Saturday 23 November 2019

When I was pregnant, I planned to be the perfect mother

Oonagh Montague on the conspiracy of parental perfection

OOnagh with her children Eve and Theo. Photo: Mark Condren
OOnagh with her children Eve and Theo. Photo: Mark Condren

I'd read the books, I'd Googled all round me and, armed with my library of helpful hints, I was going to rock this whole mother thing.

The kid was going to be showered with love, homemade dinners and lashings of praise. There'd be no soothers, no sugar and no jars of baby food. I'd provide boundaries, instil confidence and encourage freedom. I'd be understanding, wise and patient and I'd never, ever shout. And I'd do all this with a loving smile, nice hair and a touch of lipstick.

It's true, I had seen my friends looking the worse for wear after their kids were born. I didn't think any less of them for that, but this was different. This was me. I was going to excel. I was going to arrive at my first day on the job and be MD by lunch. There was no possible alternative to perfection -- until the reality hit.

Motherhood is hard. Really, really hard. I was definitely head over heels in love with this splodgy little thing, but the brave new world of parenting was a bloody bear pit. Out of necessity, within two weeks I had ditched my plan for perfection, stuck in a soother and aimed instead to look as if it was all jolly good fun.

I had a new role to play -- that of the happy lady enjoying every part of motherhood. I had swiftly learned that, even if you're panicking on the inside, the urge to come across as if it's all in hand is very strong.

I was so busy enjoying every part that I didn't notice the slow approach of postnatal depression; the gradual closing in of the edges of my world. I was wrapped up in love and steadfastly ignoring the exhaustion and the boredom. Because that was another motherhood eye-opener -- the daily drudgery. The fact that although your kid may look dead cute with a fruit pot on his head, it's you who'll be mopping up that lot.

The revelation that while daily splooshes in muddy puddles are extremely necessary, they also mean yet another load of washing. Cooking, playing, cleaning, playing, wiping and playing -- it's never-ending and it's boring.

I had made the shameful discovery that sometimes I just didn't fancy getting down on the floor to vroom a car around the skirting boards. I was tired, very tired. And I was bored. Did this mean I was a bad mother?

Not that I ever said that out loud. No way. Not when I wanted to be like them: the women who seemed to be finding it all a breeze. I'd see them in Brown Thomas, baby in tow, three days post-partum with full make-up. The sporty ones would whizz past me in the park pushing achingly cool buggies.

Online they'd regale me with updates of homemade cupcakes, outings and today's meal plans. It was like being back in school watching the cool girls strut their stuff. These women left me agog. How on earth did they do it? Were they not exhausted?

There was no way their handbags were encrusted with old raisins and used baby wipes. I just knew they'd never been defeated by a non-folding buggy. Was it that they had undergone some extra training when my back was turned? Was there a bright 'n' breezy mother gene I'd missed out on?

Television, my new daytime companion, wasn't much help either. It kept sneakily implying that if I wasn't finding motherhood a doddle, then I was doing it wrong. It peddled the image of a svelte and perfect mother -- one who could whip out a bib, briefcase and a freshly baked loaf of bread and still not drop the baby.

'Supernanny', 'Nanny 911' and, come to think of it, my entire selection of parenting books were all caught up in a conspiratorial standardisation of motherhood. The concept that there must be a right way; that if it doesn't look easy, then it's the wrong way.

My experience didn't fit in with this. I finally threw the books out one murky dawn after yet another failed night of 'Mrs-Whotsit's-Guide-to-Baby-Sleeping-Through-And-Generally-Being-Splendid'. Turns out it bore no relation to us. Nowhere was there an allowance being made for my child or me being individuals. And nowhere was anyone voicing what I had realised -- that you can love the child, but you don't always love the child rearing.

Luckily, one of the saving graces of motherhood is the support of other mothers. Contrary to the media implication that women don't want each other to succeed, in the real world, most women don't put pressure on each other to make it look easy.

Together with my girlfriends, I was able to override the internal and external messages telling me to aim for parental perfection. Instead, we told it like it was. We huddled together and bemoaned our old figures, our old lives. We swapped stories of impressive vomiting and atomic craps.

We discussed every cliché you've ever heard about parenting and laughed like drains. We outdid each other with metaphors for exhaustion and bolstered each other through it all.

The support of maternal colleagues transformed what I found an essentially lonely experience into a shared opportunity for humanity and humour. True, these exchanges were increasingly carried out over the phone -- given that I live so far from everyone these days -- but it still meant I was not alone. I was in the company of mothers. However, this solidarity in the trenches turned out to have its pitfalls.

I got caught up in a shared view. If my fellow mothers were as tired as I was, then I was normal. My bone-numbing, mind-clouding exhaustion was par for the course. It was okay to yearn for the kids to be in bed, to live for the moment when I could shut down. It was okay to crave my own company and it was okay that my first thought upon waking was how soon would I get back to bed.

Maybe it was even okay to feel a little dead inside. With other equally harried mothers spilling their woes to me, I decided it was perfectly acceptable to feel like this.

Who knows where normal parental exhaustion ends and depression begins? Yes, I was a bit tired and a bit sad, but weren't we all?

The diagnosis of postnatal depression finally came from that most reliable of sources -- my mother. To be fair, a close friend had broached the subject a while before, but I had shot her down in flames. I had been affronted by her suggestion. What was she saying -- that I wasn't coping? That I was a bad mother? She was wrong. All I needed was one good night's sleep and I'd be right back on track.

