baby

'While our newborn was in ICU, my ex was on the phone to his new girlfriend.'

One of the worst things about me is that I can be very naive. 

In my relationships, I want everyone to be good at heart and when conflicts arise, I tend to believe the best of others. None of this is strange for a woman with autism, and I’m (thankfully) not nearly as naive as I used to be. But my pregnancy and those first few years as a new mum really put a spotlight on the depth of my naivety.

Despite a brutal breakup with my ex, I still wanted him to be an involved dad. To be fair, he was slightly more involved than my own father who was separated from my mum when I was born.

Watch: Questions about Childbirth. Post continues below.


Video via Mamamia

So, my ex was there for our daughter’s birth even though we were broken up and he lived with a new woman. I wanted him to be there so I didn’t go through it all alone, and he agreed that it was fine.

He arrived maybe 15 to 20 hours into my labour since he was coming from out of state.

When he entered the delivery room, he walked straight over to my bed and kissed me on the lips. It was strange as if I hadn’t been confused enough during the entire pregnancy. 

People wonder why I used to think we might get back together, but that’s why. He used to do these odd things that me that I mistook for genuine signs of affection.

After more than 38 long hours of labour, she was out in just three quick pushes. I didn’t know what to think or feel after giving birth to my daughter. Didn’t know how to feel about becoming a parent.

My daughter post-birth. Image: Supplied. 

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At some point, I know a nurse set Sophia on my chest. It was short-lived though since she was premature and struggled to breathe. So, away she went to the NICU. 

I had severe preeclampsia, which meant I had to stay on my magnesium drip for another 24 hours to help avoid seizures or my own death.

The subsequent events passed like a vivid blur. 

That first night, the nurses brought the baby down to my room in an incubator. I can’t remember if I got to touch her or not — I only recall being told that she was badly bruised in the delivery. 

The idea of my daughter visiting me was so strange; I didn’t know anything about who this little person would be. I couldn’t even imagine what motherhood would be. It was simply this imminent thing.

The next day, I was informed that Sophia was worse off than originally thought. 

There was a long list of issues, like jaundice and difficulty breathing along with magnesium overload, low blood sugar, a calcium deficiency, and a blood infection. I was told that she had no muscle tone, yet another problem that was common with “mag babies.”

Everything the doctors said left me feeling like I was in a daze. It was so much to process all at once, and with my daughter being in the NICU and me on bed rest, I couldn’t take it all in. 

I was a new mum, but I hadn’t yet spent any real time with my baby. I didn’t know her well enough to remember what she liked like.

She was still a stranger to me.

Meanwhile, my ex was there but mostly on the sidelines. I’d ask him if he remembered something a doctor said, but he never did. 

I got a distinct impression that he would rather be anywhere but where we were, so he spent the time glued to his phone.

I wasn’t released from the hospital for a few more days, but they would get me a wheelchair and allowed me to visit our baby once I was off the magnesium. 

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I was ill-prepared for the pain and weakness. While I knew that magnesium is a muscle relaxant, it hadn’t occurred to me just how difficult it would be to recuperate after having it in my system for more than 62 hours. 

I wasn’t allowed to eat for most of that time either, so the weakness was doubly hard.

It took more than two weeks for me to regain all my strength and to walk without pain. As time passed, I was able to grit my teeth and pretend I felt fine, but for the first four days or so, I relied upon my daughter’s dad to help me get around in the wheelchair.

It was a really hard and humiliating time.

My ex was a father already. He had three sons with his wife and apparently, none of their births had been particularly complicated. 

As such, there was a thick layer of frustration between us. He didn’t seem to understand why there were so many complications and he was impatient with the waiting. Her dad wanted to go back to home and behaved as if it was my fault that he had to sleep in hospital room chairs or NICU couches.

Image: Supplied. 

When we realised it might be two weeks before our baby would be out of the NICU, we applied to stay at the Ronald McDonald house. 

It took one source of stress away but added another layer since my ex and I now had to share a bed. We had some of our loudest, most gut-wrenching arguments in our RMH room. I’m still surprised we weren’t kicked out for those fights.

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He couldn’t seem to fathom what was so upsetting to me about giving birth to our daughter. Honestly, I was a mess about everything. 

