In the lead up to the birth of our second daughter Bay, I became obsessed with a documentary series about SAS training. I watched every episode repeatedly, trying to drink in some of the superhuman strength these people had. When the contractions came, I visualised myself trekking through the Brecon Beacons with them in their test of physical stamina. As part of their mental training, they are left alone blindfolded for 24 hours with the sound of babies crying. The chief trainer tells them that this is where people crack.
I cracked soon after Bay was born because she didn’t stop crying, ever. If she was awake, she was screaming. No doctor, health visitor or consultant at the hospital could tell us why. My GP gave me the exceptionally unhelpful advice that ‘it’s just what babies do’. I felt like I was in a Clockwork Orange/Rosemary’s Baby mash up nightmare that I couldn’t escape from and I quickly began to unravel into my own post-natal depressive horror film.
For 5 months, I only spent time at home or our parents’ houses as they were the places I felt safe to fall apart. On one occasion, I felt ok enough to leave the house with Bay on a well planned out excursion; a speedy trip to John Lewis to return a jumper, 15 minutes tops. I was feeling pretty confident until we entered the shop and the screaming began with gusto. This girl has a cry that could shatter glass so there was no way to dilute the noise with other shoppers. As usual, no amount of comforting would console her, I knew I just had to cuddle her and wait it out. That’s easier said than done in a ten deep queue with a screaming banshee and 2 hours sleep.
I would have run if my legs would carry me but they froze along with my lungs. I felt like all the air had been sucked away and the walls were closing in. My frazzled brain melted in on itself and there was nothing left to do but sit on the floor in the middle of the queue with my head in my hands and sob. Not a few lone tears but weeping and shaking and gasping. I watched myself from outside my body, thinking ‘this is a new low, GET UP!’ but everything that had happened in the past 5 months came cascading out – the torture of a permanently crying baby, the lack of sleep, the pain of seeing Dalí change from a happy little girl to a stressed introvert and most worrying, the fact that Greg was mysteriously becoming more and more ill by the day.
There was a pretty even split in the reaction in the people around me; either horror that they were watching someone fall apart so spectacularly or trying very hard to pretend they weren’t there. I desperately needed someone to help me up, to take my screaming child, to tell me that babies are fucking insane and that they had been through this themselves, that things will get better. But no one did. Eventually, the humiliation of the situation overrode the despair and I got up and ran back to the safety of my car where I could cry along with Bay.
I wouldn’t admit to myself that I had postnatal depression because I felt it was admitting I had failed. Because I wouldn’t acknowledge it, I most certainly didn’t let others know I was struggling so desperately. In retrospect, this was singularly the worst thing I could have done. I didn’t know how you tell someone that you think your kids might be better off if they were adopted, that you fantasise about a time when you didn’t have them or that you’ve screamed in your baby’s face “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT FROM ME?”. Everyone else seemed to be getting on and I couldn’t even get dressed in the morning. I was afraid of people thinking I wasn’t competent. I was afraid that when Bay was older, she would wonder why I became depressed with her arrival and not Dalí’s.
Bay stopped crying suddenly at five months and my depression lifted as quickly. We never did find out what the crying was about but I have been left deeply affected by the trauma of her newborn days. The moment crying in the queue had a profound effect on me. I never, ever want to feel as humiliated or as alone as I did that day and I never want anyone else to feel like it. I now know that I wasn’t failing as a mother, I was under an enormous amount of pressure and my brain was trying to tell me it wasn’t sustainable. Unfortunately, there has been no time to alleviate that pressure because as soon as Bay stopped crying, Greg’s health suddenly declined further and so began the six-month lead up to his cancer diagnosis.
I can’t do anything about the past but I can do something now. I am determined to not make that mistake again of keeping quiet, of pretending I can do these hard life events on my own. I now understand that to do this does an enormous disservice to myself and other people in difficult situations, to carry on the vicious cycle of silence. I’ve found there is nothing more true about parenting than ‘it takes a village’ but this is also the same about life in general – you need others to be able to deal with the crazy hands that are thrown at us all daily. In our darkest hours when we are on our knees, we need to be honest, vulnerable and courageous. This may be really difficult for some people because honesty and vulnerability can be really hard to look at. It might mean that you see that person in a different light and that changes your relationship with them. It could be that it brings up some difficult personal stuff that you’re not ready to look at. It can also mean that it breaks down barriers and makes people feel less alone. I can’t do anything about feeling alone like I did sitting on the floor of that queue but I can try to make sure others don’t feel like that.
Since I have started sharing my feelings about these hard things in my life, some amazing things have happened. I’ve had people contact me from all over the world, telling me that they have felt the same. For such positives to have come out of such tragedy is more than I could have hoped for. I’ve also had people distance themselves from me. I suppose that’s ok too. Everyone has their own choice in how they deal with things. I just want to make sure I’m not one of the people looking away when someone is sat crying on the floor.