Just after my first child, Kitty, was born (she is now nearly three), we had some visitors: a couple and their two children. The woman held Kitty and said “I’m not really a baby person.” She smiled as she said it. I thought it was a very weird thing to say. And especially to smile as she said it.
After they left my husband, Giles, said “Oh yes. She went mad after both kids and had to go to hospital for a bit.”
Oh god, I thought. Poor thing. Post-Natal Depression, how terrible.
I bumbled along with Kitty for the next few weeks in the milky haze you get with a very new baby: we had visitors and gifts, Kitty basically slept all day and all night. My husband was on paternity leave. “This is easy,” I thought. “Tee hee.”
But gradually, as Kitty became more alert and demanding, as the eating-and-sleeping routine I was a slave to, (as it rewarded me with time to myself), started to drive me quite bananas, I wondered how much more mad I had to go before someone would cart me off to the peace and quiet of a nuthouse.
Giles told me more about Not A Baby Person: her husband worked very long hours, including some weekends, but they couldn’t afford help, her family did not live nearby, their house had no garden, the local park was some distance away, she had not met any soul mates at her baby group, her close friends did not have children.
I listened with mounting horror.
That woman, I said to my husband, was not depressed — or rather, I wasn’t bloody suprised that she was depressed! She was in a miserable situation! Even the hardiest marine, the most focused, mentally tough SAS soldier, the smoothest and most cunning spy, would go doo-lally in six weeks under those conditions.
The British Army would not allow its soldiers to exist for long periods under the sort of psychological trauma and sleep-deprivation that new mothers are expected to endure, unaided, cheerfully.
Let me put it this way: if you had a friend who chose to train for a marathon, or go into the army, or who is a barrister, or a teacher, or a social worker or a doctor and they suddenly confess to you that their lives are at times impossible and that they don’t think they can carry on, that they sometimes cry in desperation – you would not tell them that they were depressed.
You probably wouldn’t even advise them to quit. “You can do it,” you would say. “Tomorrow is another day. Hang in there.” And what you really wouldn’t say is: there is something wrong with you, I think you need help.
But if you’re a new mother and you go a bit wobbly under the pressure – you’re depressed. Especially if your situation is good – you might have a healthy, sunny baby and a bit of help (not too much) and parks and family nearby. If you are so blessed, if you dare to say that having a baby is at times horrible, then you are mad, you are depressed, you are possibly suicidal. Everyone, look! Look at the crazy woman who hates her baby!
I am one of those people who became down in the dumps about having a baby for no earthly reason other than I just found it, frequently, exhausting and dreadful. And I couldn’t stop talking about it. I told anyone who would listen about what it was really like. “It’s so tedious and relentless. I’m so TRAPPED! I don’t think she likes me. I can’t read anything. I can’t concentrate. I’m only really at peace when she’s asleep – and even then I often fret that she will wake up too early.”
I thought I was being brave. I thought that I was just telling the truth about the hardships of new motherhood. All I wanted in return was for people to say “You are so brave! It will get better.”
But from more than one person, I got anxious frowns, concerned looks. Two people, both childless, separately took me to one side and said “Do you think maybe you’re a bit… depressed?” It suddenly dawned on me: I was no longer me reporting back from an experience, like telling someone about a bad holiday – I was a mother now, and I was just supposed to say how happy I was, how beautiful it all was. How complete I felt. Anything else was verboten.
I suppressed a scream. I was deeply insulted – and angry. But I didn’t say that. I said something like: “No no, I’m fine.” Because I was fine, really. There was no loss of appetite, no suicidal thoughts. I knew Kitty was easy: she rarely cried, smiled a lot and slept fine. But motherhood was still hard. Motherhood was, at times, unbearable. The responsibility was overwhelming, crushing; the boredom was total, deep.
But from then on, I chose my words more carefully. I began to observe a kind of omerta. Ok, I thought. You don’t want to know the truth? I won’t tell you.
A lot of mothers observe this code of silence. First, you don’t want to frighten or bore people with no children; second, there is always a nagging feeling that you are having a bad time because you are doing it wrong; third, you don’t want people to think you are depressed. There’s nothing worse than pity. Sympathy and support? Yes, please. Pity? No.
So you huddle with other mothers, pre-selected for their own honesty and you talk and it makes you feel better. And you freeze everyone else out, for fear that they will point at you and call you a basket-case if you confess that quite often you powerfully wish that you were on a boat in the Bahamas, dancing to Rihanna. And because of this silence, so many women embark on motherhood blind and they are, in turn, deeply shocked by its downsides.
