When you are a first-time mother, you have no idea what is “normal” for a baby – and when they are very small, the slightest thing sends you into a panic that you have broken them (or is that just me?) For mothers with a partner, even if that partner is also a first-time parent, there is somebody to give a second opinion: “did she have that mark there yesterday?” “Do you think that crying sounds different to her normal crying?” “Does this poo-filled nappy smell normal to you?” “Does she look a bit peaky to you?” “Do you think I should call the doctor?”
When you are on your own, there is nobody readily available to consult on such things. There’s also nobody to grab you a snack while you’re stuck on the couch feeding in the middle of a growth spurt and crying because you’re so unbelievably hungry and can see no light at the end of the tunnel – what if this baby is always going to be this hungry, and I never get to change out of this puke-stained t shirt?
To be fair, even before S’s father buggered off he wasn’t much support in this area. Still, when he finally went, I was completely bewildered, with nobody to consult as to what was normal, and what necessitated a trip to the doctor. I made numerous fraught Facebook updates, and had literally no clue as to how I would move forward in this.
My family has never really been very good at the whole touchy-feely thing. While I was mourning the end of a relationship I had thought was forever, missing S’s half brothers and sisters who I’d spent a year caring for, and trying to get used to being solely responsible for a tiny baby with no instruction manual, they didn’t really jump up to offer assistance as perhaps other families would. To be fair I didn’t really expect them to; it’s not like we’re a particularly close lot and the idea of suddenly spending lots of time with them makes me balk slightly. That said, I do send my sister in law at least one text a week asking a ridiculous new mum question and she rarely laughs at me for it! And I see my younger sisters regularly; but because they are that much younger than me I never feel that I could fall at their feet in a puddle of snot and expect them to help – I am the older sister, they shouldn’t have to look after me. I felt very alone in my battle to establish some kind of normality in my life, completely lost at sea. I didn’t want to burden people with my problems, but in some instances I felt that I’d been abandoned by those who perhaps should have been rallying round.
Luckily, the day after S’s father left us, a friend I’d not seen since we were in hospital texted to see how we were. I told her what had happened and her response was perfect: “this is the plan, no arguments. I’m coming round this evening, I will help you bath the baby and put her to bed so you can have some time to yourself. See you at 5.” She came round, helped bath S, got her to sleep, did my washing up, tidied my living room, and told me (repeatedly) I could do it on my own. She spent a lot of time with me over the next few weeks, helping me to put up net curtains, talking about what was going on with S’s father, giving advice and telling me the sort of things “they” never tell you about having a baby.
Several other friends came and made similar mercy missions: one friend came from her house 25 miles away to bring me home-cooked bolognaise sauce, brownies and a big hug and “you’re doing an amazing job.” Several friends texted, emailed, left encouraging comments on my Facebook. Friends I’ve not really seen much for a good few years have met me for coffee, given me lifts to pick things up or just gone on mad random road trips with me, listening to my whining and telling me everything would be fine, right when I needed to hear it. I will be forever indebted to a friend who stood in the middle of Homebase and said to me quite plainly, “you are making excuses for your ex and you have to stop.” One friend, a girl I’d actually not seen since I was around 12, sent me a message to say I was doing a great job and not to worry, and that she’d invited me to join this Facebook group she thought might be useful. Since that day, I have made hundreds of posts in that group, asking stupid questions, letting off steam about things that were bothering me, and squealing with delight when something good happened. The group is closed, so I knew that I could have a good old rant about whatever was bothering me, without the fear of anyone else seeing it. And the ladies in that group were so supportive; they made me feel that I was making the right decisions, that my gut instinct wasn’t completely off.
Some sources of support have appeared seemingly from nowhere. The day S’s father left the postman knocked the door to deliver a package, and it was the man who ran a church youth group I attended fifteen years ago. He arranged for a man from his church to come and paint over the damp patch on my bedroom wall, and also gave me a lift to the hospital one Saturday night when I was mid-panic about S. Strange though it may seem, having not been to that church for so long, I do feel very much that if I had a problem and someone there could help, they would – which, to me, is what Christianity is all about.
My health visitor, who had supported me since before the breakup, was (and still is) invaluable. She, her student, and her nursery nurse still all go out of their way to tell me I’m doing really well and bolster my confidence. One or other of them referred me to my local Children’s Centre where there were several groups they thought I might like to attend. A lady from the centre actually came out to the flat to talk to me about what services they offer, because they knew I wasn’t very confident going out just yet. They also suggested I join a counselling group for women in a similar situation to me with regards to my relationship. That group probably saved me and S from a great deal of heartache. Later, when I called the health visitor in tears after a street-based slanging match with S’s father, they referred me to Home Start, a charity based locally who are in the process of pairing me up with a volunteer who will come to visit us weekly, sit with S while I make important phone calls or come with us to appointments for the same reason. Being a single mother, you suddenly realise how easy you had it before when you had to call the gas board about a problem, or go to the council offices to go through some form or other. Babies don’t like to be ignored, especially when they are in their pushchairs, in a strange place.
I do feel that I’ve found my feet a bit more lately, but I still have episodes when I have no clue what I am doing. I have more support now, though. I know that I can post a stupid question on Facebook and, while some people will leave a jokey or rude (or sometimes judgemental or plainly unhelpful) response, I have a solid group of friends who will always help out by giving their own take on the situation, offering their own experience of it. This works well, because I know people who have raised, or are raising children in very different ways under different circumstances – so I get a lot of different advice to choose from. I still call my health visitor, but usually when I have issues with S’s father, rather than issues with S herself. More importantly, I am more inclined to reach out and call or text the people I would previously not have wanted to burden. I might not call up and say “help me I’m having a shitty day,” but sometimes just having a conversation with another adult is all you need to get you through.
The whole situation has made me much more compassionate towards other people’s suffering, especially where a new baby is concerned. I’ve found myself sending messages to people I don’t know terribly well, offering my support should they need it. My first few months as a mother were a lot less fun than I would have hoped, and if I can do anything to avoid someone else’s experience being like that, I am inclined to do it. My friends have set me a good example in that respect. And for the times when I don’t want to burden my friends with yet another whiney moan, I know there are other places I can approach for help. Things are looking up!