But she was right. When my mother suggested that I had postnatal depression, I was finally ready to listen. One sunny afternoon a full year-and-a-half after my second child was born, my mother spotted what was going on because, as it turns out, she had been through the same thing herself.

Four years after I was born, she was diagnosed with postnatal depression. Some 30-odd years before, living beside a lighthouse in the thick of nowhere, my mother had also been so busy putting a brave face on things that she had forgotten what was normal. She had got so caught up in reprimanding herself for feeling low that she had silenced herself. The woman I had spent a lifetime disagreeing with turned out to be just like me.

So I dragged myself to the doctor. I hummed and hawed a bit, then confessed I was feeling a bit sad, a bit lonely and a bit silly. He immediately prescribed anti-depressants -- straight in, no kissing. "Take one of these a day." There was no follow-up appointment, no reference to a psychiatrist, no advice about side effects. Just here you go and off with you.

When I ventured the opinion that perhaps I ought to speak to a therapist, he fixed me with a no-nonsense glare and said, "I've been around a long time. I've met many mothers". Which was reassuring. Sort of. In a rubbishy, making-no-sense kind of way. Twenty-four hours later saw me driving the kids to playschool stoned out of my tiny mind.

Why does no one tell you about the side effects of the average anti-depressant? They really, really should. Sure, I read the small print, but at this stage in life, I'm used to bog-standard aspirin coming with a rake of side effects you're better off ignoring.

Anyhow, nowhere did it say: "You will feel far worse than you did yesterday. You will feel like a junkie. You will experience blurry vision and wonder how on earth you're supposed to make lunch. You will feel vulnerable and alone, you will get weird lightning flashes at the sides of your vision and, most of all, you will feel like a big, fat, enormous failure."

Shame is the biggest side-effect of postnatal depression; the feeling that I had hit the skids in the motherhood game. I should have been better. I should have been stronger. It was all right for other women to get postnatal depression, but not me -- I'm Superwoman. I was the woman who had been through more roadblocks than Roadrunner. How could I be felled by plain old PND? What a cliché. What a wuss.

Gwyneth Paltrow, also a member of the postnatal depression club, recently said: "I thought postpartum depression meant you were sobbing every single day and incapable of looking after a child. But there are different shades of it and depths of it, which is why I think it's so important for women to talk about. I felt like a failure."

That's the nefarious fact of postnatal depression and depression in general. It comes in all shapes and guises. It is as unique as the person experiencing it, which is what makes it so hard to spot. It sneakily takes those insecurities we all harbour and drags them up to front of house. It makes someone like me dissolve into inconsolable tears because somebody said my kid's socks never matched.

Depression put out my spark and left me just coping, just living. Throughout it all, the joy and love I felt for my children never waned. I just didn't have the energy for them. I just kind of wished I could turn the sound down a bit.

Then one winter morning, I woke feeling good. Which came as quite a shock. Not only did I feel good, I felt more than equal to the day. In fact, come to think of it, I'd been feeling rather good for some time.

Had my problems gone away? Nope. Was I getting more sleep? Nope. I just didn't have postnatal depression any more. The pills and the therapy had put me right.

Not that I'd say that out loud. It's simply not the done thing to say you're taking anti-depressants. Because it means you're weak. No one told me that. I just knew it. I knew that if I were to mention taking happy pills in public, it would be like a wearing a T-shirt that said 'Quitter'.

Taking anti-depressants means you're a bit odd. I know this because it's what I used to think. If someone had said to me, "I'm on anti-ds", my first thought would have been, "step away from the mad."

My mouth would be saying all the right things, but my head would be spewing out helpful thoughts like, "There's no point in talking to her -- sure, she's only half there".

So, just in case you are left in any confusion, let me just say this; I'm all there. In fact, on behalf of the thousands and thousands of us who at some point have taken anti-ds or gone to therapy, but are keeping schtum about it, we're not weird. Well, no more than anyone else. And we're not perfect, because no one is.

So what have I discovered?

That somewhere between 10 and 25pc of women suffer from postnatal depression. That you can have it while pregnant (perinatal depression). That you can have it long after your baby is walking and talking.

I know that a significant number of women have it and don't even know that they do. Some of them are friends of mine. And I now know that if you want to, you can kick postnatal depression right out of the park.

And that's not all. Here's what else I've discovered: that parental perfection doesn't exist; that happiness is more complicated than it looks, and that even if the kids are wearing odd socks, as long as they are loved and happy you're doing a great job.

Surface perfection doesn't matter; genuine happiness is a much deeper and messier thing, and while banana on your sleeve may be incompatible with perfection, it just may be essential to happiness.

I recently went away to New York for a week. I got asked a lot, "do you miss the children? Is a week away not too long?"

No, it wasn't. It was a week to experience being myself again. A week of being neither mother nor wife, neither daughter, cleaner nor organiser. A week of waking naturally and not because some outraged imp was roaring my name from a nearby cot.

A week of eating meals while they were still warm and spending all my time on just me. It was perfect.

But the welcome home alone was worth the whole trip. As my two barrelled towards me, I knew I had everything to give.

Nearly a year after realising that I had postnatal depression and a full five years after becoming a mother, I made the biggest discovery of all. That it's okay to feel good.

In fact, it totally rocks.

Weekend Magazine

Editors Choice

Also in Life