During the first few months of motherhood I was far too obsessed with my own circumstances to take much notice of anything outside of my own four walls, but eventually the outside world started to penetrate my baby-fogged consciousness. And for a while there I was completely surrounded by other mothers having new, perfect babies. Or having their second new, perfect baby. Everyone was doing it. And for a very long time it was hard to be happy for them.
To the outside world you would never have thought that there was any difficulty at all. Outwardly, I rejoiced with them, smiled with them, commiserated with them over morning sickness and the loss of the figure, but inside I was raging. I couldn’t contain the tide of ‘it’s-not-fair-ness’ that would wash over me whenever I heard that someone else was having a baby.
It wasn’t as if I was in any way dissatisfied with my own baby. He was feeding well, sleeping (reasonably) well, his hair was sticking up in a most satisfactory fashion. But despite the fact that he was my firstborn and I had nothing else to compare him to, I was never able to forget, to put out of my mind, that there was something wrong; something out of kilter.
For a start, Down’s Syndrome aside, right from the very beginning I was always worried about his health. I know that this is nothing so remarkable for any new parent but it was cold when he was born, snow and frost covered the ground, and he seemed to have a great deal of trouble regulating his body temperature. Then there was the fact that he didn’t seem able to breathe very well, and made this funny little ‘duck’ noise whenever he fell asleep. It was five months into parenthood that we discovered what that was all about: sleep apnoeia. And even longer before we knew quite how bad it was.
And then there was the fact that he was so tiny. Everyone else’s babies seemed to grow at a rate that left my baby looking like a miniature model. He didn’t have roly poly thighs. He didn’t have little screw on hands. People used to stop me in the street to coo over him, and then, when they asked me how old he was and I told them, they would look confused, and sad for me, and the difference, that they hadn’t noticed at first, was suddenly there; a massive fact that seemed to define him, and me.
It was hard not to feel that somehow, I had failed. It wasn’t as if my body hadn’t failed me before, after all I had been seriously ill as a child, and, without surgery, I would have died. And it wasn’t as if picking up the pieces and starting again was a new concept to my family; my husband became diabetic when he was just twenty-one, right in the middle of pilot training, but still. This was unexpected. Out of the ordinary.
I never told any of my pregnant friends how I felt. To them I gave my heartfelt congratulations and laughed and smiled and commiserated with them. We talked about sleepless nights, the contents of nappies (endlessly fascinating), feeding; we laughed about the total lack of dignity in the process of giving birth to a new person, we shared our common ground.
I found that the deep sense of anger and injustice that I had felt when I was in the maternity ward, when every five minutes (or so it seemed) there was someone else to come and tell me what was wrong and how the future was going to be, bore me up and helped me reclaim my equilibrium. Every time I was presented with the news of a new pregnancy or a new baby I was reminded to hold on to every ounce of joy I could possibly wring from my own. Every time I held someone else’s new baby I knew that here was just as much an individual as my son.
And then a sort of miracle occurred. Well, actually two miracles. Or maybe three. I found that the more I repeated how much I loved my son, and how I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread, and how wonderfully he was doing and what a gorgeous little person he was turning out to be, the more I felt it. The more true it became.
And I had another baby. After a pregnancy where I could hardly bear to think about the future I gave birth to a boy who forced his way into the world and refused to give me time to dwell. His birth was everything that Sam’s was not – it was calm, where Sam’s was frightening, it was quick where Sam’s was long, he was strong where Sam was weak, insatiable where Sam was contented. I look back on A’s birth as an incredibly healing experience. I knew what to expect this time. I wasn’t launching myself into the unknown. The arrival of new babies lost its power to hurt me. I was able to feel genuine joy at the news, not the sort I had faked for so long.
But the most amazing thing of all was the friends I made. Through gritting my teeth, through forcing the fear of pity away with both hands, through smiling through the tears I discovered something incredible. I found that I wasn’t the only person to have had a hard time. I wasn’t the only one who lived in challenging circumstances. I was not, and I am not, alone.