I am sat in my living room at 9.13 am on a Tuesday, wearing my nightie, slippers and glasses. I still haven’t washed my face but I’ve had coffee. My son is sleeping in the room next door. I am on maternity leave - he turns three months tomorrow. I’m reading through the messages from fellow new mums on WhatsApp. The range of mum-related conversation topics is broad but relentlessly dull: from the state of our bodies to how to get our babies to sleep through the night – or indeed to sleep at all.
‘You’re not depressed, you are just climbing the huge mountain of motherhood.’ I read this yesterday on a post by midwife-turned-author Clemmie Hooper, and I wished she were my friend. When I hear the term post-natal depression being used too frivolously I shiver. This idea seems dangerous: that if you want to escape or disappear, if you feel inadequate, if you’re despairing, if you’re not sure that you love your baby, then you’re suffering from a condition that is not a normal, understandable, response to mothering.
I’m no psychologist, but my mother was and if she were alive today I’m pretty sure she’d say, of course you’re responding this way, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel overwhelmed. The problem is that as understandable as this extreme response to an extreme life change is, it is, nevertheless, unmanageable. Feeling so out of your depth twenty-four hours a day, whilst also being sleep deprived, is not manageable on your own. You need support. But support does not, in the vast majority of cases, mean therapy or medication or a label you can wear and hold onto, to know you’re suffering from a mostly temporary condition rather than experiencing an irreversible life change. Support means human company, from a woman who knows you, who can spend more than an hour with you, without getting paid to do it, who isn’t afraid she’ll kill a newborn by holding it the wrong way; ideally from your mother.
When my baby was born, I was not taught how to breastfeed. They told me he was very big so they were worried about his blood sugar levels, so he had to be formula fed. I was never warned that this would compromise breastfeeding. I don't blame the hospital staff, but it never occured to me to go to any pre-natal breastfeeding courses because I assumed breastfeeding would be a purely natural instinct.
I went home the following day with no support. When the midwives came to my house they’d ask me to self-diagnose any issues, ‘is your mental health ok?’, 'no, really,' they'd ask again, looking at me for a few intense silent seconds, as though the awkwardness of the situation might prompt me to open up about my feelings. They’d leave after 45 minutes and I’d be left to ‘mix-feed’ the baby again, all the while him increasingly preferring the bottle to the breast – or so it seemed anyway. I couldn’t ask my mum to sit with me and talk me through it, and with only brothers and no sisters, I felt surrounded by men who cared about me but were wholly unable to help, and I’d just given birth to another (little) man who would continue to make demands of me. I felt exhausted and heartbroken.
On the fifth day after labour I ran to the loos because I couldn’t hold it in, and started weeing before I’d quite made it to the seat. I sat on the toilet with soiled underwear around my ankles and started to cry. I was still holding the baby since I was alone, and he was so fast asleep I couldn’t wake him up, and I thought he was dying. It was night, the bathroom was dark, and his head just flopped forwards with his eyes shut, and I couldn’t detect his tiny wheezy breath. I felt a pang of pain in my chest as I experienced the worst fear I’ve ever felt in my life, and then he made a little noise. I held him and cried more and more. I was completely exhausted and felt completely alone. I shouted at my husband when he got home, called him lazy and manipulative and said I was doing everything. I said everything again and again as though the more times I said it the more rested I might feel for it. It didn’t work. I knew then that my hormones had crashed, and that it would soon get better. I prayed.
When I prayed, I instantly realised something. Beyond the world of hormones and clinical depression was a less euphemistic name for what was happening: the devil. It's become unfashionable (among the circles of liberal, enlightened Catholics that young fashion-conscious millenials such as myself frequent) to think of Satan as a 'being', or in fact to even talk about the devil at all. There's something very Southern State/Bible Belt/God Hates Fags about expressing a belief in an evil demon who spends his days trying to mess up good people's lives. However, as a convert, there's nothing more palatable to me about eating the flesh of some dude who claims to be God and gets executed only to raise from the dead days later, than there is about some red guy with horns and a trident. None of it sounded particularly plausible to me, so when I converted I took on the whole deal.
And to me, the Devil (or however you want to think of it) is very real. When the Devil sees joy, he attacks it. I felt so whole, so overjoyed, so united with my husband, when I’d given birth to my son, that Satan rolled up his sleeves and within a matter of days, if not hours, started inflicting fear in my heart. Many non-Christians (or cool modern Christians) sometimes think of it as 'that negative voice in your head.' My son could die at any second, the voice said, I could never go back to my old life, I would always fail, there’s no such thing as a perfect mother so why bother trying to be one, no one is happy really, he’s doomed to suffer like the rest of humanity, maybe he’ll get a disease, here’s a list of diseases breastfeeding prevents, you’re not trying hard enough to breastfeed, how much do you love him really if there’s a limit to how much you’re willing to sacrifice, don’t let him sleep too long he needs to feed, feed him on demand he needs to grow, feed him every three hours, you need to rest, if you don’t rest your milk production will go down, make sure you’re getting some sleep, that’s when milk is produced, don’t get stressed, stress reduces milk production, he isn’t getting enough milk, you’ll need to top him up with formula, there’s no need to top him up with formula, that will compromise your milk supply, how much do you love him if you’re not willing to work harder? How much do you love him really? How much do you love him?
Only your enemy will say these things, even if they sometimes come from the mouth of a human with your best interests at heart. God will never question a mother’s love for her child, a mother’s intuition, a mother’s desire for and knowledge of what is best, because he made that love in the first place. He is that love. I was at Mass the Sunday after giving birth because I needed to be. It was the only place where I found refuge. Week after week it has got easier, I have got stronger, and I have never felt more sure of God's love than when my son and I cuddle, laugh and dance together.