Guest post: My baby's first Christmas wasn't magical - I felt empty, guilty and scared
Two years after being hospitalised for depression, Aileen Few says many mothers won't feel joy and contentment over Christmas
The (Mal)contented Mother
Posted on: Mon 21-Dec-15 14:28:34
(15 comments )
My baby was just eight weeks old when I found myself in A&E, afraid of my own mind and feeling like I simply couldn't cope. It was only a week and a half after a Christmas Day that had felt devoid of that 'baby's first Christmas' magic we hear so much about.
Two years on, and life is very different. The contrast between my son's first Christmas and the one now approaching couldn't be greater. But it still upsets me to think of that time, and to know that there will be many others facing similar struggles this year.
My memory of Christmas 2013 is a blur to say the least. Like many women, I didn't feel the instant rush of love for my baby that I'd seen depicted on countless films and TV programmes. That it-was-all-worth-it glow which seems to descend as soon as a little one is placed into a new mother's arms is something we are all so familiar with seeing. No matter how hard or traumatic our labours, I think it's something many new mums are, on some level, expecting.
But, as with everything else, motherhood is not always like the movies. Those first hours as a mother weren't like that, and - although it's still hard to admit it - I didn't enjoy the first few months of my boy's life. Between feeling traumatised by the birth, suffering from an incredibly painful infection in the first week, and having a hungry baby who wasn't gaining weight, all my hopes for maternal contentment were dashed.
I could see how my husband and parents felt about him. They were totally in love, and I desperately wanted to feel that way too. Looking back, I can see how Christmas compounded the sense of emptiness that had been with me for quite some time.
On Christmas Eve I remember someone saying, "Isn't it lovely having the baby here with us?". I'm sure I smiled convincingly enough, but my honest response would have been "No, not really". I sat there longing for sleep, my body tense against the next crying fit. When it came to Christmas dinner, I was too tired to enjoy the food - or anything, really, including my boy.
Christmas placed a magnifying glass over my thoughts and feelings. I wasn't enjoying my baby or the festive season. The gnawing guilt became malignant. What fragile motherly confidence I had started to be eaten away.
I felt awful about it. Oughtn't I to be overflowing with comfort and joy? Hadn't I always wanted to be a mother? I had a healthy baby. What was wrong with me?
These thoughts weren't at the surface of my mind; I didn't let them rise up. I was afraid of them: of what they meant about me and about what kind of parent I was going to be; even if I could be a parent at all. The anxiety and guilt were crippling.
But Christmas placed a kind of magnifying glass over my thoughts and feelings. I wasn't enjoying my baby or the festive season. The gnawing guilt became malignant. What fragile motherly confidence I had started to be eaten away by the corrosive mantra of 'you're not good enough', whispered at the back of my mind.
Still, I did the festive rounds. There was a trip down to London with more of the family visits and the smiles and agreeing that yes, he was gorgeous and explaining that no, he didn't sleep very well. All the while, that malignant guilt was silently doing its worst, leading eventually to A&E and some time spent in a mother-and-baby mental health unit.
By early January, when my husband (a teacher) was due to return to work, I was in a bad way. Even when I was given a break I couldn't sleep; I was plagued by dark thoughts that scared me. I was afraid for myself.
Having past experience of mental health difficulties, I knew that I needed medical help and told my mum I felt that I needed to go to hospital. The level of care I received in A&E, and later in the mother-and-baby unit I was lucky enough to be offered a bed in, was literally life-saving. Two years on, and with the help of therapy, a mindfulness course and medication, it all seems like a bad, sad dream.
The trickiest thing about all of this is that I wasn't wilfully concealing my unhappiness. I was trying to convince myself, as much as – if not more than – anyone else, of my contentedness. I was deeply ashamed of my lack of strong feelings for my son - so much so that I didn't dare admitl it even to myself.
I wish that I'd been able to put myself first and not give in to obligations to dress up or turn up or cheer up. I know now that if I hadn't visited relatives - if I hadn't felt like I could make the long journey - they would have understood. A greater gift for my family would have been my own health and happiness. I needed to soothe myself.
At Christmas, when we can feel even more pressure than usual to experience joy and happiness, many of us don't. I hope other mothers are able to get help, and don't leave it as long as I did to rush to A&E. We are not bad mothers for feeling this way.
Looking back, it's still hard to express the contrast in my feelings over two years. That overflowing love that we imagine magically appears on the day our child's birth has instead gradually, miraculously arisen in me and it is bigger and fiercer and more real than any Hollywood movie could ever capture.
By Aileen Few
No need for guilt. Pnd is horrible (so I've heard). You obviously tried your best. I really think the birth and the early bonding as well as support is so important to a mother in the first few days and weeks. Pnd shouldn't happen and its sad that it does. Lots of medical intervention and lack of support can make new mums feel rubbish. I'm really glad thing are better for you.
For me too, love grew rather than immediately descending. The kids are 4.6 and 3.5 now (unexpected 2nd child!) and I enjoy them so so SO much more. I'm used to them, and vice versa.
