I read a quote on the internet today:
You never know how strong you are, until being strong is the only choice you have.
I’ve been thinking about that lately. When I found out I was pregnant, I was scared to suddenly be responsible for another being. For me, that responsibility began the moment the line appeared on the stick; I came off my medication and started taking care of my body now that it was housing a human. I spent my money on books about pregnancy: What to Expect When You’re Expecting; memoirs of pregnancy; books on foetal origins. I read articles about pregnancy and childbirth; decided I was probably going to be a bit of a hippie mother. I was going to have a water birth with no drugs, even toyed with the idea of a home birth.
From about my 12th week of pregnancy I slept only on my left side or sitting up; never on my back or my right side. I played music to my bump, read it The Cat In The Hat, talked to it when it kicked me.
And the whole while, I was absolutely petrified that I was doing it all wrong and would continue to do so for the rest of my life. That I would be responsible for producing one of those people you see on a talk show and wonder aloud just how the hell they’ve been raised so badly.
When S was born, that feeling intendified. I knew how to change a nappy; I’d changed my sisters’ nappies when they were babies, and other babies’ nappies since, but suddenly the prospect of changing my own baby’s nappy paralysed me. I had to go and get one of the assistants on the ward to help me.
I was scared to dress her; scared to undress her; scared I was feeing her wrong; that she was too hot or too cold or in the wrong position. Her head wasn’t supported enough; she was sleeping too much or not enough; I was somehow unknowingly causing her irreparable damage that would blight the rest of her life.
In a way, I was lucky we were kept in hospital for almost two weeks; the whole time we were there I knew I was doing ok. S’s temperature was checked several times a day; people came to check on us. I knew there was little danger of me accidentally damaging her with so many people checking.
When we went home, the panic really set in. When someone else was there it was worse; I became clumsy when holding her, worried the midwife was watching me whilst trying to remember the phone number for Social Services. She must think I was totally inept.
When her father left us, I was distraught; after eight months of pregnancy where I avoided every single thing that might have caused an issue (seafood, alcohol, blue cheese, any food close to its sell-by date, the medication the doctor kept suggesting I go back to, Ibuprofen, all the things they tell you to use “with caution”), now I was to be left to my own devices with nobody to look over my shoulder and correcy my myriad mistakes.
This baby would surely not fare well if left with me. I cried to the health visitor that I was certain I couldn’t do this alone, and she said: But you already are.
I remained convinced of my ineptitude until S’s father took to shouting at me in the street that I was not a fit mother. And then a voice in my head answered him: Fuck you. I am a good mother. She is healthy and happy; she is developing well despite being born five weeks early. I am devoted to her. I am good at this.
Over the past few months, so many people have said to me, Oh I couldn’t do it on my own/you’re so brave/you’re so strong or variations on those statements. I don’t feel strong. I don’t feel brave. But I find that I’m capable of a lot more than I ever thought possible.
It occurred to me this morning that I have not had a full night of uninterrupted sleep since before Christmas, 2011. I have gone from spending the majority of my time alone, to spending all of my time with my baby. I have gone from panicking about not knowing how to change a nappy, to using washable cloth nappies. I’ve gone from being scared to bathe her, to getting into the bath with her and having a good old splash together every day. I’ve gone from gingerly putting her down in a moses basket propped up at one end to avoid vomit, to having her lay on a blanket next to me in my own bed. I do everything with my child, and I find it an alien concept when people ask me about having a break. Why would I want a break? I don’t see this as strong; I see it simply as the way things are.
The fact of the matter is that I can’t imagine doing this whilst also trying to maintain a relationship; there is no room for a man in our bed, in our routine, in our lives. I am sure that sometimes S does miss out on certain aspects of life from having only one parent; when I go to the toilet and she is crying, nobody cuddles her until I return. If I want to nip to the shop to buy something, she has to have her coat on and come with me. There is only one person cooing at her when she masters a new skill or just smiles i an extra-cute way.
When you are faced with sink or swim, and sinking means taking someone with you who relies upon you entirely – swimming really is the only option.