The dark hole of parenting
The first few weeks and months with a newborn baby are challenging to say the least. After having my son, I spent most of those first 12 weeks in a dark hole, mentally. I bathed in feelings of hopelessness, worry and neediness. One side of my conscience told me to snap out of it, be kind to myself and allow time for things, such as breastfeeding and sleep patterns, to fall into place. But there was also a darker side that said I wasn’t doing a good job and that my negative feelings were justified. Sounds heavy and I can tell you’re already thinking this post will be about my struggle with postnatal depression (PND), but it isn't.
On day four post-birth, I got myself and my son washed and dressed, straightened my hair and applied my make-up as it would’ve looked pre-child. I was out of the door by 11am and en-route to a local shopping centre for a smiley, “isn’t life wonderful”, picture-loaded lunch, which was an attempt at illustrating to everyone how good I felt. Except I didn’t really feel this way deep-down.
Looking back, I don’t think I was suffering with PND, but I spent a lot of time in a dark hole – the tunnel that leads to PND. It's a dangerous place, where you can just about get away with covering up how you really feel and nobody can help you for fear of interfering. So many times in those first weeks, I heard the words, “Oh we didn’t want to disturb you, so left you to it”. This is a typically English approach towards new parents. I’m not blaming anyone for saying it, but I am keen to understand why we all act this way. Surely this is the time when you really need someone to offer help. To simply put their arm around you and say nothing at all.
Eventually, my husband pulled me out of my dark hole, as he recognised what was going on and manoeuvred the situation so I had no choice but to open up. However, I know far too many women who still live in this black hole months and years after having a baby. The cover-up techniques they adopt include: self-deprecating statements which are funny, but can always be interpreted another way; claiming to not give a toss about what anyone thinks; and repeatedly worrying about their child not hitting milestones, but saying, “it’s fine, she/he will get there eventually”. To the outside world, this person seems absolutely fine (and they probably say that they are 'fine' a lot), but in my world this translates to being in dire need of help and support.
I’ll be honest and admit that I was a bit of a smug expectant Mum. Nodding when other new parents told me how hard it was and secretly thinking, “yeah yeah it can’t be that bad”. I’ve managed to navigate lots of difficult hurdles in my life and I thought parenting would be an easier one to overcome, as I would be in control. Now I realise that this was the main reason for my existence in the dark hole – a desire to control every aspect of my life, including being a new mum. The moment the penny dropped was when I realised I would never have full control over parenting and should look to provide guidance for my son, to apply flexibility in what he did, and how and when he did it. Also, most importantly, that I needed to review expectations for myself and my constant desire for perfection.
Suddenly life became easier all-round and not just with how I parented. I was less of a perfectionist, I found humour and contentment in things I’d previously thought to be irrelevant, and I simply watched and listened a lot more, rather than jumping straight into situations. I was (and hopefully am now) a nicer person to be around and I felt liberated. Out I came from the dark hole, and I slowly road-tested my new approach. Sometimes it worked, and other times I plunged straight back into the hole. Even today, certain situations can cause me to go back there, but now I have learned to acknowledge and then discard these feelings, and this keeps me from travelling any further down the road to PND – I have worked out how and when to do a U-turn.
So what am I suggesting here? I wish I had reviewed how the childless-me functioned in my personal and professional life, and tried to adjust bad habits or traits that were clearly unhealthy. The questions I would’ve asked myself and acted upon are: Do you have personality traits that you know are unhealthy? Do you have a warped or dangerous idea of what ‘good’ looks like in your world? How do you cope with not being in control of a situation? What happens when you can’t find a solution?
Why do this? Because, add the stress, worry and highly emotional experience of parenting to the fact you’re basically making it up as you go along, and suddenly, the way you function comes under threat. This is what happened to me and how I, and probably many others, can so easily drift off into a dark hole than can lead to PND or other mental illness. I’ve always been an anxious person and, in the past, I sought professional help to find coping mechanisms. However, these all went out of the window after I had my son. In fact, I constantly talked about how there should be a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) course specifically for couples, or single parents, who are about to enter the world of parenting. Food for thought.
Look at my suggestion as a mental and physical wellbeing MOT that you should go through before you get the keys to the car, or rather, the baby to take home. It will make the parenting experience so much more enjoyable and enable you to be a lot kinder to yourself. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, eh!