Leah McFall: Enduring postnatal anxiety

The thaw of frosty postnatal anxiety began with small changes.
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The thaw of frosty postnatal anxiety began with small changes.

When I was seven months' pregnant with our first baby, a Big Snow fell. Airports closed; buses stopped running and snowflakes settled in the hill suburbs of Wellington. Do you remember? It made the news.

Someone from my office tried to pick me up for work but it was perilously slippery outside our house and I was so worried about falling and hurting the baby, that I wouldn't let go of the gate.

So I stayed home, snowed in, with barely any food and hardly any firewood and my husband stuck in Queenstown, convincing myself I'd be having the baby early, alone, right here on the wooden floor.

Then the door flew open and my mum arrived to rescue me, loaded with supplies and her cheeks red with effort. I was flooded with relief; but the snow didn't melt for the next three years.

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I admire, and am mystified by, all the women who take new motherhood in their stride. Yes, they're sleep-deprived; yes, they're shell-shocked. No, they can't believe how demanding a newborn baby can be. But they pack their nappy bags and go from Plunket to PlayCentre to coffee group. Then there's grocery shopping with the baby strapped against the shelf of your breasts; postnatal fitness class, with Swiss balls and giant rubber bands; Baby Swim and Rock n' Rhyme and Mums n' Bubs at the movies.

Life is a march with a small baby; you push your pram towards the future. You are purposeful; you are in charge.

Illustration: Alistair Hughes

From my car window I watched these other women, coping. I thought about them as I sat in my lounge, my growing baby batting at her toys. But for the best part of two years – in the space of which I had another child – I barely left the house.

I was incapacitated by love for my children. This sounds like I'm paying myself a compliment (I don't go outside! That's how much I love my babies!). But my hopeless, paralysing love wasn't useful; it wasn't practical. I wasn't in charge.

I couldn't take them anywhere I might not be able to control the environment, like the supermarket, restaurants or the mall. What if they needed a nappy change in public, or wouldn't be soothed? I was terrified of being judged, mainly by other women. So I stayed home.

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I kept a tidy house, and went to quiet places. Near-deserted playgrounds, or well-timed excursions to empty parks. Few noticed, because I hid it, but I dropped out of life. I lost weight. Whenever I could, I slept.

I've read lots of descriptions of post-natal anxiety, which I suppose is what I had. The best way I can put it, is that you photo-age.

This is what it feels like to be old. I'd enjoy being with happier people. I marvelled at their energy. They had appointments, they went to shows. I sat in chairs, and listened to the radio. I spaced out the hours from my morning coffee to my five o'clock glass of wine. I couldn't face crowds. I packed snacks for my children and waved them off at the gate to have outings with other people, people who were better at this than me.

But staying inside is not the worst thing. The worst thing is realising hardly anyone can stop their lives for you.

Your partner exhausts himself to help but needs to go to work. Your parents may live miles away. Your friends sympathise, but they have jobs and families. So even though I had so much love, concern and care in my life, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was utterly alone with this. How do you thaw a permafrost?

Daily texts with Wayne helped. He'd stepped out of the flow of life to cope with a serious illness. On Fridays, we'd PXT each other glasses of wine or bottles of beer. 'It's Friday, McFall,' he'd text me. Every week a small toast: his, to survival, and mine to endurance.

My husband and parents never wavered in their support. Nor did friends. 'Of course you're depressed!' said Ness, matter-of-factly. 'All the sane ones are! There'd be something wrong with you if you weren't!' I've worn her advice like pounamu, close to my heart, ever since.

The thaw began with small changes. I saw a doctor. We employed a lovely nanny, who took the children out and about. One by one, they started kindy. I returned to work part-time.

Today, I've acclimatised to motherhood. All four seasons have returned to the house; most days my doors and windows are open to the sun. That Big Snow is starting to feel like legend. But there are cold-snap days, which come out of nowhere. No Wayne, anymore, to text on those days. The frosts are getting fewer; they come about once a month.

Maybe you're snowed in, somewhere, watching the flakes. If you are, I hope someone's at the door with red cheeks, bringing tea-bags. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow. Soon – I promise – it will melt.

 - Sunday Magazine

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