"I didn't have a clue"

"They were great. They cleaned, they cooked. They hoovered the stairs. They held the baby. I got to sleep. I had baths, wore clean clothes and went downstairs."

Mum of 2, Deirdre

Before I had my first child, I didn’t have a clue. I remember wondering what I would be doing all day. My husband suggested that I do a postgraduate degree - so convinced were we that I would have nothing to do.

I did have one small but important foresight though. I liked company and being active so I wanted things to do and people to do them with.

No one I knew would be free to spend time with me and there was a lot of sea between me and my family so while I was still pregnant I did make an effort to find some people to hang out with.

I couldn't afford NCT

I couldn’t afford NCT so I found a local online forum that had brilliant monthly due date threads. I joined ‘April 2010 babies’ and chipped in to a few discussions until I went on maternity leave. Then I went on some of the actual meet-ups, which were (ironically) in a local pub. It was as awkward as starting school all over again but gradually we all became familiar with each other.

My baby arrived late and through induction. On paper and according to everyone else it was an unproblematic birth but I was still flattened by the experience. It felt traumatic.

I left hospital too quickly. I wanted to be at home and there was a lift waiting. That was enough for me to rush out even though breastfeeding hadn’t been working properly. I hated my breasts being pushed around by the midwife who was trying to milk me.

Breastfeeding lurched from crisis to crisis

So I went home too soon. But the problem was that I really really wanted, and expected, to breastfeed. But I had no idea how hard it could be. I didn’t know some people (Me! My baby!) needed to learn how to do it. There were horrors over the next two weeks as I struggled, cried, hired a breast pump, got up every two hours at night to try and feed my baby, failed to get anything into him and then went downstairs to pump instead as my partner gave him formula.

Midwives and health visitors came and went. Some great, sympathetic and helpful. Others just chucking leaflets about. I phoned la leche league for advice, went to my GP with mastitis, searched the internet, obsessed with breastfeeding. My breasts went porn-star massive and painful as my milk came in, and then flattened again as my baby failed to latch.

The house was a state. Baby could not be put down. I don’t like mess. The stairs carpet was beige and got dirtier every day. Every time I saw it, it upset me. The internet said to me, ‘Don’t worry about housework. Let it go.’ But I dislike mess. It just made me feel worse.

Support, hurrah!

Then my mother arrived. Smoke from a volcano in Iceland was drifting over Europe and flights had been grounded. This had prevented her from flying over immediately. After hearing the tears in my voice, she stopped waiting for the smoke to clear and set out on a two-day car and ferry trip with my sister. They were great. They cleaned, they cooked. They hoovered the stairs. They held the baby. I got to sleep. I had baths, wore clean clothes and went downstairs instead of lying listlessly in bed.

And I pumped and pumped. Although I was getting miniscule amounts of milk I knew it was game over if I stopped. My son had learned to latch but we were still supplementing because I wasn’t producing enough milk.

Mentally I was very wobbly. Gently weeping seemed to be my new resting face. I also had moments of real darkness where I thought, ‘Is this it?’ and felt a numbness about my new life.

Recovery, meeting people

But it passed. The real me gradually emerged. My body recovered and I got out of the house and started marching about with my baby to the three mum groups I had joined. Plus the library for sing songs. Plus the Children’s Centre for the play groups. I talked and talked to other women. I couldn’t stop talking. About the birth, about sleep, about everything. No one had any magic cures but they did have their own stories and they listened. That helped enormously.

The breastfeeding got better and better and eventually I was producing enough to be able to stop the formula, which was a private triumph.

In the end I was fine, from then the rest of my maternity leave was sociable and more or less painless. When my second child came I went through it all again. But this time I was more ready for it. My family were there, poised to help out. I had painkillers ready and the phone number for the rented breast-pump to hand. My older son was staying firmly in his nursery, sod the cost, until I had gotten through those crazy first few weeks.

Knowing what to expect and having support made all the difference. I had to overcome my independence and fear of bothering others and ask for help for a change. Once I did I discovered that people liked helping.

Don't take 'I'm fine' for an answer

It’s hard to give advice to other women, everyone has a different experience. It’s easier to give advice to the people surrounding new mums: be there, help out, make the tea, hoover the stairs, do the dishes, put those flowers in a vase instead of leaving them on the table, bring a freezable meal or a cake, take the other child for a walk, let them talk, ask them what you can do and don’t take ‘I’m fine’ for an answer.

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