Thursday, 28 May 2015

Post-Pregnancy Self-Esteem

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about the pretty poor self-image I’ve had since Baby Taylor was born. In all honesty, I’ve never had a great relationship with my own body and there has always been a long list of things that I would change, but I had a much better relationship with myself after Toddler Taylor was born than I do now that I’ve been through a second pregnancy. My first pregnancy didn’t really change me much. I lost my boobs completely after I was done breastfeeding, but it’s hard to mourn what was never really there in the first place. Otherwise I remained largely unchanged. I remember with startling clarity the cold sweat of horror I felt during my second pregnancy when I spotted stretch marks for the first time. Once they appeared my husband was categorically not allowed to see me naked, or even in underwear. I think I probably let him see them once in low lighting and when he said “they’re not that bad” I believe I swore at him and shut myself in the bathroom. I have such a huge amount of admiration for women who can just accept stretch marks and wear them like battle scars when I’m so ashamed of mine that literally nobody is allowed to see them.

It seems kind of odd when I look at it like that. I have scars literally all over my body and I never really give them much thought. Sometimes I’ll look at them and think that I would probably look a whole lot better without them, but they don’t bother me particularly, and that’s probably because I caused them in the first place so at least I had control over them. Back when I’d just had Baby Taylor and I was still feeling really raw about the stretch marks, I posted a photo of them on instagram because I hoped it might be liberating. A few people commented to say “But you got a beautiful baby from them!” and while I was so hugely grateful to them for trying to make me feel better about myself, all I could really think at the time was “I know that. But it doesn’t help.”

Thinking about it, some of my self-image issues were probably started, inadvertently, by my mother. When I got to about the age of 11, I remember her telling me “I don’t think you’ll ever be pretty so much as just attractive. You’ve got very strong features.” At the time I don’t think I really had much of an understanding of what constituted for physical attractiveness, but it was something that stuck nevertheless. As a result of that one off-hand remark, I developed a bit of a thing about my nose. I convinced myself that it was the “strong” feature she had referred to and decided, all on my own, that “strong” was obviously a euphemism for “gi-fucking-normous”. I’m not playing the blame game here, and I’d certainly never say to her “it’s all your fault; I’m fucked up because of you” because that wouldn’t be fair and it wouldn’t be true. My many, various and often colourful neuroses are a direct by-product of my own poor decisions, and I think probably a lot of my self-image stuff is tied up with that too. However, the fact that I will never accept any human being on the planet telling me I’m “pretty” is very probably down to my mother. But who even likes the word pretty anyway? It’s all frills and pinkness and it doesn’t suit me, so that’s okay.

I think the phrase “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone” is particularly apt when I look back on how frustrated I used to feel about my body when there was really nothing wrong with it at all. I can’t honestly remember what I looked like before I had babies because there are no photographs of it. My self-esteem was so cripplingly low that I never allowed anyone to take photos of me in a bikini – and I certainly have no fear of “revenge porn” ever happening to me because the idea of me sending risqué pictures to anyone is, frankly, laughable -, but I do know that, actually, I was pretty much okay really. After I had Toddler Taylor and realised that I’d come out of the other side of pregnancy relatively unscathed, I actually started to appreciate my body. I learnt to ignore the parts I hated and celebrate the rest. There are photographs of me in my back garden wearing a bikini about a year after Toddler Taylor was born. So I finally felt kind of okay about my physical attributes... And then I had another baby. And I came out of the other side of that pregnancy feeling cringingly ashamed every time I looked in the mirror.

This is another one of those things that mothers just don’t talk about, and I do understand why. I know that hating a body that has given me two beautiful babies makes me feel guilty and ungrateful. I also know that feeling like that actually creates this self-perpetuating cycle of feeling shitty about my body and then feeling shittier about feeling shitty about it because feeling shitty about it in the first place makes me a shitty person. But shouldn’t it really be okay to be honest if stretch marks feel more like bad luck than a badge of honour? I know from looking through dozens of different forums on the subject that sometimes mothers do try to talk about this, to seek solace in the words of other women, and more often than not the replies are the same: “Just look at your beautiful baby and realise how wonderful your body is and how lucky you are.” So there are mothers out there who have tried to reach out and they’ve pretty much all hit the same brick wall of stoic put-up-and-shut-up responses. But we’re not all the same, and for me throughout my relationship history, I’ve never really been able to understand why anybody would be attracted to me and I’ve always tried to hide that behind being witty and vaguely sarcastic. So now I just try to believe my husband when he tells me that he doesn’t notice the stretch marks and other myriad imperfections, turn them into a bit of a joke, when actually I’m thinking “how do so many other woman manage to just shrug this shit off?”

Thursday, 7 May 2015

The Story of Baby Taylor

The story of Baby Taylor’s hospital stay in January this year is a desperate one. Desperately sad, but also a desperate warning to other mothers not to make the same mistakes I did.

