Some nights last a long time (a.k.a. what exactly is postnatal depression, a.k.a. “it gets easier”)



My daughter was born in our living room at 1.20am on 20 June last year, and I had been awake for 3 nights by that point (aside from drifting in and out of sleep, jerked awake by my uterus contracting every 5-10 minutes each previous night). So I was very tired but I wouldn’t let my boyfriend go to sleep after the midwives had left, because how could we be sure that the baby would survive the night? We tried, hamfisted, to swaddle her, but couldn’t remember the instructions from our NCT class. She’ll pull the blanket over her head and suffocate, or her tiny heart will stop beating, or … something, I insisted. My boyfriend gently pointed out that we would, at some point during the rest of her life, have to sleep when she did. Over the next few months he would gently point out lots of rational things that I couldn’t see, then kindly concede to my slightly mad reasoning on a variety of topics.

Looking at her over the next few days, I remember thinking with great certainty that it was highly unlikely anything so small and new could make it. That first night, I couldn’t sleep until my parents had arrived in the early hours of the morning. They drove across London as the dawn broke on the day before the shortest day of the year and my daughter, on the first day of her life, slept curled on my mum’s lap for hours and hours.

When I was pregnant I forgot that I would bring myself to my mothering. And for a while after she was born, when I was finding it all so hard, I wondered why everyone found it difficult but some people found it particularly difficult. Why did I feel so devastated about the irrevocable loss of my carefree life? Why did I feel shocked by the burden of responsibility, when I’d known what was coming? Why did I feel waves of panic every time I tried to sleep? Shock, grief, fear, exhaustion, overwhelming love: this is what I remember from those early days.

Everyone said “it gets better!” and “you’re doing a great job!” and I kept wondering why they were saying this, when they didn’t even know what kind of job I was doing. But I didn’t know how much self-doubt I was living in, I didn’t have the hindsight of how much relatively easier it gets as you get used to it all, as you grow in confidence, as you watch your baby growing into a person. The notion that it gets better is impossible to really conceive of until it does. Everything that is being asked of you being so new to you and it is hard to really take it in at all, let alone the idea that it will change, and keep on changing. “You’ll look up and she’ll be leaving to go to university”, “long days, short years” people said: none of it was true, all of it was true, but it was of limited use to me in those giant, unending moments.

A friend gave a good insight about women who do not feel depressed or anxious or panicky or devastated on becoming a mother, that maybe they were just more practical types, that they were not so over-analytical or anxious as me. That made it feel better. A friend recommended Kate Figes Life After Birth and that made it feel better too, like I wasn’t the only one going mad. Very kind mum friends and their kind words of encouragement: they made me feel better. Over Christmas, reflecting on the six months that passed and trying to work out what was new about me and what was the same and how these things could meet, I realised that I felt different in ways that I hadn’t foreseen – not just that I was a bit tougher; not just that I understood real love, real, daily joy; but also that I was aware of the dark side of my life, of myself. I felt, for the first time, that I understood how people could do terrible things, make awful mistakes, how humans were driven to things because they were driven to the edge of themselves and their capacity to feel hopeful and happy. All this from my privileged middle-class existence with great family and friends around me. All this because of a person no taller than 1 foot high!

So much of my extreme feelings were mostly due to sleep (the lack of it). I looked and looked for words about sleep deprivation that weren’t either Mumsnet laments or journal articles on its psychological side effects, but I never found them. Instead I looked at a drawing I had made of a graph where my mental health was inversely proportional to how well the baby was sleeping, a drawing that summed up everything and solved nothing. As she turned 6 months, she developed the alarming of habit of waking up every time we tried to put her down. We couldn’t see a quick-or-easy way out of it apart from to take it in turns to hold her for most of the evening and all her naps, and let her sleep in our arms once we had gone to bed. We sat in a dark room with our arms full of baby while the world went by outside, while chores went undone, words to each other unsaid, game-changing television unwatched, books unread, yoga unpracticed, meals uncooked and selves unattended to. What a strange beast you are, I would think, as she lay completely asleep in my arms until I tried put her down, when her eyes would snap open and she would begin to whimper. It was like she was convinced there were wolves at the door and her body had become primed to tense up when it was not curled up next the place it originated. I hadn’t realised how necessary the breathing space while the baby sleeps is to one’s sanity. I didn’t expect parenting to end at nighttime, I knew the extent that a baby erodes one’s personal space and autonomy but, with her waking so much in the night as well, it felt all too much.

