My new baby is three days old. Knowing not to assume the best, friends message to check in: Happy milk day. How are you feeling? Remember, it’s just hormones, it will pass! And, Crazy day three! How’s it all going? The milk comes in, our little Victorian house in the South East of England is filled with flowers, and late autumn sunlight dances on the walls of the living room. We’re on the sofa, surrounded by baby clothes, cuddly toys, and a sea of blue wrapping paper. The baby is drinking in slow glugs, and my three-year-old is nestled against me with her sticker book. All fine here, thanks! A bit of a chunk—9 lb 4 oz—hope I can keep his weight up!
I’m grateful that, once again, I seem to have avoided the infamous third-day baby blues.
My new baby is five days old. My heart is pounding, pumping not familiar, warm blood, but icy dread. What a monumentally selfish act, to have conjured these two spirits out of nothing. To have summoned them from peaceful non-existence into this frightening world, just to fulfill my desire to be a mother. In the waiting room before our five-day check with the midwife, heavy tears roll down my face. I imagine explaining to my daughter that I have terminal cancer. I do not have cancer, but how can I possibly live in a world in which some children’s mothers do have cancer? A world in which women are murdered by their partners, and families set off across the Channel in dinghies, and grandfathers die alone on COVID wards?
We’re called in by the same midwife who visited us at home after we were discharged from the hospital. It’s normal for babies to lose up to ten percent of their birth weight in the first five days, but mine has already gained, and she tells me I am doing great. How am I feeling emotionally, she asks. I tell her that I am not doing great, actually. The relaxed smile I greeted her with a couple of days ago has been replaced with an expression of blank terror, and I can see she’s taken aback. We agree that I’ll let the health visitor know if I don’t start to feel better soon.
Days and weeks pass by in a blur of racing thoughts, until “soon” has been and gone. The health visitor informs me matter-of-factly that it sounds like postpartum depression, and that I’d better contact the local mental health service. The online self-referral form states that postpartum women will be prioritized. That’s a relief, since we all know the UK’s National Health Service is on its knees, and waits for talk therapy are often well over a year. I can’t imagine waiting another day.
The woman who phones me for an initial assessment sounds warm and understanding. I’m panicking, thrashing about in the churning water I’ve fallen into; but now someone is reaching out a hand, and all I have to do is gather my strength and grab it.
I don’t mind the label, I tell her, but it’s not the postpartum depression I’ve heard about before. I love this sweet, laid-back baby. The constant feeding, changing and rocking aren’t overwhelming me. Instead, I’m absolutely petrified that tragedy is going to take it all away. So petrified that there’s no room left for other thoughts. My fear is robbing me of my happy family of four. The next day she calls me back, in gatekeeping mode this time. The priority waiting list is very long, and mine is not among the most severe cases. There are worksheets I can complete online. My unshakeable fear that the sky is about to fall in, sending everything and everyone I know and love hurtling violently back towards the tiny speck they first exploded from poses no immediate risk. The outstretched hand slips through mine.
Dutifully, I complete the worksheets, attempting to challenge my cognitive distortions through the haze of bewilderment that is brain fog. They don’t make a dent. A week before Christmas, my daughter finishes with her brilliant childminder. She’ll be moving on to nursery school, but not until the new year. Three weeks at home, during which my bright, spirited little girl finds herself saying “Mummy” ten times before I hear her and slowly drag my attention away from the environmental disaster I was imagining. Taking a break from my frantic efforts to save her and her brother from rushing floodwaters and colossal flames to help her do up her dolly’s buttons, or turn her jigsaw piece around so it fits. Meanwhile, my son is one of those babies you read about in parenting books, the kind you can lay down drowsy but awake. At night he sleeps soundly in his Moses basket as I lie awake for hours on my phone, typing the same full sentences into Google over and over again. What’s happening to me? I’m so scared. Am I losing my mind? Scouring pages of results for answers, for evidence that the balls I’ve dropped since the fog came down might not be all my fault.
Postpartum psychosis? If you have enough of a grip on reality to wonder if you have psychosis, I read, you can be sure that you don’t. Birth trauma, then? PTSD? When my daughter was born three years ago, the relief and joy after a hard labor were short-lived. I remember the midwife whisking her from my arms, then blood, shaking, shock, the doctor’s arm inside me up to the elbow, like a livestock vet, and a transfer down the corridor to the high-dependency unit. I’d had a major postpartum hemorrhage. In another time or place I might have died, my daughter left motherless. “It will not happen again, Laura,” the obstetrician told me this time. Throughout this pregnancy, I had known for certain that it would happen again, but something about his soothing African accent made me believe him. Two hours later—a short and intense labor this time—he was back. “Okay, Laura, it is happening again.” Patched up once more, I was wheeled, still reeling, to the postnatal ward. I never had to do it again; my family was complete, and we were safe now. But perhaps my brain hadn’t gotten the message?
