After suffering from postnatal depression, Sophie White was sure that another baby would be out of the question
“To Be Opened In The Event Of Considering Another Baby”
This was the sentence that was written, well scrawled, across the front of the envelope. It was my own handwriting, and contained within a letter by me, to me. In the pits of early new motherhood, I’d committed some hysterical, ravings to paper to remind me should I ever forget the terror and loneliness of postnatal depression. Should I ever forget the guilt and the shame and the dread that had settled like a permanent ache in my body, a nausea of the mind that I presumed I’d never be rid of. Should I ever think that an aberration like me could have another baby.
The first months were bleak. I was perched permanently on the precipice of completely f*cking losing it. That’s an exhausting existence, clinging to the sheer rock face of sanity knowing that tumbling off simply cannot be an option. My dad was dying at the time and my mother really didn’t need the added hassle of me breaking down. And the baby needed feeding, changing, winding, rocking, soothing, everything. Being so very, very frightened all the time is exhausting. Having a shower is exhausting. Having a tiny, dark-eyed stranger clung to you as the hands spin around the clock and the days last forever is exhausting.
Trying to pretend not only that you are fine but happy, truly thrilled and ecstatic is exhausting.
I surfaced from the first year of my baby’s life raw and wild-eyed, stunned that I hadn’t simply run away, or worse. I looked at my giddy, sweet, blond, toddling toddler and was equally amazed. Amazed that he smiled and laughed and ate and cried and smelled so so good and allowed fleeting kisses on the back of his neck. Amazed that incredibly he hadn’t been infected with my darkness. Apparently nothing had passed through my milk to his sweet mouth or imprinted on his psyche.
In his second year, I slowly recovered. He pulled himself up and began to walk and run and climb and play, make jokes and eat his boiled egg and soldiers. I pulled myself up and began to climb down from the edge. The terrifying abyss that had seemed poised to drown me all through his baby days receded and I unclenched at last. Though the tide of terror had ebbed away, I did spend long stretches hating myself for the year of depression. A terrible guilt at putting an innocent baby through all that. I would like to say the guilt has gone but it’s there, tucked away but palpable all the same. Like a splinter, tiny but sharp and if I worried it, it would bleed. I think it’s gone sometimes and then sitting down to write words like these, I find I need to swallow hard and press my eyes shut.
I knew I could never have another baby. I couldn’t risk it. I knew that I had only just made it out the last time. I also knew that I couldn’t visit my special brand of madness on another child.
But then the whisper of an idea began. What would it be like to have a baby, to experience that, without the bleak filter of depression? To see a baby of mine and feel a simple, uncomplicated love – one not tainted with fear and despair and guilt. Why couldn’t I have that?
You cannot have that. The sick part of my brain was categorical. You’re too f*cked up. You don’t deserve that and to risk exposing another baby to your diseased mothering is reckless and it is selfish.
I would like to be able to say that at this juncture I sought counselling and treatment for my postnatal depression but the fact is I did not. While my day-to-day got better, I was still mired in denial about my mental state. I had started to feel so much more bonded to my darling boy and I decided that I’d weathered the postnatal squall and did not need or want to drag out the darker elements for closer inspection.
Finally the desire for another baby won and I became pregnant again. I made a plan for what I believed to be the inevitable: Postnatal depression THE SEQUEL. I told every single medical professional I dealt with during my pregnancy what had happened. They didn’t preemptively confiscate my foetus. They assigned me a therapist for my pregnancy. I made several provisions for the approaching storm, I saved money so that I could take a full four months of maternity leave, I also saved enough to be able to keep my toddler in childcare for the duration, I fanatically practised self hypnosis. I was essentially scheduling in a very contained, as manageable as possible nervous breakdown. Everyone – husband, mother, friends – were put on high alert. If I started showing up dead-eyed, caked in make up, crowing about how completely “fine” I was, they were to intervene and bring me to the doctor immediately.
I lay on the bed observing the growing bump, the horizon upon which this storm was gathering. I was ready. I was ready for everything to go wrong, and for it still to be okay.
The baby arrived on the morning of his due date. Another dark eyed, dark haired stranger. After the birth, I was euphoric – not something I’d experienced the first time. I steeled myself for the inevitable crushing come down. It didn’t come. I waited for the hormonal cataclysm of day three. It didn’t come. I waited for the rising terror and crashing despair. It didn’t come.
Okay, what gives? I’m enjoying myself. WTF?
It never came. The baby days of my second born were the usual crying and winding and rocking and Googling of colic but, crucially, there was no madness. No endless, exhausting terror. No pathological agonising over what was wrong with me and whether I loved my baby or not. The days were long and the nights were longer and I wish I could have them all over again. I didn’t fall in love with the baby exactly. After about eight weeks I thought, “huh, I haven’t even asked myself if I love this child” something I had tortured myself with on my first.
He just was. I just was. We just were.
I honestly still can’t believe how lucky I was to get to have that. To get that second chance.
Of course, this being motherhood there has to be some modicum of guilt involved somewhere! Sometimes, I can go deep on how bad I feel for my first son but I’m hoping he’ll forgive me and I’m working on it.
Photo by Matt Hoffman on Unsplash