She was so wakeful and I was so tired and sad. I weighed less than I had when I was seventeen and my ribcage was such a depressing sight to me. I met a really jolly mother in a cafe who was exhausted too, but she was just so stoic about it. Instead I seemed to sink into more and more of a maudlin mess. I clamped my jaw shut all day from the stress of it and my damn ears hurt all the time.

On one of the worst nights I got some sleep between 12 and 4 with baby in my arms. Very tired but too uptight to sleep, I cried from about 6am and could not stop. I laughed a few times in between but the crying won. Around 9am I had a shower; I had failed to get the baby to nap because I was too tired to make the effort required to feed then jiggle her so I just let her lie in my arms sucking on her fingers until my partner took her and quickly got her to sleep. The disadvantage of him being there was that I could really accept I was exhausted and had nothing left in the can and sit and could sit and watch him care for her and finally admit I was a terrible, terrible mother.

In the shower I thought maybe the baby had woken up and I could hear her crying but so many things sound like her crying and are not – water in the pipes, water dripping from the tap, a faraway dog whimpering, the little boy from upstairs whooping as he comes in the door – that I thought probably, she was not crying. I felt like a schizophrenic who decides on balance that the voices are NOT real even though they can definitely hear them.

I felt angry at everyone around me for believing me when I said I was alright.

I remembered that, early that morning, I was so tired and sad I actually fantasised about being dead for the first time. I had never got why people did this before but NOW I did – it would mean a lovely rest and an instant end to all this shit. Looking back this seems crazy to me, and I knew at the time that of course I did not want to be dead. It would make everyone pretty sad and I would miss them all and there were lots of things I wanted to see and do and I had an underwater lagoon’s worth of hope postponed inside me. But I realised that for the first time in my life, I had imagined death as a respite! It didn’t make me feel sad, just stretched and balloon-like and in slight awe of everything that had happened.

I considered the nature of depression – a scale, a collection of symptoms, a rational reaction to things that are intolerable to us. And now, I remember saying to a friend that I probably did think I was slightly depressed at times in the first six months but that was mainly because what was happening at the time seemed pretty depressing to me.

Just before she was born, I remember a friend saying she had cried from despair more in the first 6 months of her baby’s life than in the rest of her own life, and I had no idea what she meant. I think I thought: well maybe you did, but I doubt I will. Someone else referred to it as a rollercoaster and I thought: oh, it will be much more balanced and fine for me! You never know exactly what is coming for you. And I found that some female friends who had previously suffered depression were much more buoyant in motherhood, perhaps because as one said to me, “you already know about the darkness”.

Like most mothers, I feel that it is very, very hard and also that having her is the best thing I have ever done. I am even glad it was so hard because as things gets easier it is all thrown into stark relief, like the technicolour of health after illness. A few days ago she started blowing all the air out of her cheeks, then looked greatly surprised, then did it again and again, for an hour. Then she started holding both her arms up in the air simultaneously. I don’t know why. Of course then I forget everything, all the tough bits that we have been through, all the “sleep hell” as a friend called it, the dark days, another friend, the grey days, another. These happy moments cover you over entirely and all you can do is tread water in their joy.

We are only having one baby, we kept saying after she was born. One really is enough. Recently I asked my partner if I should keep her baby stuff in case, you know, just in case there was a next time, and we both decided that yes, we probably will keep it, not that we’ll need it probably, but just for now. Just in case.



One Response to “Some nights last a long time (a.k.a. what exactly is postnatal depression, a.k.a. “it gets easier”)”

  1. 1 Anna

    I read this before and thought it was so perfect and I’ve been exactly where you describe, just read it again and it makes even more sense. Such a beautiful piece of honest writing.Thank you x

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