But this is not depression.
This is simply what happens when women are not brought up to be mothers. Once upon a time in this country, (and it is still the case in most other countries), women will have spent a lot of their girlhood caring for younger siblings and relatives’ babies. Small children come as no surprise. On top of that life is hard work, just generally, and having babies is no different.
We, now, in the West spend our lives up until the point we have children totally selfishly. We are a rich country – we eat out and lie in and see friends and luxuriate in our hangovers. We are shielded from any real hardship, or fear, or boredom. We are educated in order to have careers and be big shots, not change nappies and sing nursery rhymes. And hurrah for that!
But babies are medieval. They are from another time, which hasn’t changed and moved on with the West. Everything else has been tinkered with until is it as convenient as possible – except babies. They arrive as they would have arrived hundreds, even thousands, of years ago, ready for life in a Mayfair penthouse or in a Mongolian yurt.
And it had may never have occurred to you that you cannot give a baby a decongestant, or that they will spit out Panadol or refuse to be comforted with patting and stroking or that they are physically unable to watch television until at least 18 months old, or that they go completely berserk on airplanes or that some days they want you to carry them around all day. All. Day.
A culture clash is inevitable. Not least because we live in tiny family units of two and three. There is often no-one to help, no-one just to hold the baby for a sec while you nip to the loo. There is no-one to talk to except, if you are lucky, other actual friends who have babies or, worse, strange new people you are thrown together with who just happen to have started a family at the same time as you.
To go from a spoilt and pampered existence to this is a big ask. Especially as we are so used to buying our way out of trouble. But you cannot upgrade your baby to one that sleeps well, or who doesn’t whine, or projectile vomit, or one who will sit calmly in its bouncer while you fold laundry or not be constantly ill from September through to April.
None of us is prepared for this kind of uncivilised intrusion on our beautiful, hand-made lives. Not even if you are wildly maternal. My best friend Rosie is just that: she loves all children and babies – when she was little she cradled dollies and made a beeline for any infant (I did not do this). Her much longed-for son is now two.
She says “After Ben was born for weeks he screamed from 6.30pm to midnight then passed out. It was unbearable and I would cry and say ‘What do you want? What’s wrong with you?’ Eventually I worked out that he wasn’t sleeping enough during the day and needed to be swaddled. But to this day every evening I get a sinking feeling that tonight is going to be the night that he won’t sleep and there’s no-one to help me. I am often nervous that I will not be able to help him if he is very ill or unsettled in the night. But no-one cares. It’s all your problem. I know this sounds odd but sometimes Ben really scares me.”
Dr Spock told a generation of women that they didn’t need to learn how to look after their babies, that it was instinctive and that they knew more than they thought they did. He was completely wrong. When you have no proper experience of babies, as most of us don’t, and one arrives in your house, it is like suddenly being asked to re-sit your final school exams. In Russian.
I suppose I have to point out here that none of this means you hate your kids. Doesn’t it go without saying? Apparently not. Disliking many aspects of having a small baby around the house doesn’t mean you hate your baby, or your husband, or family life. Babies are beautiful and charming but also dementing and unreasonable – it’s like living with a Hollywood starlet who is in the middle of a nervous breakdown.
And yet it is simply not allowed not to suffix any complaint with “… but they’re so cute it’s all worth it…” or “…but I love them so much that of course I don’t mind…” The palliative “but it’s all worth it,” is a pretty pathetic offering to a woman whose children have croup and who has not read a book, had a haircut or been to the loo alone in 18 months.
The rest of the world needs mothers, badly, to say it’s all worth it, to say they love every second more than the last. The world doesn’t want to hear the truth, which is that when you’ve just had a baby and you are adrift and alone and exhausted and manic, you can wonder just what the hell “it” is, that this is all supposed to be worth.
But that’s not depression! Or madness! Stop right there with that straightjacket, amigo. That’s just motherhood, in all its monstrous glory. I made my peace with it long ago, but I worry others haven’t.
Please don’t think I am asking for help with my life, or asking for anything about it to change: mothers and motherhood are not problems that need to be solved. I am not a problem that needs to be solved.
All I’m asking is to be allowed to tell the truth, without being pointed at, to be allowed to talk about motherhood without having to sugar-coat it in order to make you feel better. Because that really is depressing.
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This piece was first published in The Times and is republished with permission.