This could be a post about going on a first long distance plane travel with a tantrumy 3 year-old but why would I want to give you acid reflux and nightmares? I'm not gonna do that to you. You've all been there and if you haven't, DON'T. Sit back, relax and "enjoy" your flight knowing it won't last longer than three hours. Keep doing it, keep covering the countries around you and don't venture out any further. I didn't take my own advice and recently got on that plane with an 8 hour journey in front of me. Before that joyous experience even started, I tried to get my son to sit down, way ahead of departure because the flight attendant insisted he needed to be strapped in to "listen" to the flight safety information. Insert big lols here, both for the sitting down part and the safety info. Is this the bit where you're gonna tell us to fit our own masks first before helping others? Yes yes, we get it, it's about not actually dying before being able to put the damned mask on the kid, but still. What mother would instinctively do this? Aren't we hard wired to put them first at all times?
Yes and no. And this is a post about that.
You know how it goes. From the minute you get home from the hospital, an emotional hotpot of stitches, blood clots, stinging eyes, melting brain, thumping headaches and inflated breasts, that little human's every move, need, piercing cry and kitten whisper is your sole guiding light. Your nipples crack, the tears roll down, the coffee gets cold, the pillow never ever feels your head long enough to get warm, you survive on burnt toast with congealed butter and shower with one foot out of the bathtub, but whereas before tiny human you would have given this entire scenario a massive middle finger, right now it doesn't even register. You are his life support, all limbs like cables, fitted with supersonic hearing and fluid containers that dispense at the feeblest of alarms.
Then this stage passes and months have rolled on and you can now have a shower and eat a piece of toast if he doesn't steal it off your hand after not eating a single morsel of the dinner you prepared, but little has really changed. You allow yourself the acknowledgement that exhaustion is an evil bitch but you push on. His needs again. You're a mother. There is food to be prepared, toys he never plays with to be picked up, stories to be read, new toys he never plays with to be picked up again, prepared food he never eats to be wiped off the floor, tantrums to be appeased with snacks because all the tricks in the book don't work on your little guy, strangers to be ignored as he screams down a supermarket aisle, swings to be pushed under the pouring rain, way too many hours of screen time to be watched, starting at 5:00 am after an entire night of sleep in installments, missed milestones to not get paranoid about, tickets to his favourite kids' show to be binned as you arrive at the venue because he suddenly hates it, no sleep, no sleep, no sleep EVER, and insurmountable guilt to be felt at every step of the way. But it doesn't even register, does it? You can cover the cracks with under eye concealer and have the odd cry when no one is looking. It's ok.
Until it isn't. Until in your mission to mother like no one has ever mothered before, you carry on like a winding, hollow action figure with fictitious superpowers. Until one day, after months of feeling rubbish but tending to every cry and kitten whisper, your child just wants to go to daddy and you hide in the bedroom enveloped in thoughts of failure, absolutely positive that he doesn't love you because you screamed at him three times that week and the week before and the week before that too. And he's only one and a half but what does that matter? He has you all figured out. He knows how inadequate you are. You know how inadequate you are. You have mirrors in your bathroom and in every corner of your brain.
Then the thoughts grow big, ugly and scary, like the lions in his bedtime stories; and they prey on you, sneaking up on you as your hands rub a deflated postnatal stomach and a body you no longer recognise in the shower, gnawing at your parental ability when you hear that by now he should have started to sleep through the night and that your routine is surely to blame, clawing at your capacity to cope when the suggestion to 'just go do your nails or have a nap and it will feel better' sounds irrelevant and superficial in the face of your gigantic demons, roaring mockingly as you make mistakes at work and get back home to serve your kid white pasta and tinned corn because you simply cannot train him to want to swallow anything else anymore, despite months of laborious weaning with everything organic under the sun, nudging you in contempt at your failure to potty train a 3 and a half year-old "who will soon be going to school, you know", hiding behind the laundry basket and the house mess that you never seem to get under control, and eating you alive when you feel like all you want to do is run away and that you probably never should have become a parent, with all the lovely, cutting guilt that weighty thought carries with it.
Through this journey you have been on survival mode because that's what you do as a parent in order to be there for your kids at all times. You never check out, you are present, you are there. But the funny thing is that's why you're not. You cannot be there for them if you're not there to begin with. Barren grounds don't grow seeds and kids pick up on that really fast. When my son, who has a speech delay, comes to me out of nowhere and says "happy mummy? happy?" in a willing, hopeful, anxious way, that hits home faster than anything else.
Exhausted, depleted, eroded and unassisted mothers cannot nourish and sustain their children physically or mentally; and they cannot be made to feel that this is a magical journey where things fall into place despite small bumps in the road and a bit of "baby blues", a term I love to hate because its condescending softness manages to completely take away the power and the rawness from what real mental health struggles can do to a new or expectant mother. They cannot be fed the generalised notion that this affects mums mostly in the first year and everything's sort of peachy afterwards. Unless you plan to stop parenting once your child turns one and your challenges magically melt away, it doesn't. Parenting is a never ending succession of stages and you'd be hard pressed to not lose your shit past year one. One testing thing ends another begins, sandwiched between the breathtaking moments that make parenting a lifeline too. So whatever it takes to pull mothers from this vicious cycle, please let's have it. Let's be selfish mothers. Let's ask for help, let's acknowledge the lions not in fear but in recognition of them so we can tame them. Let's have nail days, massage days, but crucially, let's have proper mental health support, awareness and information given out to every mother even before their babies are born.
I sought help after a long long time. I'll be honest, I haven't fully followed up on the advice given but am on the way to doing it. I can tell you I was afraid to even tell my GP what was going on for fear of judgement. How many mothers feel that way and go undiagnosed and untreated? No one should be soldiering through these moments, whether the lions are cubs or full blown beasts. It's about time we started fitting our own masks first so we can stop being cardboard cutout versions of ourselves and truly be there for us and our families.
This post first appeared on the Mind The Mummy blog
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