In hindsight, I knew that there was something wrong with Baby Taylor from him being about two weeks old. He was a snacky, fidgety feeder and he would often throw up an entire feed just minutes after finishing it. The vomiting probably distressed me more than it did him, but he was clearly uncomfortable most of the time and I tried everything to persuade him to feed. I administered gallons of Infacol and gripe water, rocked him until he was almost asleep so he would take the bottle more willingly, tried every milk on the market once I’d realised that breastfeeding just wasn’t an option anymore... You name it, I tried it. But nothing worked. Alongside this, Baby Taylor did nothing but cry. He would cry and cry for hours and there was nothing I could do to comfort him. And he wouldn’t sleep. When he woke up in the night for a feed, there was often nothing I could do to get him to go back to sleep. Once, after trying for two hours to settle him in his Moses basket, I told my husband I couldn’t cope anymore, got in my car and drove up into the forestry where I slept in the passenger seat under a blanket for a couple of hours.

I took Baby Taylor to see a doctor who said he probably had reflux and sent him home with a box of infant Gaviscon. That worked for less than 24 hours. Another doctor gave him a prescription for Ranitidine, but neglected to tell us that the dosage would change with his weight, so that worked for a week or so, then we were back to square one. Nobody seemed to want to help us.

Things finally came to a head when I had spent a whole day failing to feed Baby Taylor or get him to sleep. My husband was at work and my mom came round to find me clutching Toddler Taylor and sobbing my heart out while Baby Taylor screamed in his cot upstairs. I said some awful things that day. Things like I wished somebody would just come and take him away, or that I wanted to leave him somewhere and drive away because I simply couldn’t cope with him anymore. I said I didn’t love him, didn’t want him, wished I’d never had him. I can forgive myself for these things now because I know that I was mentally ill at the time from all of the stress and the crippling lack of sleep. But saying them made me feel sick. Saying them made me hate myself.

My mom had no idea what to do, so she called 111 and they decided to send an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, they asked me some questions and I tried to explain the hell that we had been going through. They decided to take both of us in and we were quickly taken into an assessment room where a triage nurse took our details and checked Baby Taylor over, then we were left alone for a while until a doctor came to see us. As is always the case with A&E, I explained our story again. I was honest about the fact that I no longer felt able to cope, which was when he asked me “have you ever thought about hurting your son?” I replied, “No, but I can empathise with a person who gets to the end of their rope and shakes their baby.” I knew it would be a red light. I knew exactly what would happen next, but I’d reached a point where I had to be honest. A point where I knew we needed help, whatever the personal cost.

After that, I wasn’t allowed to be alone with Baby Taylor. Even when my husband arrived, the door to the room had to be left open. Then another nurse came and took him away to the children’s ward. I was told that I wasn’t allowed to stay with him, but that someone would come to see me when he’d been assessed and take me down to the ward so I could see him and know that he would be properly looked after. I was in shock. I couldn’t even cry. I’d known what would happen, but I felt like a monster. Even though I knew that I would never do anything to hurt my child, I felt like a criminal.

A crisis meeting was arranged for that night, so we hung around at the hospital once we’d seen Baby Taylor and been assured by the staff on the paediatric ward that they couldn’t feed him either and that they didn’t believe for one minute that I was a risk to my son.  The doctor on the ward told me that she felt it was very brave of me to admit to feeling so helpless and out of control, but all I could feel was shame and disgust. It was, and still is, the darkest night of my life.

The social worker who came to assess me said he felt it was ridiculous to keep me at the hospital well into the night when it was clearly obvious that what I really needed was to sleep. I shrugged, told him we’d all seen the horror stories about shaken babies and children beaten to death by those who were supposed to protect them. I understood why I was there, why it was necessary. I answered his questions honestly and he told me that he thought I was probably depressed, but that he in no way believed I would harm either of my children. I was finally allowed to say goodbye to Baby Taylor, given a strong sleeping pill and sent home.

Baby Taylor was kept in the hospital for four nights. During that time, my husband and I had a meeting with the team who were looking after him. One of the nurses in that meeting asked me why I had struggled with him for so long, essentially on my own. I replied “I didn’t think I had a choice.” I explained that I had spent the last three months feeling like a complete failure, and an amazing thing happened; a whole roomful of medical professionals told me that they all thought the fact that I had somehow managed to feed Baby Taylor and do a pretty decent job of keeping his weight up in light of the severity of his reflux was nothing short of a miracle. They told me they thought I was remarkable.

Later that week I was also psychiatrically assessed and diagnosed as being borderline depressed, but it was suggested that that was largely due to the stress of Baby Taylor’s condition rather than anything that would require medication. Also, I was assured that there was no question of me being considered a danger to my children. Looking back, I don’t think anyone ever really believed that I was, but I know that it was necessary for them to check me out. For a while we got extra help with childcare so I could get some rest, and everyone in our families finally knew what we’d been going through. I’m not going to dress it up; it was a shitty time. Having Social Services involved was terrifying, but it was something we had to go through to get the help that we needed.

