It wasn’t until Little O’s 10 month check, that I got diagnosed with anxiety and post natal depression. I’d been so focused on whether Little O could get a flippin’ cheerio out of a plastic bottle or not, that I hadn’t expected the health visitor to turn around and ask, “How are you coping?” The floodgates opened in dramatic fashion, a torrent of tears, soaking through a tonne of tissues, eyes swollen and bloodshot, not a pretty sight. Since then, (Little O is now 2) there have been the usual ups and downs of parenting. But every so often I get glimpse at what it’s like to return to that dark, depressive state.
Headbutts and Hazards
Yesterday, he screamed for an hour and fifteen minutes. Non-stop, relentless, top-of-his-lungs screaming from 2:15 until 3:30! Why? Well, there were a plethora of reasons: firstly, mummy wouldn’t stand up, then I wouldn’t let him watch ‘Octonauts’, then mummy wouldn’t go away. One moment he was yelling, “Mummy cuddle,” and the next he was headbutting me and scrambling out of my arms. He had just woken up after his afternoon nap; I’ve learnt to expect trauma and tears at this time now, but sadly, it was neither the first nor the last meltdown of the day.
Earlier, we had been to Action-Tots (think baby gymnastics – balancing on beams and benches, climbing A-frames, rolling balls, that type of thing). We go every week, it’s a great class and Little O gains plenty from it. Every week the routine is the same; yet, it is seemingly starting to feel like Little O is the only two year old having a tantrum because we were asked to put the balls away, or because it’s not his turn to run right now. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that turn taking and transitioning between activities are tricky skills for little ones to master – but does it really require the sulky face and wrestling match we end up having, whilst everybody’s else’s child is happy to just join in?
After Action-Tots, we had just enough time to nip to the supermarket before hunger pangs for lunch might become an additional problem. I gave up on trolleys a long time ago. The idea that my child would sit contentedly in one, even with a multi-pack of Pom Bears, is laughable if not ludicrous! Even if you manage to secure him in, the trolley becomes a health and safety hazard as he thrashes about, headbutts the handle and attempts to clamber out. Trolleys are one fight best avoided. Instead, I pop on his harness and encourage him to run up and down each aisle in search of various items, which I then hastily scoop into a small basket before I’m dragged down the next aisle. It’s a full-body cardio workout, carrying a heavy basket combined with running after a small child.
Only yesterday, I was was running with small child. Do you remember all the breastfeeding holds you were told about by your well-meaning midwife? There was the cradle, the cross-cradle, the rugby ball hold – all proved useless with Little O, until now. We may never have quite got to grips with breastfeeding, but the rugby-ball hold is mighty helpful when you need to transport an angry toddler back towards the checkout and he insists on lying on the floor, kicking and screaming to the ‘amusement’ of strangers. I’m sure most of us have been there at some point. Right?
It’s exhausting. It’s draining. It’s life-sucking. No, after all that, I don’t want to go home to play ‘big ball’, I don’t have the energy. I don’t want another fight over another nappy change, or another struggle come nap-time either. And I don’t want the post-nap tears and tantrums just because I didn’t stand up.
What I actually ended up doing, was hunched over in a sobbing heap on the kitchen floor. Unable to console my child and stuck in the battle of not knowing whether to give in to all his whims to comfort him, or stand my ground for fear of raising a rascal. Some days, I just don’t know what to do. Those are the days where I end up crying. Yesterday was one of those days.
Amongst the angst and guilt and worry and loneliness, are countless thoughts doubting my ability to be a good mother. They are horrible thoughts. Nasty, negative thoughts. I don’t like thinking them but on days like yesterday they stick in my mind like tar and I’m unable to shake them off. (Taylor Swift obviously wasn’t contending with two years of sleep deprivation when she sang those words!) Those thoughts spiral and multiply, like a bad bacterial infection, starting with one tiny seed of a thought that spreads throughout your entire mind, until you feel completely overwhelmed and downbeat.
And then it hits you… those words your mum friends uttered to you over coffee…
“At least he’s not a difficult child.”
“Be thankful he’s not like my son…”
And you either think, “No one else gets it,” and feel lonelier than ever, or more self doubt pours in and you start believing that if you can’t cope with a not-so-challenging child, then you really must be the world’s worst mum! And you feel crushed. Broken. Worthless.
Thank-you mums. It may only have been a throw-away comment to you, but to a mother in despair, at her wits end, or burdened by the load of anxiety or depression, it is far more damaging than that. As mothers, why can’t we be more supportive to each other? Why aren’t we a little more thoughtful? Instead of finding ways to help each other, so often we are too quick to compare notes or make judgements on each other’s parenting prowess. There are invisible medals for the parent with the best or worst sleeper, the parent whose child walks first or potty trains the quickest, the parent who seemingly has it all going on and still manages to keep it all together.
Where are the awards for the parents who repeatedly scrape themselves up off the floor, manage to stick it out to the end of the meltdown, and find it in themselves to feel nothing but love for their little screamer despite whatever the last hour and fifteen minutes has thrown at them. (Yesterday’s flying objects included several toy cars, a pink sippy cup and even one ladybird scuttle-bug!)
Making a Stand
Depression is a dismal place. Once you’ve fallen inside, it’s difficult to scramble back out. But it is possible. I was really fortunate to access a course run by local midwives that taught me to understand the condition and strategies to handle the dark days. Sadly, like yesterday, dark days still occur. But the difference is that deep down, I now know that they are just thoughts, not facts. I know I am a good mum – actually, I hope that Little O thinks I’m great mum. Time will tell I suppose. So, if I seem a little sensitive at times, it’s because we’re just going through a difficult patch.
The thing is, today is another day. I can cope today. The sun is shining and by some miracle there are fewer tantrums. You could say anything to me today and not offend or upset me. Whilst yesterday I felt fragile, today I am strong. Today, I have got this. I will be the stranger who offers to carry your basket of shopping to the checkout so you can carry your child; the neighbour with an open door policy and a stash of tea and biscuits, just so you have a place to escape to if you should need it; the friend who says, “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. You’re doing a great job.” I will empathise, not compare.
Then maybe tomorrow, you can do the same for me. The saying tells us that it takes a village to raise a child; I think we need a village to raise a mother’s spirits when she feels low. We need to support each other. The hope is for depression to be the problem-child of yesterday, so that the mum of tomorrow can stand up and face whatever toy, sock or drinking vessel is flung at her next. (And if mummy “stands up”, then perhaps Little O will have one less reason to commence operation meltdown… or maybe that’s just wishful thinking!)