The disasters, triumphs and bliss of new babies.
Updated: Oct 23, 2020
I was quoted in an interview last year as comparing the sleep deprivation that comes with having a new baby to Guantanamo Bay. My heart sank. That had been an attempt at humour; a throwaway comment never intended for public consumption. The complaints would surely come fast and furious; how could anyone compare the magic of motherhood with the brutality of a controversial detention camp, even in jest? But then a funny thing happened – no one complained. No one retweeted it in disbelief or told me to cop on, not even so much as an angry emoji face from an anonymous troll.
Now of course, there’s every chance that no one cared, but I think it’s more likely that a nation of mums smiled and nodded to themselves with their exhausted eyes half-closed, thinking how an orange jumpsuit might actually have its practicalities.
The first few months with a new baby; I’ve heard them referred to as the fog, the 100 days of darkness, the baby abyss, the black hole… all more reminiscent of a sci-fi horror B movie than a description of what is supposedly the most meaningful time in a woman’s life. I say “meaningful” rather than a list of superlatives, because although most new mothers will have crossover tales from those early days, not all of them find it exhilarating or wonderful. At least not all of the time.
I had my first (and only) baby in July 2015 and I had been warned by friends and supermarket strangers alike about the first six weeks. “Oh brace yourself for the first weeks”, “It’s like nothing you could ever imagine”, and “that first month is hard. Really, really hard”.
These warnings and supposed words of wisdom weren’t helpful, at least not to me. Like telling someone who’s minutes away from sitting a critically important exam that it’s going to be extraordinarily difficult. What’s the point? They can’t do any more study and neither could I, and such foreboding words can only lead to more worry and anxiety. One of my best friends, Alice, who is a mother of three, didn’t offer any advice, she just told me repeatedly that it would all be fine and so would I, and if she could offer any advice once the baby was born, to ask. This was the best non-advisory advice I received, and it was indeed in the weeks after baby Tom arrived that I texted her to ask if a certain shade of poo was normal or if any of her babies had ever breastfed for five hours straight. These weren’t questions I needed (or wanted) answered before they presented themselves in all their (with hindsight) vaguely humorous glory. I found comfort in strange places; the Ray Donovan box sets my mum, husband and I sat down to watch most nights after dinner for distraction. Facebook messages with another brand new mum who was up at 4am too. It’s at once discombobulating and comforting, terrifying and reassuring. You can feel the happiest you’ve ever felt one minute, and then as frightened as a child after a nightmare the next. It’s like getting onto a brilliant rollercoaster with the worst hangover of your life.
To any women who have children, you may be nodding along to some or all of these observations. To others, it may sound like the most unpleasant experience you’ve ever heard. But of course, not unlike those who offered advice pre-birth when it wasn’t solicited, all of these attempts at describing the experience of bringing home a new baby are out of context before you meet the little person themselves. Before he or she arrives, it is little more than academic. No matter how bad the tiredness, how sore the nipples, how patronising the health visitor or how irritating the mother-in-law who tells you you’re doing it wrong, there are those little moments of incomparable sheer bliss when you’re on your own, peer into the cot and see that little face peering back up (or even more blissfully, asleep). Those moments caught me off guard and made me believe that everything was ok.
I found the first six weeks tough. I was fortunate to have my own Mum move in with us for five of them. She was there every day, good natured and upbeat, offering advice but never judging, washing tiny babygros and making dinner for my husband and I, asking me was I ok and reassuring me that I wasn’t doing a terrible job. Those early weeks are like being a child again yourself in many ways - you’re learning something completely new that no amount of books read in pregnancy can really prepare you for (admittedly, I read none). There are so many firsts to overcome; the first time you leave the house with the baby, how alien it feels to push a pram. The abject fear when they start screaming in the café you’ve managed to get yourself to, the even greater terror that comes with trying to master breastfeeding in public or the looks you feel are cast in your direction when you reach for a bottle rather than your boob. The realisation if you are breastfeeding that you have worn the wrong outfit (I am as appalled as the next person at the current trend of shaming women who breastfeed in public, but I once absent-mindedly wore a dress that could only allow feeding if I took it over my head altogether and wore it like a cowl, so probably warranted at least a few of the horrified stares). The rashes that come and go, the googling of what baby poo is supposed to look like and the worry that they’re not eating enough or taking too much. Every week throws up a new concern but also a new confidence that comes with having overcome those of the previous seven days. Yes, the first six weeks were tough. And yet I am not much better equipped now to offer advice than I was before them. I do however, understand a little more. Now if a friend has a baby I behave differently than I would have a year ago. I don’t turn up unannounced, and when I do visit, I bring food that can be frozen and don’t stay long. I text but don’t call (but always answer if they ring). I buy smaller, practical gifts and don’t send flowers (our little kitchen looked like a florists, and I wished I could have spread the lovely bouquets out over the months that followed). I ask my friends how they are rather than asking after the baby first, and make it clear that I’ll be awake at 4am if they want to chat (although this happened once and neither of us can remember any part of the conversation). I remind them that a new baby puts an enormous strain on even the strongest marriages and relationships and to ask for help rather than expect partners to just know.
There’s no denying that it has been one of the most momentous times of my life (notwithstanding the time I met Larry Hagman when I was nine and he gave me a $100 bill with his face on it). Peppered with minor disasters and small triumphs, the first six weeks postpartum were some of the most extraordinary days of my life, despite rarely leaving the house. When I look back at the photos of me and my son in those early weeks, a look of mild terror in both our eyes, I think of the things I might have done differently, and then look at him now, thriving at 11 months, and remind myself that maybe I didn’t too badly at all.