Thank you for sharing your story
I'm very fortunate not to have felt like this but my daughter certainly did, and found it hard to talk about. Your story will have helped many other vulnerable new mothers. Thank you.
I spent my first Christmas with DS1 in hospital... Bronchiolitis! Tested for meningitis and given a spinal !!!
I am, on the one hand, dreading christmas as I have yet to get through it without some sort of mental collapse since giving birth 4 and half years ago. I think you are right that it magnifies the feelings you have...but it also busts you out of your normal routine which is enough to trigger a spiral into depression all by itself.
On the other hand I am cautiously optimistic because I have made some recent progress dealing with my child birth trauma. Maybe I will manage, if not a joyful christmas then at least a peaceful one....
I think we (as a society) really need to stop romanticising new motherhood. Yes, you may get the rush of love right away, you might take to motherhood like a duck to water and you possibly will have the easiest baby ever and be able carry with life just like all the celebs do.
But on the other hand, you might have a shitty birth, be too wrecked and exhausted to feel like yourself for months, you may be capable of nothing more than keeping you and squalling infant alive for the first couple of months. And do you know what? That's not a failure. If you and squalling infant are still kicking at bedtime, and you've got enough energy to get up and face the next day, that's a win. It's one of the toughest things you'll ever do, physically and mentally and it's take time to adjust and that's normal.
As for 'baby's magical first christmas'. Every day is full of wonders for a baby, you don't have to go the extra mile at christmas, they won't remember, and if you're knackered, you won't enjoy it either. Of course, go nuts for a toddler's first christmas. Toddler's love sparkly things
I still feel guilt today that I did not have that over whelming feeling of love for my son when he was born seventeen years ago. However, I have learnt to be kind to myself and realise that his birth was traumatic (natural breach) and that over the years we have become so close and been through so much together that the love grows. The gift I would have asked for that first Christmas would have been for someone to say 'It's ok not to feel full of love the whole time. It's ok to want to sleep for 24 hours straight. We know you are doing the best you know how.'
Great post, thank you. My dd is 17 months now and I've still got pnd and anxiety. However last Christmas was shite, mentally I was a wreck. Not got much time to write really to fully explain and express what it was like but I'm filled with sadness, and a grief I suppose, at not enjoying my darling daughter's baby days.
Great post, I could've written it myself....except I didn't get help until much later, desperate to try to convince myself and others I was "fine" when I was drowning under PND....I have a photo of myself and my 6 wk old baby by our Xmas tree and what isn't clear to see is that we are both crying....7 years on and with help I am well again, and enjoying my dd. The PND itself is one reason I will only have one child.
Wow that really struck a cord. This was me last christmas. Thank you for sharing your story x
I remember being this way for about 4 years. I believe the pressure to feel a certain way causes it. That rush of love is joy, that's all. If I have anymore babies I will place no pressure on myself to feel it, I will go with the flow as I know now birth is traumatic and I can't expect myself to emotionally perform. I was lucky with my 2nd child as my best friend gave birth at the same time as me so once I made it onto the ward she reassured me that she never felt the rush of love. She never questioned herself and felt guilty though, hence zero anxiety for her.
Thank you for this post. I'll be reflecting on this over the next few days and I think it'll help me come to terms with the way I sometimes feel which you have put into words in a way I have not been able to.
Thankfully I did not have high hopes for baby's first Christmas, he was two weeks old, and 4 weeks premature so we hadn't expected him to be there for Christmas. I looked forward to his childhood more then his babyhood.
So fast forward to the bit I was looking forward to - and DS is an exhausting child. He can outrun me and often outsmart me, he's strong and he never stays still. When I read "body tense against the next crying fit" I thought - that's me! I've been tense for the last 5 years! Tense against the next outburst, the next bad behavior, the next refusal to clean teeth, to get dressed, to hold my hand to cross the road. The daily battles. And how true - the guilt, the shame and the anxiety - I should be enjoying the best years of his life but the daily battles wear me out. He has a will of iron.
So glad you are enjoying life more now. Thank you so much for helping me see why I find my jaw clenched and shoulders hunched. New Year's resolution - sacrifice a little family time so I get a chance to re-charge myself, and most of all appreciate the best bits of DS.
Thank you for writing this.
I haven't had PND but I am extremely sleep deprived which can affect my mood and I have put my foot down this year and said that we are not travelling to see family who do not have small kids - they can come to us and also help with food or just expect an easy M and S meal. Life is too short to get frazzled by details of entertaining over Christmas. I hope you have a happy Christmas this year with your family.
Can't tell you what these message of support and positivity mean to me. And for those who are still struggling, go gently with yourself when you can!
Aileen I had to comment as I could have written this post myself. I too had just had my son Christmas 2013 and it was one of the unhappiest times I can remember. I think I cried solidly Christmas Eve, Day and Boxing Day. I didn't feel bonded to my son at all and everyone saying how special his first Christmas was just made me feel worse. I was so exhausted I just wanted it all to stop. I finally sought help in January and received amazing support from my doctor and the local perinatal team. I also found taking medication really helped me. Thank you so much for sharing your story and wishing you a very happy Christmas with your little one xx
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