This week in Ireland is Cuidiu Week. I volunteer for Cuidiu – we are a parenting charity, and if you are a parent in need of help and support then we are there for you. Find out more here: http://www.cuidiu-ict.ie/
I had a baby in June 2016. She’s my third baby, my third daughter. She’s now ten months old, and she has eight teeth which she displays beautifully and often, in her glorious smile. Her hair is just growing in, and the wrinkled velvet of her scalp is covered in fresh down, so it feels like the fuzz of a peach. Her limbs are strong and her movements are becoming precise, but the play of her muscles is still obscured by a layer of plump, gorgeously soft flesh. Her name is Ramona.
She’s a very sweet baby. In fact, she’s especially sweet. I know everyone says that about their own babies, but I’m fairly sure that mine is actually, objectively more adorable than most (though I’m sure all your babies are lovely too).
I tell you all this, because in a story published recently by an Irish news site, she has been compared to many strange, and most certainly not cute, things, including a medium-sized bowling ball (thanks for specifying), a bald eagle (I suppose they got the bald bit right at least), and a 6ft aluminium step ladder.
Because, you see, Ramona was officially the heaviest baby born in maternity hospitals in Dublin in 2016. She weighed in at what the news website informs me was a “staggering” 12 pounds 10 ounces, or 5.75kg (tell me about it, mate, I’m the one who had to lug her around inside me for nearly 41 weeks).
A friend alerted me to the article on Facebook, and I read it bemusedly while nursing Ramona, my record-breaker. I felt proud, reading it – proud of my strong, healthy baby. Happy that I delivered her safely, with minimal intervention. Lucky that I brought her into the world peacefully, with nothing but the Entonox inhaler in one hand and my husband’s hand in the other, and a midwife to guide us.
But then I read the comments section. It was mild as these things go – one man jovially and gleefully declaring that it doesn’t matter what my name is, I should be known as “Lucy” from now on. A quick whizz through the comments section on similar stories of big babies reveals more distasteful, more invasive comments than that. References to husbands watching their baby emerge and feeling as though they’re watching their favourite pub burning down. Comments about echo chambers and incontinence pants, speculation about the mothers’ diets and health, criticism of their physiques.
Reading the comments, I felt a prickle of shame, a sense of unease about my body and what it has achieved. And that’s astonishing, when you consider what hard work it takes to grow and deliver a baby. And it’s not just the giving birth part that’s difficult, you guys. The first few weeks (months, in some cases) can be the most disorienting and lonely time for many mothers. And here’s a newsflash for the people who like to joke about a “wizard’s sleeve” or a “clown’s pocket” (I know, right?) on the internet – these women are your mothers, sisters, wives, partners, friends. And even if they’re not, they’re thinking, feeling, actual people who can be hurt by your throwaway comments. It’s estimated that at least 18% of them will experience some form of PTSD or post-birth anxiety, though I suspect that feeling anxiety and sadness in the newborn stage is chronically underreported. That’s at least one fifth of all women who have babies, feeling traumatized, terrified, unsupported, and battling guilt and sadness when they are already sleep-deprived and vulnerable.
Giving birth to the heaviest baby in Dublin wasn’t easy. It was quick, and it was blessedly danger-free, but it was hard. I arrived into the labour suite at 1am, and she was born just before 3am. I can’t quite convey to you the level of pain I went through to get her out. I’ve deleted a paragraph of purple prose which tried to describe it exactly, because there’s no way to convey it in words. I thought my body would just give up and die with the agony of it. But less than twelve hours after she was born, I walked out of the hospital carrying her in my arms, to go home to my other two babies. That’s pretty badass, right?
I’m not making a martyr of myself – I know how lucky I am (she is the world’s best baby). And women have babies every minute of every hour of every day. But just because so many other people do it, doesn’t make it less special, less of a miracle. I grew a human animal; I sheltered her as the weft and warp of her casing was formed; she leached my nutrients as I choked and gagged over the breakfast dishes; my pulse thrummed with hers. And then I delivered her into the world even though I truly believed I was going to die from the pain of it. I was so, so brave. If motherhood is an everyday battle, then I am a fucking warrior.
We don’t hoist the white flag after the birth, of course. For a lot of us, the fight is only just beginning. If you’re one of the 20% of women who suffer from some form of post-partum anxiety, then you’ll have been waging your own private, and often silent, war against your feelings of terror, regret, loneliness, dismay. Thankfully, I didn’t experience that with my two youngest children, but after my first birth I plummeted into despair. The shock was the worst part, I think. I had always been robust, physically and mentally. I wasn’t expecting the debilitating physical affects of giving birth – weeks of antibiotics, scar tissue, infections, blood loss. I definitely wasn’t expecting the emotional fallout. My baby had been planned, eagerly anticipated, named. Why, then, once I had her, did I want to go back to my old life? I resented the loss of freedom. I missed my husband, who I now only saw for handovers as we slept in shifts. I hated my treacherous body, which had cheated me of my “good” birth and now was unrecognizable to me. Television hospital dramas left me riven with horror on the couch – even the sight of a hospital corridor brought on a panic attack.
Even after the initial shock faded, and the low hum of love I felt for her began to suffuse me entirely, I suffered months of after-effects. I catastrophized, constantly. My sleep was constantly disturbed by vivid, terrifying nightmares. Grace slipping under the water of the bath, my helpless hands scrabbling to heave her onto our striped bathmat (every dreamed detail precisely rendered to add to the horror) where she flopped and gasped like a landed fish. I often found myself crouched beside the bed grasping and flailing as I searched the darkness for the mottled pallor of the small body I dreamed had slipped out of the bed, while the real baby snuffled and rooted safely in her cot.
The dreams slipped into waking hours too. As I stood at traffic lights, my knuckles would whiten and clench involuntarily as I held the handle of the pushchair – I could see, with perfect clarity, the buggy sliding silently off the edge of the path into the traffic. I saw her die in countless ways, imagined her blood blooming and her throat constricting and her pale belly failing to rise, as surely as if it was really happening.
Things only got better because I began to talk. I made friends – two of whom I met through NCT classes, and who became my brightness in the dark – and we discussed everything. We made each other understand that it’s ok – normal – to grieve for our old lives, our old selves.
I’m not going to talk about the sanctimonious, clickbaity article that was published today by a tabloid newspaper, decrying what they claim is the zealous over-sharing, and the glorification of shoddy, half-arsed parenting, by some well-known parenting bloggers. What I will say is that, for some of us, being a parent can be desperately lonely and tedious. Like everything else, talking about something demystifies it and normalizes it. I’m so glad, and grateful, that there are women who are posting on Facebook, and Twitter, and Instagram, about how hard things can be. I wish I had been brave enough to talk about how I felt, sooner. I wish I had talked and talked, teased it all out early, so I could have been granted the peace to sit and savour the immeasurable preciousness of my first baby. I won’t stop talking about it now, just in case it helps someone, someday, to know that she’s not alone.
So to those princes of the internet who make their jocular, petty little remarks about new mothers’ bodies, new mothers’ behaviour, new mothers’ needs, I say this. You probably don’t admire my plump, damaged, body. You probably don’t approve of my loud and unapologetic voice. I’m ok with that. My daughters will grow to be kind and tough. They will know that all bodies are good bodies. They will know that it’s fine to admit to weakness. And they will never think it’s ok to try to make a woman feel bad by posting snide comments about her on the internet. So fuck you.