I think we obsess over birth, but actually our focus should be on the weeks that come after. I felt totally ready for my first baby. I was in the Midwife Led Unit in Drogheda, had attended all the antenatal classes and with all my anatomy and physiology training [O’Flaherty is a massage therapist and reflexologist] I had a strong understanding of the nervous system, so I knew all I needed to do was let my body do its job. I had the hypnobirthing books and CDs, I had gone to my pregnancy yoga and had my breathing down.
Unfortunately I didn’t get my planned birth so ended up in the labour ward. I gave it everything I had, and after 40 minutes of pushing, met our beautiful baby Pádraig. He was perfect. I felt such an overwhelming feeling of achievement. Within a few minutes though it became clear that something was wrong, our room was suddenly filled with people. I had a massive post-partum haemorrhage and lost three litres of blood. The recovery meant the first three weeks were a bit of a blur.
On day five I got the baby blues and was convinced he would starve as we couldn’t get him to keep his milk down. Otherwise Pádraig made it pretty straightforward for us. We kind of carried on as normal, just with a baby in our lives now. We tried not to overthink anything. Pádraig was sleeping longer as each week went by and we were counting down to the end of the first six weeks thinking, “Is this it?”. We had been told, like everyone else, that once the first six weeks are over it gets easier from there so we thought, well that’s great as they were grand.
He wasn’t the imposition we had been told he would be. I would consult the books constantly in those first weeks, and felt like the mother in Rugrats, “Dr Lipshitz said...” this, that or the other. I feel so blessed for my husband Niall who was hands on from day one. He is a hero! I wasn’t able to breastfeed, so he was able to feed him, change him, soothe him, do everything while I slept.
With my second baby Aoibh, we decided a C-section was my best option due to some internal damage done during Pádraig’s birth. I put all my efforts into planning to breastfeed and forgot about the birth part of it all. What I found most hard about having two in the first six weeks was having two. Everything just got harder, you were trying to settle one and the other would kick off. I just couldn’t manage; I was getting stressed all the time. I couldn’t organise myself to go for a walk with them, I was living on coffee and cake. The house was a mess (still is), I was beating myself up over everything I was doing and felt I was doing it all wrong. I wished for more help from people, and took every opportunity to make use of any that was offered.
Unfortunately I suffered a massive emotional collapse. I started to notice I wasn’t right early on, but at six months it hit an all-time low. At nine months I actually did something about it. I was suffering from post-natal depression and post-traumatic stress from Pádraig’s birth. After finally sorting this with counselling/psychotherapy, medication, reflexology and reiki I am on the road to recovery and am feeling a million times better at 14 months post-partum. With regard to those first six weeks, I’d advise new mums to join a breastfeeding group if they choose to breastfeed. To remember that each phase passes. Call your friends who have babies, especially the ones with babies just slightly older than yours. They will reassure you; never underestimate the power of a Mammy friend.
Sadhbh O’Flaherty is Mum to Pádraig (3 1/2 years) and Aoibh (14 months).
It’s hilarious that people go on about the first weeks when in all honesty it’s parenting the little munchkins which is the far harder part. I don’t really remember any advice before the baby came. I only really had my sister and my best friend who had had children before me, and they had seemed to roll with it.
I think the high expectations I had of myself were the main thing that hindered me in the first weeks. When Grace (my first) was born, I had a massive haemorrhage and ended up being rushed into surgery, being given an epidural and having an emergency D&C. It was nothing I had expected and was a terrifying experience. My overriding memories of those first weeks are of feeling completely overwhelmed, like I was failing at everything and lots of pain.
I really struggled with breastfeeding but I was so bloody minded about it and gave myself a really hard time. I remember my sister offering to get a bottle for me and I think I growled at her. I put so much pressure on myself to be some kind of paragon of motherhood, and I thought every time my daughter looked at me her eyes said “Seriously?”.
In fairness, I was in the throes of major grief. I found out I was pregnant for the first time only two weeks after my mother died and three months after that my grandmother, to whom I was very close, also passed away. I think the pregnancy buffered me from the full impact of it. It was just really tough but thankfully Grace was an angel baby. I remember a nurse at the breastfeeding group I went to saying that things usually clicked into place at six weeks and I felt horrified because that seemed like a lifetime away. Then one day, I was sitting in a café reading a newspaper while breastfeeding Grace and my friend joined me and said “Look at you!”. That was six weeks in, and something had clicked. It wasn’t all plain sailing after that, but we got into a rhythm and things fell into place enough to make me realise that I wasn’t the worst mother in the world.
With my second and third babies (my two boys), I still had a hard time breastfeeding, but my my third, Raphael, I discovered that he was tongue tied and when we looked in Grace and Gabriel’s mouths, they both had ties too which explained the struggles I had had. I think in all honesty, I had post natal depression after all of my babies. The baby blues were intense, and I’ve struggled with feeling low and overwhelmed off and on for the last eight years. It was never severe enough to warrant medication, but I’ve no qualms about looking for help. I practise yoga and have a vibrant Christian faith. And my husband Simon is quite honestly the best dad ever. I never knew how right I was deciding to share my life with him until I saw him with our children. I find practising gratitude to be transformative. Even in my darkest days, I could always find five things to be grateful for. You have to hunt for victories like pigs hunt for truffles!
Melanie Clark Pullen is an actress and writer, and mum to Grace (8), Gabriel (5) and Raphael (2). Find her at strutandbellow.com
Originally published in the Irish Times, May 2016