outweigh the benefits. And that’s a balance that every mum should feel empowered to decide for herself. It’s okay to call time if you need to — and you aren’t a failure if you do.

That’s not the worst of it though.

The same constant hormonal rollercoaster that makes breastfeeding possible will be a big factor in the postnatal depression you’ll be diagnosed with at three months postpartum (but you’ll know in your gut that something isn’t right way before then).

Shitty bomb to drop. Sorry. But I can also tell you this: you’re going to beat it.

Exactly how you’ll manage that is a post all of its own, but I can tell you it won’t be easy. It won’t be easy on you and it won’t be easy on your incredible husband, who is unfortunate enough to be in the passenger’s seat on this particular journey through hell — yet somehow he will never fail to hold you and tell you it’s going to be okay.

Postnatal depression is a thief; it will steal from both of you. It will steal joy and focus and time that should have been yours to spend just basking in your beautiful daughter, breathing her in.

Getting it on the ropes will be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. And the insidious, relentless nature of this beast demands you do it again, and again, and again. You have to beat it back, every damn day, until somewhere along the way — you land a knockout punch.

There’ll be days where you’re convinced things are never going to be okay again. I wish you didn’t have to live through those days believing that, because it’s not true. Postnatal depression is a thief and a liar.

Things are going to be more than okay.

You’re going to be happy again. You’re going to see the world in colour again. You’re going to carve slices of your life back and stitch yourself together, slowly, slowly.

You’re going to run so hard and for so long that you break a toe. You’re going to box yourself stupid. You’re going to flood your body with endorphins and starve the depression by nurturing and strengthening yourself, from the outside in.

Some days you’ll feel yourself drowning in black despair so thick and sticky you can barely breathe. Wade through it. Your toes will touch the bottom soon.

One day, this feeling — this illness — will be nothing but a blighted memory. A monster defanged. A nightmare you’ve woken up from. At most, a horrid acquaintance you brush past on occasion.

But it will no longer consume your reality.

You know what? All of this will come regardless. There’s no preparing yourself; parenthood and whatever comes with it is a learn-on the-fly, baptism-of-fire, thrown-in-the-deep-end, cut-your-own-hand-off gig.

You have to live through this shit to comprehend it; that’s just how it works.

So let me tell you just one thing instead. The best thing ever:

You’re going to meet your little girl soon. She’s incredible.

You’ll take one look at her, bloody and squalling as the obstetrician holds her in the air, and you’ll think: It’s you. Of course it’s you. I’d know that face anywhere.

Your love for her will burn through you until what was tough and unyielding is gone. Until that thick skin you spent years forming is torn away, and your heart feels paper-thin.

This love won’t make you a selfless saint or wipe you of everything you were or everything you previously loved; you aren’t a reformatted hard drive, for fuck’s sake. But it will recalibrate your universe.

It will take you a long time to get used to this recalibrated, vulnerable you. But you will. And you’ll reconstruct yourself around her, with stronger foundations this time — and a bigger heart.

Motherhood burns you down, but it rebuilds you too.

Originally published at thehangrywife.com on October 12, 2016.