What I took away from the experience – aside from the fact that I am not, in fact, Wonder Woman – was that mothers don’t talk about this stuff enough. We all pretend that we can cope with anything. Who knows; maybe there are some women out there who can. But I’m not one of them, yet I pretended for months that I was fine even though I felt like I was drowning. And what I’ve realised, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, is that it’s actually really dangerous to internalise parenting problems. It might seem like every other mother you know is sailing through on a sea of endless patience, but I can almost guarantee you that that isn’t the case. If just one mother who feels like she isn’t coping reads this post and opens up to a relative, friend or health visitor – anyone – then my work is done. Being a parent is hard and being a mother can be very lonely. Don’t make it worse by pretending you’re okay if you’re really, really not. Believe it or not (and I certainly wouldn’t have a year ago) no one is going to think you’re a monster if you admit that you’re struggling.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Almost-Divorce

So, I started this blog because I wanted to be honest about the reality of parenting, at least as I have experienced it so far. And the reality of parenting a child with a health issue is that it can be like throwing a grenade into the centre of your life and then helplessly watching the fireworks. Don’t get me wrong; I completely understand that there are far worse health issues for a child to have than reflux. In the grand scheme of things, reflux is a minor problem. But the results of parenting a child with reflux can be major.

As I mentioned in my first post, Baby Taylor spent some time in the hospital because of his condition. During that time, my husband and I spent about 12 hours every day going back and forth to the hospital to feed him, play with him and make sure that he didn’t forget who his parents were. Because the huge sleep debt I was battling and the desperate measures I had gone to in order to get nourishment into him had caused some mental health issues for me, I wasn’t allowed to stay with him because the doctors and nurses on the ward had more than enough to do without having to keep an eye on me too. But I wanted to spend as much time with him as possible, so I was always at the hospital by 10am and I rarely left much before midnight. As a result, I barely saw Toddler Taylor during that time and my relationship with my husband took a very definitive backseat to everything else. And, thinking about it now, that is probably where the trouble began.

My husband and I always had a very active physical relationship, but once Baby Taylor was born and his issues began to make themselves known and felt within our family dynamic, I had neither the time nor the energy to engage with him anymore. I had to put my sons’ needs before ours, because that has always been my understanding of being a “good” mother. It didn’t occur to me at the time that my neglect of the person who had brought my children into the world with me would have the cumulative effect that it did.

In early April, on my husband’s birthday, he moved out of our home. Looking back, we hadn’t been communicating with each other on anything other than a perfunctory level for months. Our physical relationship had withered away to nothing. Any time we spent together was on opposite ends of the sofa, watching TV and ignoring each other completely. I had recently lost a close family member and was still grieving, but my husband has no experience of grief, so he had no way of knowing what I needed from him to help me through it. So, with nothing left to keep us together, he packed his bags and went to stay with his parents. It wasn’t as simple as that in practice, and it wasn’t without animosity at the time, but that’s essentially what happened, and it was only then that I realised what we had been doing to each other over the months we had spent trying to look after our poorly baby and utterly neglecting our relationship.

When we first got married, we had only been together for two years. We were wildly in love and almost unbearably happy, and we decided to start having children right away while we were still young, full of energy and before we had had the opportunity to become selfish. Toddler Taylor was an easy baby. He ate well, slept well and adapted to every routine change without batting an eyelid. We had our issues and we argued sometimes, but we still made lots of time for one another. But when Baby Taylor came along just less than two and a half years later, everything changed. He wouldn’t feed, he was sick often and profusely, and he refused to sleep. It was, for want of a better word, exhausting. I battled to breastfeed him, cried more times than I care to remember over the profound sense of failure I felt that he didn’t want to feed from me, and I all but gave up on sleep. I became a monster to live with. I was constantly short-tempered and I lost all interest in my husband because I just didn’t have time to take care of his needs too. Small wonder, then, that we reached a point six months later where we felt like there was nothing left in our marriage worth staying for.

During the time that my husband was living with his parents, he visited the kids often and he and I found opportunities to talk. We slowly realised that we still loved each other and still wanted to be together. We stopped talking about divorce and instead formulated a plan to spend more time together. I knew it would be hard on me to begin with because it would mean that a lot of the early mornings with the boys would be my responsibility so he could go to work at 6am and get home in time to spend a few hours with us before the kids went to bed and we could concentrate on each other. It hasn’t been easy, but my husband and I are now closer and happier than we have been in a long time. It took losing each other for us to realise how much love was still between us and how desperately we didn’t want to end up becoming another statistic.

The bottom line is that it’s easy to forget why you came together as a couple when you’re both exhausted from caring for a poorly baby. It becomes routine to blame each other for every bad day and every broken night. The “I’m more tired than you” one-upmanship can end up being the default setting of your relationship. I’m not one for offering unsolicited advice, but I will say this; if you find yourself in the position of sacrificing your relationship for a child who needs more help than you can reasonably provide – whether that’s extra care or a certain medication – reach out. Don’t try to battle through it by yourselves, because you might end up in the same place we were a month ago and it doesn’t have to be like that. It shouldn’t have to be like that for any parent.