That Autumn had been the wettest since forever. Not that we knew that then, the statistics come out months after the lived experience, but I remember every day resulted in a drenching. Having to hang up the raincoat and the pram cover over the bath and dry the wheels of the buggy before folding it up and storing it away. If getting ready go out with a baby took time, so too did coming home again that Autumn.
“It’s important to get out with a baby so you do not sit in the house and become depressed.”
On that day, the first of December, I was up as usual, at six. The biscuits were baked and cooling on the rack, evening meal prepared, and my seven month old daughter was dressed in her mini-me matching outfit. It did not occur to me to take a photograph of either the biscuits, or the baby, because this story pre dates the current obsession with recording the perfect lives we live. Thank goodness.
It was a Friday, so our activity for the day was a drop in playgroup, a kind of pay-as-you-go centre. We had done baby music on Monday, toddler trekking on Tuesday, wet Wednesday in the local swimming pool, and therapeutic art the previous day. Friday was always the most difficult for me as the noise, the bigger children, the crowds on a wet day at the drop in place meant it was sometimes overwhelming.
“Socialising as a new mum is important for your baby. It is a vital part of your child’s development.”
As I gathered together the changing bag, which didn’t miraculously replenish itself, a couple of bottles of milk, some water, a change of clothes, a teething ring, some nibbles, a hat, scarf and gloves, some muslins, my purse, a shopping list for the quick trip to the supermarket on the way back, some paracetamol for the eternal headache I seemed to have these days, and goodness knows what else, I found my legs feeling like lead, my heart sinking at the prospect of another Friday.
“Breast feeding really is the only way to protect your baby from diseases.”
I found some of the other mums, especially those who already had children, a little overwhelming. They seemed so confident, and relaxed, so certain of themselves. And there was a a clique who were fervent and vociferous “breast is best!” campaigners who always made me feel inadequate.
Opening the front door, my daughter gasped at the rush of cold air and damp that greeted us. What if, I thought, rebelliously, what if I just close the door, and we put on the television and cuddle up and watch some baby nonsense. Just for today.
“We haven’t seen Rosie’s mum here for weeks. Bet she’s too lazy to come out in this weather.”
Get a grip, I told myself. We were all ready now, and who would get the bread and milk and wrapping paper if we didn’t go. It was only a couple of hours. Another coffee and I would feel more like chatting. It would be fine.
I opened the front door and lifted the buggy out.
Later as I wrapped the Christmas presents while my daughter slept, I tried to stop the voices crowding my brain. It had been extra noisy that morning, the larger toddlers crashing around, the breastfeeding brigade especially neglectful of their elder children and enjoying repeating the life long benefits of mother’s milk to one another. One of their boys had knocked my baby flying, and I had had to force back my desire to throw my coffee over his mother.
“ You can leave her on the floor and come and sit up here,” another mother had told me. “They need to toughen up you know.”
I had left early and dashed into the shops, tight lipped. I was still tight lipped, but busied myself focusing on the trip to the Post Office later to post the Christmas parcels and cards. A quick check up at the GP and then it would be home to make the dinner, bath my beautiful daughter and go to bed, ready to do it all again tomorrow, only without the pressure of a baby group.
“We’re all going to see the pantomime this weekend.”
“The garden centre has its grotto up, so we’re going there with the kids.”
“We’re having my brother and family for the weekend.”
Steve was working. My family lived 500 miles away. I hated going out on a weekend on my own. But that was OK. There was plenty to do in the house. I was OK.
But I wasn’t.
When, later that afternoon, I found myself sobbing in front of my GP, nobody was more surprised than me.
“You are worried about making your seven month old daughter’s thank you cards, on the first of December?” said my kindly doctor, very gently, leaning forward and locking her eyes on mine.
“I made the Christmas cards in November and sent off all the parcels today, but ……” Stopping, I realised what I was saying , and how it must sound to her.
When she asked me to talk her through my day, and heard about the daily biscuit baking (who eats them all?) and the five baby groups each week, and the meals made from scratch every night (I didn’t tell her about the matching outfits), she gave me her philosophy about motherhood. She had four children, and worked part time and seemed pretty chilled out to me.
“It’s not a competition. Ignore all of the books, and all of the other mums. Your baby needs you. She needs you in your most relaxed and happy state. She doesn’t know or care about the biscuits, and the thank you cards. She doesn’t need to go to a group every day. Cuddling up with her on the sofa and watching some television in this vile weather would be perfect for both of you. Enjoy this time. There’s the rest of your life to have to jump to it and meet deadlines, bake cakes, go to appointments. But this time is your time. For you and your baby to just be. Together.”
When she suggested I had post natal depression, I was surprised. I thought that meant sitting around in your dirty dressing gown all day, but she helped me to see that I was doing the opposite, working myself into the ground. I guess I had post natal anxiety. I needed help to relax, sit back, take in the bigger picture, and re focus on what mattered.
Now, looking back on this almost 20 years later, I reflect on the power of words in both creating the anxiety, and in alleviating it. Somehow I had internalised the punitive, moralistic diktats that surrounded child bearing and rearing. Everyone was an expert (except me), and in my novice state, I listened to them, instead of to myself. I treated motherhood as if it were another professional role, missing the point that it is the antithesis to targets and action and achievement. My lovely GP gave me permission to relax, to listen to my body and my heart, to block out the legions of “experts” and to be guided by my baby. To forget the impetus to ‘do’ and for once in my life to just ‘be.’
As I face another major life event, that of semi retirement, I recall this advice with gratitude. After a lifetime of doing, maybe it is time to just ‘be’ again for a while. I look around me and see people – irrespective of background, culture, gender or pay grade, also pushing themselves as I did that Autumn, in pursuit of what? A vision of perfection that does not exist? A need to be better than the next person, for fear we will be dispensed with? So many of us, hamsters on a wheel, running faster and faster and getting where?
And I wonder is it competition really that drives us? Or fear that we are all imposters. That everyone else is better, more able, more liked, indispensible. How often are we told we are good, kind, nice? We may hear it about others, and when we do, how often does it trigger that sneaky question in our head, that they are better than we are? And that weakens us. Takes us away from what our real focus is. Why can’t we just be who we are, do what we do, value each other for our individuality, and ditch the comparisons? We are all different. With unique contributions. Let’s love that, love each other and remember life is not a race, nor a competition.