The physical pain of recovery only exacerbated the emotional wounds and vice versa. I still remember hobbling into the bathroom to pee and winding up in tears over the fact that it burned so bad and that I was tethered to this man who just didn’t seem to “get it.”

My ex was not empathetic to any of the pain I was in. He took every opportunity to complain about missing work and how “this better not ruin things for him with his girlfriend.” 

He complained about wanting to go out and have a social life again. During the pregnancy, I’d already seen him put his pleasure ahead of everything else — he was clearly having a mid-life crisis. But I kept thinking he would grow up when our baby arrived.

I was wrong. Our daughter was in intensive care and he kept having mini tantrums about wanting to “go out” and “have fun.” After a pregnancy that was largely spent in isolation, I wanted to have fun too, but her birth put those thoughts on the back burner of my mind.

We’d known from the start of my pregnancy that it was high-risk, but I don’t think he ever considered how that might impact the birth. Or that it even could.

I was angry because I kept waiting for him to act like a dad. 

His behaviour worried me because I had so many unanswered questions about motherhood. What if neither one of us could be the parent she needed? I kept looking for him to show me how it was done, but he kept looking disinterested.

Every time I asked if he wanted to go see Sophia, he brushed it off. “You need to relax,” he’d say. “It’s the nurse’s job to take care of her right now. Take advantage of the time off.”

He took advantage of the time and acted like we were on holiday. He watched Breaking Bad on his phone or called up his girlfriend. After a while, it occurred to me that I really was on my own. It didn’t matter that he was there physically. He wasn’t engaged, and I felt stupid for ever thinking he could be.

I was struck by the reality that my ex just wanted to have fun all of the time. We had a new baby and I was pumping every two hours around the clock. But somehow for him, it was like nothing had actually changed. At best, all of this was just some inconvenience in the way of his “real life.”

The good one.

Mamamia’s award-winning podcast The Split discusses navigating a separation. Post continues after audio.

A friend offered to drive me and my ex to the shops because I desperately needed some supplies and clothing. When I told him about the plans, he complained that he’d much rather go to the movies than run errands.

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I was beside myself. Who was this man-child complaining about everything? 

I needed clothing because I’d been induced after a trip to the emergency room more than five weeks before my due date. I didn’t have a bag packed or any of the things a pregnant woman plans to bring to the labour and delivery room.

I explained this to my ex and he still complained that he wasn’t willing to help.

Sheepishly, I explained the predicament to my friend. To be honest, I’m not sure why I thought his desire to see a movie mattered. None of my entertainment wishes meant anything to him when I was carrying his child. I felt like such a pushover but worse yet, I knew I was letting him walk all over me.

The friend graciously agreed to drop us off at a fast-food restaurant by the cinema, we’d eat then see the movie, and then we’d head over to the shops. At the end of the day, she’d pick us up and take us back to the hospital. I didn’t ask her just how far of a walk it would be, but I silently dreaded the whole thing knowing how hard it still was for me to walk unassisted.

At least my ex was happier with these plans. There was a Wes Anderson movie out that he wanted to see. Nothing against Wes Anderson but I recall thinking it would have been nice to even have had a say in the movie I felt guilted into watching.

Not that it mattered, however. The whole thing felt way too weird. I thought we should be spending our time in the NICU bonding with the baby. This wasn’t a holiday. Besides, there was the whole issue of my needing to pump milk regularly. The day trip meant I’d have to wait and wind up miserable. My ex didn’t care about any of that.

All that to say, we went to the movie. We were pretty much the only people in that theatre, and it was one of the loneliest couple of hours in my life.

I was still in love with this man, despite the fact that he was cruel and clearly selfish. I kept thinking he would change, or that it was some big misunderstanding. I also kept believing it was my fault — that I’d lost him and he couldn’t see what was right in front of him. Our daughter.

There’s no way to adequately explain my irrational state of mind. Six years later, it’s easy to say, “Oh my God, I was such a disaster.” But back then, I seriously thought it was the end of the world if things couldn’t work out between us.

Of course, they couldn’t. Seeing that movie with him was a miserable reminder. It almost felt like a date, and he had slept with me just weeks before. I was grouchy and lonely because I wanted his arm around me. Or, I wanted to hold his hand. I spent the entire pregnancy longing for affection and settling for small crumbs. That day at the movie was no different.

