We were ready for our baby. Just a few last things to arrange: a white dress, a jam of wedding house guests, a goldenly lit dinner and elated tears I can still taste. The honeymoon nights we had waited for.
Then a child, right? For everyone but us.
Fertility treatment seemed mostly needles and schedules. I left my magazine’s Christmas party early to shoot up the crazy-making hormones on the dot; a year later I left my job altogether. I accepted that my body would not make any miracles.
Funny how much that power had meant to me; funny how easy it was to let it go. Crybaby, feather-mettle me had to get tough. Friends said to me they “couldn’t do IVF”. Inside I heard myself laugh and say, I couldn’t do it either, if there were any choice.
It’s hard to explain the grief. Always on my finger is a ring with a stone for each of my embryos who died. Before he was transferred into my uterus I saw my son on a screen, a five-day-old embryo, a corona of cells. You wait for the phone calls. You learn to hear the news before it’s said. Just before Christmas my nurse Mary’s lifting tone told me I was pregnant. This baby had survived.
So into pregnancy my boy and I went. My life began again, with his.
Some of you will know how grateful I felt. An unimaginative relative asked me why I kept visiting IVF forums when the other members’ losses hurt me so much. How can you tell someone who asks such a question, all these women travelled side by side with me on the loneliest path I ever walked? And some of them, no matter their courage, will never have a child. How could I leave them. How could I forgive myself for being so lucky?
When my son was born, lavender-coloured, wearing an aureole of my blood, I named him for light, for the lodestar I saw on that clinic screen.
At first, an astonished peace. Telling my best friend nothing hurt, not even the stitches, the injured back or the lacerating breastfeeding. Then just before I was discharged from hospital, my son coughed and the night nurse chopped him upright by his chin. ‘Listen for that noise,’ she warned, ‘and sit him up. Or he might die.’
With hindsight I see that she answered all my doubts. There seemed a haze as she walked out. I wondered how, when I was never meant to be a mother, would I keep my baby alive?
Willpower had been my strength during fertility treatment. In the months that followed, I used it to deal with my terror.
I listened through the nights. I made myself crawl rather than ask for help with my raging back pain. I would not let four lactation consultants, three GPs and a residential service tell me I couldn’t breastfeed. My husband worked for weeks away from home; I left him messages on the way to Emergency when silent reflux choked our son again. My hands cracked from washing. I sterilised, laundered, rocked, sang–counted every repetition as if there were some formula that could keep my baby safe. For every task I tried to find measurements, patterns, some mechanics I could drive. Sometimes I felt calmer. Often I wished everything would stop.
But everyone around me wanted me strong. The first time postnatal depression was suggested, it was used as a put-down. No help was offered. Only a statement I heard as, your feelings aren’t right. Your feelings aren’t real.
I suppose she thought the solution was to feel something else.
We moved to Melbourne, where my husband’s parents lived. My lipsticked lips said goodbyes, I packed four suitcases for the drive from tick-box lists. Soon after we arrived, I needed the Crisis Assessment Team to visit me each day until I could be admitted to hospital. It had taken me eight months to break.
All around us are women who haven’t sought help. Over my back fence there are neighbours who’ve lived there for 60 years. They tell me of their old friend who built our house, planted the velvety wisteria vine, brought her babies home and lingered in depression all her life.
Today I’m thankful for the hardship of that move. Without the long drive and all those boxes, I might have been able to keep trying to deserve my son with housework and clean hands. I didn’t know how to be a mother. I didn’t know how to help my child sleep, I didn’t know how to learn.
One day when the house was finally in order, I locked myself in the bathroom and took out the scissors I use to trim my fringe. My thoughts were slow. I decided it was the right time because my son was young enough to forget me. Then I remembered I hadn’t said goodbye to him and I wanted that last comfort for myself. To touch his petal cheek with mine. I came out just as my husband prepared to break down the door. When I held my baby I could not let him go.
Then there was nothing else to do but ask for help.
Good fortune stood by my side, with my boy, though it took months to know it. The mother-and-baby ward I stayed in doubled as a sleep school. Learning to settle my son to sleep, starting to sleep again myself steadied me enough to be hopeful. To know myself again.
You see, I am a mother. And I am real.
Mothers feel. Mothers feel despair, mothers feel afraid, mothers do not have the answers. Everything I felt came from bearing my child, everything I felt makes me a mother.
My five-week stay in hospital was followed by a weekly day program for mothers and babies; home visits from a social worker and my Maternal and Child Health nurse; and regular talks with a psychiatrist. I phoned PANDA and Lifeline. There were many people who could, and did help me. I’ll forever hear their kindness. When I began to walk behind my son’s pusher with my old avid stride I knew I was healing.
It’s time now to be with all the feelings of motherhood. To accept I will never know why there was a baby for me. To let his conception and what, with his presence, I have made of my life, be miracles after all. To welcome joy and face into the light I have been given.
PANDA’s Millions Mums in May seeks to raise awareness of the crisis in funding for postnatal depression support services and asks governments for essential funding for the PANDA Helpline. One million mums from around Australia are being asked to help PANDA’s campaign and support other mums by contacting their local MP at millionmums.org.au.
Image credit: mary981/ 123RF Stock Photo