Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On a More Serious Note...

I am amazed by how profoundly my experience as a new parent is shaped by expectations and confidence.

Like Rufus Griscom in his TED talk: Let's Talk Parenting Taboos, I expected to be hit by a "Mack truck of love" upon holding my new baby for the first time. Though I loved Lachie and in a way had loved him since before he was born, I did not feel an overwhelming surge of love in the way I had expected. The experience of holding him and looking into his eyes for the first time was surreal. I found myself dumbly asking him, 'are you my baby?'

I had grown up loving the story of my own birth: the doctor announcing "it's a girl!" and mom declaring it the happiest day of her life. Unconsciously, I had expected to feel the exact same way when Lachlan arrived and when I didn't, I immediately felt deficient. In the days following his birth, I tearfully asked my mom and Mickey, 'when will I love the baby the way I'm supposed to?' I felt a bit of relief when my friend Shannon told me that falling in love with your baby is a lot like your other loving relationships: they build and grow over time.

Mickey surprised me by putting Lachie in our bed
Still, during those first weeks I was filled with overwhelming anxiety. I was on the lookout for post natal depression (PND), a condition which affects 15% of new mums in Australia. The literature and websites advise you to call a doctor if you feel like you don't want to get out of bed, can't cope or have thoughts of harming the baby. That all sounded very alarming and I couldn't really relate. Instead, I felt a paralyzing fear of making the wrong decision in regard to looking after Lachie. It felt like there were a zillion decisions to make about the new baby (Should we swaddle him? Is he still hungry? Should we change his diaper when he seems so sleepy?) and I couldn't bear the thought of him being uncomfortable and unhappy while I struggled to respond to his needs. I found these decisions so exhausting that non-baby decisions were likewise impossible. Even deciding what to have for dinner felt unbearable. I found myself looking for excuses to do housework even though my mom was doing most of the cooking, cleaning and shopping. Tasks such as emptying the dishwasher were gratifying to me because I felt confident doing them. Nothing about caring for Lachie was as straightforward or satisfying because I felt like I was doing it all wrong. I fantasized about being our housekeeper because then I could help with the baby, but not be so completely responsible for a new little person. I constantly asked Mickey and my mom to tell me what to do.

Sleep deprivation, of course, compounded the problem. It killed me that we weren't up all night because Lachie was. On the contrary, he gave us decent blocks of sleep between his feeds, but I found that I couldn't put myself back to sleep easily. I nearly had a panic attack one day while lying down for a nap thinking, 'I need to sleep right now because he is, but I can't.' There was so much pressure to sleep when he was settled and I was always sure that the moment I dropped off to sleep, the baby would wake and need me.

After one particularly heinous night, I stayed in my pajamas the following day so that I could nap, but I couldn't nap and then felt even worse. From then on, I made an effort to shower and dress each day not because I was going anywhere, but because I needed it mentally. Nights were like this really strange sick joke; let's all put on pajamas and brush our teeth and pretend that we're turning in for the night, but really we'll be feeding and settling the baby around the clock.
Impractical, but cute overalls

I made the mistake of sharing some of these fears with the Early Childhood Health Centre midwife (whose visit is worth its own post). She must have decided that I was suicidal because mental health specialists turned up at my door the next day. They began making appointments for me that I never agreed to attend. When I didn't turn up to these appointments, they visited me again and when I didn't allow them in, they phoned Mickey and left cryptic messages on his voicemail. The madness didn't end until I visited one of their doctors. It's unfortunate that the government's response to my request for help with anxiety only yielded more anxiety and I regretted ever sharing my feelings with this midwife.

What did help was talking to other mommy friends and time, of course. I learned that all of my feelings were completely normal and common though not textbook PND. It turns out that I didn't really need a diagnosis; I just needed time to realize that making the "wrong" decision when caring for your baby won't kill either of you. In fact, it will help you respond to his needs better the next time around. As my friend Meaghan said when I told her I was afraid of nights, "dawn always comes," and she was right.

Lachlan is twelve weeks old now and I grow more confident as a new parent each day. It helps that he grows more settled and more communicative each day. When I first held him the day he was born we were strangers, but with each smile and cuddle I fall deeper in love.