Sunday, July 03, 2005

Breaking the final taboo

IF THERE is one piece of advice I can offer all who read this column it would be to never, under any circumstances, bring a book with you to the hairdressers which may reduce you to a sobbing wreck while some poor stylist is trying to sort out your roots.

Take something happy. Something by Queen Marian Keyes (All Hail) or Cathy Kelly is perfect. However "Down Came the Rain"- Brooke Shield's book on her experiences with Post Natal Depression- is not advisable.It's not that it isn't a good book or well written; it is just that any mother who has ever experienced something that wee bit more sinister than just your bog standard "baby blues" will find it moving to see her own experiences echoed by someone in print.

You see, I kind of understand the experience having undergone my own battle with depression both during pregnancy and after the birth of my son.I'll admit that even though I knew people who had experienced similar feelings, I never understood it until I was there myself because there is no way you expect not to feel anything but wonderful when they hand your baby to you.If I'm honest, my primary feeling was exhaustion, seconded by a need to do everything the proper way for this little human being in my care.

But my feelings were not of overwhelming love. I loved him, yes, I can't deny that- but this was not the most- amazing-feeling- in-the-world experience I had been told about since the moment I held my first Tiny Tears doll as a young child.Motherhood is tough and the induction period is a real baptism of fire. My personal experience was that I was exhausted and sore and very unsure of what to do best for my child. I didn't know if I was feeding him enough, or too little, or not winding him properly, not bathing him enough, cuddling him too much or cuddling him too little.I became obsessed with baby books offering miracle routines and spent so much time trying to be the "perfect" mammy (you know the kind that beams in an earth mother style from the pages of "Practical Parenting") that I actually became the perfect basket case instead.

I remember feeling as if i simply could not manage another feed or another nappy change and while I did everything the wee man needed, I did it mechanically (You should have seen me making up the bottles in the evening- I was a one woman production line). Even hugging came down to doing so because whatever daft routine we were on that week dictated it was hugging time.I ignored whatever maternal instincts I did have if they didn't match the Baby Whisperer's EASY Routine and the result is I never allowed myself to get to know my own baby's personality. And if you don't know someone, how can you fall in love with them?

That said, I know I'm one of the lucky ones. My family are great at spotting when I'm going into a tailspin and they dispatched me off to a very lovely GP who sorted me on the road to recovery and made me realise that that I wasn't mad (well, not totally anyway). All that coupled with throwing away the baby books, dismissing talk of rigid routines and taking a more relaxed attitude to parenting meant that, several months down the line, the all consuming love I'd always heard about started to flood in for our son.And now, I love him with such a fierce pride and protectiveness that I want to breath in his cute babyness and I light up at the end of a day at work when I see his smile. I would challenge anyone who hurt him and I tend to rabbit on incessantly about his achievements.

Yes, there is still a level of guilt there that I didn't just do things my own way and relax more when he was tiny. I have just a vague memory of my eeny baby, having found those early weeks such a struggle that I never realised just how fleeting and precious that early baby stage is.But I've learned that guilt and motherhood go hand in hand and I'm not a bad mammy just because I didn't immediately proclaim my undying devotion to the wee man. Luckily he is happy, healthy and loves his mammy. (Can't seem to say Mammy though- much to my chagrin- he insists on calling me Daddy).

Now I feel, for the most part, happy and healthy in myself. But I've shocked myself by still finding my experiences difficult to admit too. I would be the first to say there should be no taboo around depression, be it the common or garden variety or Post Natal- but the truth is there is.People, generally speaking, don't understand it. They think we should all just "pull ourselves together". Even Tom Cruise, that pinnacle of celebrity, has hit out at Ms. Shields for talking so openly about her experiences in her book.Should we then sweep it under the carpet? Would Mr. Cruise (who is guaranteed never to go through Post Natal Depression himself) prefer we said nothing and let another generation of women feel they have failed themselves and their children in some way by not jumping with joy through the first few months of motherhood?My experience was mild.

Yes, there were unbearably dark days but I was able to find my way through it with some support and a husband who was more than understanding when it came to making sure I got plenty of rest. I have found the light at the end of my tunnel.For the women who are still going through this, however, we have to make sure that people speak up about what they have gone through so that not one person ever feels low and alone again and that everyone, God willing, can eventually fall in love with their baby in the way I have with mine.

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