Photo Credit:Thomas S.G. Farnetti/Wellcome Collection
People say that with postnatal depression you feel numb, nothing, towards the baby. But I didn’t feel that way. I had an instant urge to protect him, but it wasn’t what I’d call bonding. (The only thing I was bonding to was the wrong kind of maternity pad. Ouch.) Trouble was, I felt so far away from my usual ‘normal’, I didn’t know where my feelings were. How could I know what was wrong with me? Or what this all meant?
I called him ‘the baby’ instead of his name for the first six months or so. When I pushed the buggy down the street, I stood to one side of it, pushing with one hand. Partly to keep my sore back straighter, but I can’t help but read the metaphor between the lines: I literally couldn’t get behind the job of motherhood. I was one foot in, one foot out.
And then there was the sleep deprivation. My son was a bad sleeper from the start. There are not even words to describe the level of tiredness I experienced. ‘Bone-tired’ is the closest I can get, but my bones felt like they’d dissolved – along with my frontal lobe. There is a reason sleep deprivation is used as torture. I was so tired I kept repeating sentences. I was so tired I kept repeating sentences. At night, in bed, I got flashes of bright white behind my eyes – bursts of adrenaline, I learned – the split second the baby started crying.
Every time the baby went to sleep I felt the way I did when I’d finished a novel. A hyper sense of achievement.
I was manic with joy and a sudden sense of my own uselessness. Emptied out. Hollow. Evolved to a sort of bitter nirvana. Unsure what to do with myself. The urge to go on a bender was strong. And then that anxiety had nowhere to go. But the real killer was the guilt. Because this was meant to be some kind of golden age of life. I was meant to feel lucky, and grateful, and fulfilled. Complete. My grandma kept saying it to me: ‘Well, Emma, now you have everything you ever wanted.’ I want to cry down the phone every time she says it. I want to say:
I have no sleep, Gran.
I’m a pit of anxiety.
My relationship is almost in pieces.
I think my career is over.
My body hurts in fifty places and there’s nothing I can do about it and I’m terrified I’m broken for ever.
But she is ninety years old and I don’t want to upset or disappoint her. So instead I do what I do with the rest of my family and friends: I say I’m fine. It becomes like a well-worn prayer, the ‘I’m fine’ mantra. But I wasn’t feeling complete. I was fragmenting into a million pieces, and I was starting to blow away.
When the baby is a month old, I go to meet two friends at the Grand Hotel on the seafront for afternoon tea. Leaving the house is, every time, like one of those bad dreams where you’re wading through treacle and late for something important, like a flight. I pack up the buggy with endless gubbins and make it out onto the street. The hotel is only a twenty-minute walk from my flat but I’m already late. One thing I am thankful for though: the baby is sleeping. I feel pleased that I have managed to feed him before we set out, so he might sleep now for an hour at least and give me some time to socialise. When I get to the hotel, I realise the table my friends have been seated at is in the conservatory, where the gaps between the tables are too narrow for a buggy. I feel the panic start to rise in my throat.
Years earlier, I’d watched my sister run out of restaurants, abandoning family meals, to take my crying baby nephew outside. She’d sit with him in the car, breastfeeding, vowing to go without food herself – rather that than the stress of feeling like her baby was ruining someone else’s dining experience. I’ll admit I’d thought it was a bit ridiculous. Now, I feel the exact same urge. The same lack of appetite. The same bile-force of discomfort.
At the Grand, I smile meekly at my friends at their table in the civilised conservatory. The chinaware and silver clinks. There are trolleys of dainty cakes being wheeled around. It is early December and the hotel has been done up for Christmas. My friends have been waiting for me to order and are sharing a pot of tea.
I manage to squeeze the buggy through the tables to them, apologising constantly, trying not to think that people are dismayed or annoyed to see a baby coming into their midst.
I greet my friends, shrug off my jacket and wonder whether to order a glass of prosecco. God,
I miss going out.
But whether it’s the change in temperature, or the cessation of motion, or just the sense of me relaxing, the baby wakes as soon as I sit down. I stare at him, willing him not to wail.
Don’t wail don’t wail don’t wail, please.
My friends try to talk to me. They ask me how I am. Thy are not bothered by the wailing. Maybe no one is bothered by the wailing.
I am bothered by the wailing. I can’t concentrate. I try and answer their question. How am I?
How am I?
It is impossible.
The waiter comes to take our order.
It is too late. I am fully engaged in panic mode. My heart pounds. I panic. Here we are, ruining all these people’s afternoon teas!
‘I’m sorry,’ I say, getting up. I manoeuvre the buggy out again, knocking the corners of tables as I pass – sorry, so sorry – just trying to get out of the room, out of earshot.
I push the buggy into the accessible toilet. I pull the baby out of the buggy and start to breastfeed. He goes quiet. I exhale. My phone vibrates. It is one of my friends. ‘Are you okay?’
Yes, I reply. Five minutes. Sorry, you go ahead and order.
But I sit in there longer than five minutes. I feed him and then I realise that I am afraid. I do not want to go back into the restaurant. I feel very far away from all of those people, including my friends. I want to go home. Except the urge is simpler than that; less positive and comforting. I want to hide.
I look around the toilet. Even in the Grand Hotel, breastfeeding in a toilet is a fairly grim affair. I am far from mastering breastfeeding confidently in public – and this just compounds my feelings of shame, failure and the need to run away to a secret dark place where I can do my baby business in private. The NCT classes I attended forced upon me a huge pressure to breastfeed. But it was amazing how few places there were to breastfeed in comfort and confidence. If they’re going to pressure us, maybe at least back it up with more facilities? Or make women feel safer getting their tits out? There is propaganda everywhere featuring the word ‘natural’, and a resulting sense of failure for those who don’t breastfeed, or didn’t have a vaginal delivery, as difficult as these things so often are. Again, it’s the weaselly ‘natural’ chat. But what if the natural was trying to tame me and box me up? Put me somewhere society could keep an eye on me and see another obedient daughter playing at being another obedient mother. But I was too bewildered to have such complex thoughts back then, in that toilet. I was shattered. I was floundering.
I put the baby back in the buggy and sneak back into the lobby and out of the main doors. I send my bewildered friends apologetic text messages from the road as I run, crying.
‘Are you really okay?’ they text.
‘Yes, fine!’ I insist. My mantra. My living lie. ‘Just getting used to breastfeeding!’
They didn’t press it. Were they embarrassed in their own way? Did the taboos for women stretch in every direction, making us all afraid to talk, to ask, to cry, to scream?
About the author
Emma Jane Unsworth is the author of the memoir After the Storm: Post-Natal Depression & the Utter Weirdness of New Motherhood. The book is out now, published by Profile Books and Wellcome Collection. Click here to get your copy.