I wasn’t going to blog about the Royal Baby, for the fairly good reason that I have nothing much to say. I’m not a royalist, and while I’m already groaning under the sheer weight of coverage before s/he is even born, I am not such a curmudgeon as to wish all of them anything but the best in the next few weeks. I’ll just be wishing it silently.
Then a tweeted link to an article yesterday got me thinking about babies, and celebrity, and fairy stories, and weddings and all the other trappings of Happily Ever After of which my five year old daughter is an avid devotee, and particularly of the pressure on new mothers to smile and never betray anything other than blissful maternal contentment.
The article was a rather nasty little piece about a US reality TV star, who had dared to say that she didn’t feel love at first sight when her she saw her newborn son. I’m not rushing to the defence of the mother here; nor do I have any particular desire to argue with the author of the piece, but it upset me, particularly the idea that another new mother, reading it, would feel that she might be judged as having had a baby “for all the wrong reasons” if she didn’t bond immediately, or that she must be freakishly abnormal if “it’s almost impossible for a mother to carry a baby for 9 months and then not fall in Love (sic) the moment she sees her newborn”.
I have had three babies. I now have three children, whom I love more than I can comfortably express. I was never diagnosed with postnatal depression, but I suspect that on each occasion, at various stages (and not necessarily when things looked at their worst) I would have been doing all concerned a favour if I had stopped putting on a bloody brave face and admitted that I was struggling. The early days, weeks, and months of new parenthood, especially with my first baby, were, as I remember them now, a strange and rather arid time. A difficult birth; a colicky, sleepless baby; there was love, certainly, but of the mechanical rather than heart-felt variety. I felt cheated of that lightning bolt I’d read of, unsure whether I could reasonably blame the aftermath of surgery and drugs or whether it was symptomatic of a character flaw deep within me which the fissure of birth had brought to the surface for all to see. I shied away from being honest with anyone about how I felt, focussing instead on a torturous battle to establish breastfeeding and master the endless crying. The love crept up and through me as time progressed, as my efforts seemed to meet with some reward in the shape of a happier and more contented baby, as the seemingly fragmented pieces of my life started to fit back together in a pattern which I could recognise.
Even with my next two babies, born (comparatively) much more easily, I wasn’t knocked sideways by an overwhelming, uncontrollable surge of love. There was much more of a stealing sense of wellbeing, a happy sense of recognition: “oh, there you are”, a welcoming and a rooting into our hearts and our family.
Who am I to say how anyone else should fall in love? We don’t relegate couples who are friends for slow years before coming to realise what they mean to each other as somehow inferior to those whose eyes meet across a crowded room to the stopping of hearts and the bursting of sunbeams.
I wonder if we all know too much about babies and childbirth now, if we fetishise it into some defining moment of our life. Was there as much pressure on new mothers to expect – and manifest – an immediate and overwhelming sense of love when babies were much more wonderfully mundane? Now that we spend our lives anxiously trying to divine the exact right moment to conceive, spending years scrupulously avoiding it until we have hit the sweet spot where security, career and relationship align, knowing that we face opprobrium for misreading the signs, do we build motherhood up into a defining test which we can either pass or fail? Worse, do we create an environment in which a woman feels that any “failure” will be reflected back onto her as a sign that she is lacking, ungrateful, undeserving of her baby? I think we do.
Over the last few years, I have spent time volunteering with new mums. I’ve been trained to help them establish feeding, I’ve spoken to lots and lots of friends, acquaintances and strangers with very young babies. And alongside the practical support and advice, I’ve found several times where I’ve just whispered “it’s ok to hate it”. Not to hate yourself, or your baby; not to feel so hopelessly overwhelmed that you feel that you are sinking further and further, not to feel entirely numb and blank, in which cases you should take the advice I didn’t heed myself, and ask for some help. But ok to feel that it’s all somehow not how you imagined, or expected, whether in the technical aspects of feeding and sleeping, or in the more elusive matters of the heart. Be kind to yourself, and trust to time.
So, as the entire nation tunes in to an extended edition of Windsor Womb Watch, I hope that amidst the talk of the Royal nurseries and names there’s another, more down-to-earth message; that babies aren’t necessarily the stuff of fairy stories. They are much, much better than that.