For 6 months I’ve sat with a feeling I couldn’t place. Most times I would fret my mind was sinking into depression, how could I be incredibly happy, yet have an awful wrench in my stomach. Easy to well up when thinking about my second baby in relation to having my first. Feeling as if the breath has been taken from me replaced with a weight on my chest when I try to remember all the milestones from my first baby – which I cannot. To describe the base feeling I had when I came across a stash of old videos and pictures of my first born, it was one of sadness. Of being empty, longing to have something I couldn’t. That longing is quickly followed by pain, that awful pain that jumps up seemingly out of nowhere and brings hot tears to your eyes. After a while it struck me, I know this feeling. I’ve felt it before. What I’m feeling is grief. Like longing to have one more conversation with someone who has passed, I long to love my first born baby the same way I love my second baby. I am grieving the life and love that was taken from me by my own mental health when I had my daughter 5 years ago.
Having a second baby after having the first mentally stolen due to post-natal depression is bittersweet. More bitter than sweet some days. Although I consider myself to be depression free, for well over a year, it is very much a part of my life. Intertwined in everything I do with my second baby, multifaceted in its complexities, it can be confusing and hard to place. With each ‘ooft, didn’t see that coming‘ seemingly out of nowhere ghost depression punch to the gut, while I’m happy soaking up my baby. The feeling is always the same. Sadness and grief. I cannot reminisce or draw a comparison to my first without feeling that horrid, breath swiping, pull in my stomach. The pull of ‘I didn’t love my baby‘. Every single time.
My little one is developing a keen like for scrunching his chubby little baby face. A face his sister performed often, usually when she fancied a little something from your dinner plate rather than hers. My thought process goes like this: Ben is scrunching his face. Jessica done this. She done it a lot. In that restaurant. She was so funny. She was so happy. So happy despite me being so unhappy. I was so ill. Feigning these good memories. I didn’t love Jess at this age. I was so ill. I couldn’t love her. I was so very ill. My baby was stolen. How could I not love her. I miss my baby.
On repeat. Each day. Regardless of what happy thought or enjoyment I’m having, any situation can be moulded to fit in a gut punch. Grief is there, always.
Not once did I consider the emotional impact of not loving my baby or how this would effect me with a second baby. I certainly didn’t expect to feel grief at such a happy time in my life. During my pregnancy I was too busy trying to avoid slipping into the past, concerned post-natal depression would slice its claws into my back once the baby was born. When pregnant I experienced flashbacks and stress, trauma dragged from my first birth and baby into the ‘enjoyment’ of my second. It was a lot to process, unaware that I even experienced trauma to the degree that my second pregnancy was a constant emotional roller coaster. My mental health was always intact, always going forward, preparing to beat the demon of depression if that beast stepped up again. But I didn’t acknowledge that the illness itself had left deep marks that would be brought up with my second baby. I say marks as opposed to wounds, as I am healed, the wounds aren’t open. More like a stretch mark, the damage has been done, I’ve made my peace with it, but its scar is always there. A constant reminder of what I, and my family, endured. The finest laser surgery in the land could not remove these marks, and I wouldn’t want it that way either. However, I would like to have a nice thought such as ‘Jess done the same face‘ without the inevitable boot to the diaphragm when my mind shouts ‘here, you sure you even remember that?’.
Right from the positive test, I knew this time was different. As much as I could, I protected my mind and body from the past. I told every midwife why I was reluctant to be induced, why I wanted little to no medical intervention, how no one would be telling me ‘I’ll have to cut you‘ when I was taking a little to long pushing my baby out. I told friends and family little to nothing of when and how my baby would be birthed. We didn’t announce his birth for 2 days. We wanted as much space and time as we, as a family of 4, would need. My mental health was always top priority. Both of us know that my particular breed of demon creates false perspectives and narratives, which I then believe and they become ingrained. Several years into my mental health journey and I still cannot shake some aspects of the ‘lies’. My mind still wants me to believe my partner has this secret other life, with his secret other woman, because I am such a chore that he no longer finds me attractive, nor wants to spend his time with me. This is the same man that’s stood by my side through all the mental mudslinging, wild verbal spews, confessions of my snapping and temper. The man who has seen me for all that I am. And is still with me. That man. But my demons want my mind to believe otherwise. Sometimes, I do. Illogical as it is, I still think he’s away to see his side burd when he’s off to buy ME snacks from Tesco. What a mind fuck up eh. As you can see, protecting mum’s mental health was a pretty necessary priority, for the sake of the family.