Or maybe the switch was waiting to be tripped long before the birth. They say postpartum depression is indiscriminate. Not entirely, though; like an adversary sensing weakness, it’s more likely to affect those who have struggled with anxiety and depression before. I’m surprised it didn’t get me the first time. A fretful baby, I was known affectionately as the ginger whinger, though anyone can see it’s strawberry blonde. I became a clingy toddler and then an anxious child. “Laura is growing in confidence” reads every school report from ages five to eighteen, until finally I was cast out into the world without a teacher to monitor my progress on the painstaking march towards self-assurance. So perhaps it was always going to be me.
Christmas is usually my favorite time of year. I love the smell of resin as I bend to add each carefully chosen and neatly wrapped gift to the pile beneath the tree. This year, I buy every present on the 23rd of December, walking around town in a daze. I’m jittery and confused as I wrap them that evening, and the results fall short of my usual standards. “We’ll have to say you wrapped them,” I tell my husband. On Christmas Eve I feel a sort of dull pride when I look around and see that I have done it. There are presents in the stockings, and Santa has left a few crumbs on the mince-pie plate. I take a reindeer-sized bite out of the carrot and head up to bed and the usual nightmares.
On the way to my in-laws for Christmas lunch, my steadfast, but increasingly perplexed, husband taps me gently on the shoulder to tell me that I’m driving down the motorway with one hand on the wheel and the other clamped over my mouth in horror. Later, I’m staring blankly into the middle distance as the gifts are unwrapped, and I don’t register who has given what to whom. Writing cards afterwards, I have to make do with a catch-all Thank you for the lovely Christmas present.
Having failed to find either absolution or a cure on Google, in January I have to put one foot in front of the other and stumble forwards. I take my daughter to the stay-and-play session for new starters at her nursery. Dizzy with existential terror, blood rushing in my ears, I hold her little hand and chat with the other parents, who don’t seem to notice that I’m not real. Or that the world isn’t real, one or the other.
“How old is the baby?” someone asks, gesturing to my now six-week-old, snug in his wrap. Then, “Wow, look at you, out and about with two already. I had barely left the house by then.”
“I think I’m drowning,” I want to tell this stranger, but I don’t.
The nursery term begins. I am relieved to hand my daughter into the care of a revolving cast of warm, capable women in their forties and fifties. What’s the collective noun for nursery staff, I wonder? A competence of early years practitioners? A salvation? She will be looked after and listened to, she’ll have fun crafting and climbing, making friends and learning new things, while I try to rest and recover and get her mum back. A mum who isn’t literally holding her poor muddled head in her hands, like a stock image on a leaflet about the signs of postpartum depression.
I devour memoirs about maternal mental health, joining mother after mother on her rapid descent into madness and her long climb back out. I take the SSRIs a doctor I’ve never spoken to before prescribes for me during a five-minute phone appointment. I start counseling over Zoom, baby on the breast. Even in crisis, the millennial mother is never not multitasking. I look for myself in the work I love, taking on a handful of projects to fund the counseling, squeezed in during nap times. I thank the god I don’t believe in for my husband, who has cooked every meal for months now, and in return asks only that I endeavor not to appear in the background of his Teams meetings in a state of undress or emotional distress.
Somehow, I get us up and out on the walk to nursery every morning. The baby is lulled to sleep in his wrap as we follow my daughter on her scooter. Back and forth, back and forth we walk. As the snowdrops turn into daffodils, then bluebells, the rhythm begins to soothe me, too. I meet patient friends for coffee, sipping lattes with a vacant expression. I push the pram around the park, getting in the exercise and fresh air that they say will help. I hit the baby-class circuit, smiling numbly at the other mums and occasional dad. I sit in the circle at baby reflexology, lost in my own intrusive thoughts, imagining us scrabbling to gather up our infants and run as a gunman bursts through the double doors of this ordinary church hall in a cheerful market town and opens fire. Returning to reality, I find I have not been keeping up and am clearing toxins from entirely the wrong toe. The instructor has probably seen it all before. I fake it until I make it through to the end of day after day, and I wait to feel better.
I make it to the end of weeks, and months, too, until spring is beginning to tip into summer and I feel something shift inside me. One afternoon we’re watching Encanto, my daughter and I singing and dancing along to “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” while the baby looks on, cooing from his bouncer. As we collapse onto the sofa in fits of giggles, I realize that I’m back, I’ve found my footing, if only for a moment. I hadn’t noticed the fog thinning imperceptibly around us, but I’m sure I can make out the hazy outlines of a familiar landscape. And for the first time, I know I’m going to make it back to shore.