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Of course, I wish I could say we at least had a good day and didn’t argue. But we argued a lot. He wanted to know why I wasn’t happy about the movie, so I told him. I expressed my frustration over needing to walk so slowly and still having so much pain. I told him how lonely I felt in that cinema next to him. He replayed his typical thoughts that I was ungrateful and selfish.

“Maybe,” I said. “What do I know?” I was in love with a man who kept breaking my heart.

And seeing that movie wasn’t everything I had to do that day. We also had to make it to the shops. Somehow, I slowly hobbled across the parking lot with my ex walking ahead of me, frequently exasperated. As if I wanted unwelcome attention so badly.

When we finally made it I needed to do a grocery shop so we could eat in the Ronald McDonald House. He was tired, so he complained. He was sick of walking and he wanted to be done already.

I felt so bad about his irritation that I wound up skipping over the rest of the stuff I needed. I didn’t even look at clothes. It was just one more mistake in an entire lineup of stupidity.

At the end of the first weekend, we were in the Ronald McDonald House when my ex said he had to go back to his girlfriend. He’d rent a van and drive back with the crib and baby belongings I had left at his place. He’d also go back to work, see his girlfriend, and come back later for me and the baby. Based on his phone calls, I knew he was lining up dates and activities with his friends.

I didn’t appreciate alone time back then like I do now. Back then, I was so tired of being isolated and lonely that I cried. He decided to “console” me by fooling around. Which left me feeling even more confused.

I didn’t understand why I felt so grateful for the scraps of affection he gave me. I just knew that I would keep taking them.

It was a lonely week. I visited the baby, kept trying to nurse but had to resort to bottle feeding with whatever I pumped. 

The doctor said I wasn’t making enough milk, so they were supplementing with donor milk, but that was expensive. 

They said I had to start making more milk or using formula.

I was exhausted and run down. I ate my meals in the hospital cafeteria and broke two teeth chewing bread. It was such a terrible time in my life and I felt bad knowing how sorry I felt for myself. That knowledge was humiliating, and I told myself I was getting exactly what I deserved for every being with my ex in the first place.

He finally drove back to the hospital the following Saturday; it was Easter weekend. At that point he held this weird grudge like the pregnancy was my fault and reiterated his wishes that this not ruin his relationship. By “this” he meant my expectations for him to help out with our baby.

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It was a long time before I ever really understood that he didn’t want to help out much. That he didn’t think helping out was really his responsibility. And that I was better off without him.

People like to say that kids change you, or that parenthood changes you. Things like that. It’s true that having kids can change you, but that only happens if you let it.

Personally, I did many stupid things before I understood motherhood. And I believed everyone who told me that my ex was “such a good dad.” If he was such a good father, though, he wouldn’t have refused to be actively involved with our daughter. Instead, we wound up arguing for the first couple years of her life, and he behaved as if anything he did for her was tainted, like something he did for me. Whenever he was angry with me, he withdrew from acting like her dad.

I grew to realise there wasn’t much for me to learn from him about parenting after all, even though I spent so much time thinking I needed him to show me the ropes. He never let fatherhood change him, not for the better, anyway.

Honestly, if I knew anything about parenthood in those days, I don’t think I would have gotten sucked up into his world when he was still married and coming onto me. It’s actually my daughter who finally “snapped me out of it” so I could get out from under his thrall anyway.

As a brand new mum, I didn’t know what I was supposed to feel or how I should behave. I didn’t immediately fall in love with my child and certainly not with parenting. I didn’t have any instant or “sure” feelings about anything at all. For a long time, I didn’t even know if I had done the right thing by choosing parenthood in the first place. It was a hard choice, made harder by my ex who chose to keep one foot in and one foot out.

But it was a good choice after all.

I grew to love my daughter. And I grew to have all those maternal feelings that I never knew I could have. It took plenty of work, tears, and pain, but I finally learned how to quit being affected by my ex’s perpetual search for youth and pleasure. I’ve already been through one mid-life crisis with my ex now. If he goes through another one, it won’t even be our circus.

We will be okay.

This post originally appeared on Medium and has been republished here with full permission.

You can read more from Shannon Ashley on Medium, or follow her on Twitter

Feature image: Getty.

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