As we approach the milestone of the first birthday I find myself consumed with so many thoughts, memories and emotions. On my son’s birthday we will of course be celebrating him turning one and our incredible love for him. There will, however, be another celebration taking place within our home, a celebration of survival. We have survived the first 12 months, which as it turns out, is quite the feat.
Surviving pregnancy was a struggle in itself. Despite getting to the age where my body quite literally ached for a baby, I soon discovered I was not going to be one of those women who are made to carry babies. My body seemed to fight me every step of the way. I was sick, all the time. Multiple trips to emergency for fluids and weekly visits to my amazingly wonderful GP who spent time researching ways to try and combat the Hyperemesis Gravidarum (Made famous by Princess Kate) that was terrorising my body. I experienced insomnia, excruciating pelvic pain, an emergency appendectomy at 26 weeks, heartburn, restless leg syndrome, back pain and the daunting prospect of a large baby needing to vacate my lady parts. There were so many moments where I wanted to give up; I didn’t believe that I could get through another day let alone months.
I will never forget my husband saying to me “I miss my wife.” I knew exactly what he meant; I had become an incubator and nothing more for months. I lay helpless on a mattress in our lounge room, unable to function beyond the safety of our home and a nearby bathroom. There are so many vivid memories from my pregnancy that will never leave me but one that grips me right in the throat and coils its way down to my heart is when my brother came to visit me in hospital. He is my older brother and while we are close and love each other dearly, we don’t necessarily share all the feels. The day after I had my appendix out, he made a surprise trip down to see me. I had never really seen him cry before. He walked into the room, saw me lying on the hospital bed and choked up immediately. The look that flooded his face was a mash of fear, protectiveness, concern and fragility that I’m presuming mirrored my own. It was almost like his reaction gave me permission to release all of the emotions that I saw in his sunken demeanour. It was ok to be scared, fragile and quite frankly a little bit miffed that this is how pregnancy had turned out for me.
My labour was uneventful. I was induced at 39 weeks, we had a healthy 9lb beautiful boy. As my placenta vacated the premises, the months of sickness seeped out of my body and were replaced with bucketfuls of love for our son. We had some general feeding issues to begin with and my vagina felt like it had gone ten rounds with a heavyweight boxer but all in all we were doing well. We even made it to a wedding in Noosa when our son was four weeks old. We lapped up the compliments about how well we were doing, how relaxed we were, how perfect our baby was.
Listen: Monique Bowley and Bec Judd deep dive on the beautiful act of labour, speaking to mums and experts. Post continues after audio.
We got through the first three months relatively unscathed. Upon reflection, there were signs that things weren’t perfect, but are they ever really? I mean, he cried a bit, he went on nursing strikes, he wriggled and writhed around pretty frequently but he was big and healthy and we loved him to bits. Somewhere around the four month mark it all fell to pieces. We had somehow broken our baby. He stopped sleeping, like at all really. It started with a very normal regression to waking every two hours and progressed (or regressed?) to entire nights of feeding and screaming. Nights where my husband and I would fall into bed at 5am, only for his alarm to go off at 6 for work. Nights where we cried in desperation as our baby cried in pain. Nights where we took it in turns to sit up with him so the other could try and get a half hour of sleep. Nights where I googled “ why does my baby hate me?” when nothing we did could soothe his pained little body. We felt helpless.
Sleep deprivation is absolutely debilitating. It infiltrates every inch of your being. It devours any positive energy you endeavour to muster. It attempts to wreak havoc on your mind, body and relationships. It feeds your feelings of inadequacy and failure. The compliments stop and you are no longer ‘doing so well’ or ‘nailing parenthood’ in the eyes of others. You become the Mum that people talk about as ‘struggling.’ I found it so difficult after spending my early twenties being referred to as a Born Mother and even The Baby Whisperer as every baby I had ever held, slept peacefully in my arms… until my own. Despite reading everything I could get my hands on and reaching out to countless people for their help and advice, we could not get our baby to sleep.
Around five months our baby began to go on nursing strikes more frequently. He would scream whenever he came near my breasts...what a feeling of rejection! It wasn’t until we introduced solids that we began making the link to food. As he had never been a spewy baby, no one had ever suggested that it could be something I was eating that was upsetting him. It took months of trial and error, paediatric and dietician appointments, tears and frustration until we finally pinpointed the food groups that he could not tolerate (dairy, soy, eggs and high fructose). I completely understand that food intolerances are not severe. There are so many people much worse off and my heart breaks for them because I know how much our challenges almost broke me.
I would say we are coming out the other end of a solid eight months in the deep, dark trenches of sleep deprivation. Better than some, worse than others. It’s not a competition. I find myself constantly questioning that underlying sense of competition that still exists among parents. Where is our compassion and empathy for new mums? Why must we always be told that sleeplessness is just part of it? Why must we be told that relaxed mums have relaxed babies? Why must our parenting abilities be judged by the amount of sleep our baby gets? The questions we are asked are always so loaded. “Is he a good baby?’ How do I answer that? 'Are you enjoying motherhood?' If I say no I’m going to make you feel incredibly uncomfortable, if I say yes I’m perpetuating the problem of women suffering in silence. Part of me is saddened that sleep deprivation has stolen so much of my son’s first year from me. It pains me to think of the last 12 months as such hard work but that has been our reality most days. I’m not ashamed to admit that I frequently completed the online Post Natal Depression test, just to check in whilst reminding myself that chronic sleep deprivation can mimic the telltale signs of PND.
I’m extremely fortunate to have an incredibly supportive and hands-on husband, family close by and a wonderful mothers group who always had wine at the ready for me. I had a friend drive three hours down the highway only to sit in a dark room with my crying baby so I could have a break for an hour. It takes a village and I will be eternally grateful to ours for their love, support, coffees and wine. I think it is a credit to my husband and I that we made attempts to co-exist in the outside world as well as our little cacoon of exhaustion. It is also a credit to our friends and family that they continued to invite us into their world despite us being so distracted and SO. DAMN. TIRED.
There have been countless times throughout the year when I have questioned my abilities to be a parent to our son. This is my job now and I felt so frequently that I was failing at it. I saw my job as helping my child to eat and sleep, neither of which we were succeeding at. I expect to feel parenting failures many times throughout my son’s life but I have now realised that actually the most important element of my job, is to love the absolute crap out of him, and I do. I’d actually say I’m pretty kick-ass at that part.
I’m proud of myself for breastfeeding him for 12 months despite all of our challenges. I’ve smiled at him every day. I’ve played with him when every cell of my body wanted to curl up and hibernate for months. I’ve held him while he slept as every minute of sleep was so precious. I’ve shared him with our people and I’ve given him all of my love, every day.
As we celebrate my son turning one, we are also celebrating surviving. We have survived with hearts full to the brim with love for our son, for one another and for our village. We have survived with honesty, integrity and good humour intact. We have survived a very normal and common experience that many before us and many after us will also survive but that doesn’t take away from the pride I feel for making it through, with a few extra wrinkles and a whole lot more love.