My second pregnancy was very different to my first. Not only in the way that I brewed an almighty giant of a baby and enough amniotic fluid to fill a small paddling pool, but straight away I was deeply connected to my baby, only weeks into the pregnancy. I was naturally very anxious, given the mental shit show of having my first, yet I felt a huge bond with this baby. As a related or unrelated result, I felt our bond as a family stronger too. I often think I owe this love and grace to my first born, Jess taught me what love is and how to love. Babies are hard to love. They are demanding, confusing, needy, loud, selfish, all consuming little bundles of bodily functions. Babies are hard work, they do make it a little hard to love them. This time I knew how to love a baby, I needed to love myself first. Allow myself to feel what I needed to feel. Be however I needed to be. Babies are hard, but they grow into toddlers, then kids, into Jess. And I love her with all my heart, so I can love this baby, she has shown me how. Jess has shown me that no matter how hard or how dark life can be, people care for you and you can come out the other side and feel love again.
Even that sentiment brings it back, back to the upset and grief. I see my daughter as this strong and awe-inspiring force. She has been with me during the darkest times, felt the wrath of my tongue and the flame of my frustration. Bore the brunt of screams and shouts, leave me alone and give me space faces. She has patted me on the back and gave me comfort after emotional breakdowns, even offering to make me breakfast the next day to cheer me up, at 3 years old. We have both grown together, me more than her in these last 5 years.
Yet, despite all the good, all the growth, all the unconditional love we share, the fact that I love my second baby like I could never love her as a baby, stings my eyes and makes me overcome with emotion. As if she deserves more, even though I don’t hold that thought. It is just so painful to know I missed 18 months of her life, 18 months of the joy I feel now, 18 months of precious time that we will never get back.
Everything that happened with my mental health, the lows, the darkness, the cries, screams, threats to end my relationship, fantasising about leaving, enduring parenthood, apologising to my daughter after my extremely thin temper has snapped (again), the late night talks with my partner that took hours because I couldn’t find my words, everything, all that has happened I am OK with. It happened. It was fucking brutal. But it taught us so much. There’s nothing I would change, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing I miss. Not now that I have a baby who is highlighting exactly just what I missed.
He is 6 months old. It seems to have passed in a flash. With my daughter, I vividly remember wishing weeks away. I would complain to the breastfeeding support worker that she told me at week 8 things would get easier, and here I am with a 12-week-old and I’m climbing the walls. I wanted the weeks to pass so my baby would sleep better, eat better, stop screaming in the evening, I wanted her more independent, I wanted her away from me. With Ben, I still hold the same views on some aspects. I don’t enjoy babies. They are by nature very needing. In truth they confuse and scare me. I only want what is best for them, to be happy and in good health. Every upset I question what could possibly be wrong and how can I fix it?!? So, when they don’t stop crying, my brain can’t compute. I can’t do anymore than I’m doing and please, please stop.
Despite my discomfort at times, I hold my baby as much as I can. I hold his head on my shoulder as we hug before bed. Stroke his face and head while he feeds at night. Force my finger into his tight grip so he holds me. I love that I am his food and his comfort. Painfully, I know how fast this time passes, how I will never get these moments back, ever. I see now, from the most awful vantage point, how beautiful it is to have a baby, to have a family. I am now, that mother I so often seen with my first, the mother I wasn’t convinced was real. Happily playing with her child, eyes gazing with love at each other, smiling happily with being in each others presence. Not all the time, babies are still utter bollocks. When he’s pulling the ‘every 2 hours’ feeds at night or pulling an all dayer, I struggle to see the miracle that is before me. But when I can, when my baby isn’t pushing on my stressors, I lap him up. All of him. For all that he is and all that I missed. Every deep sniff of his golden hair, I sniff because I love him and because my heart aches all at once.
The hardest part of my grief is there is no closure. There is nothing anyone can do or say to make this feel any better. Yes, I’m at peace with the past. No, I never beat myself up for what happened. I feel no guilt, I make no apologies (anymore). I have fought very hard to be ‘well’. Genuinely, I’ve closed the book on that chapter of my life, with the most self-love a human can offer themselves. None of that is related to loving my baby, or lack of loving my baby. It was a consequence of post-natal depression, a cruel gift I wish on no one. Yet my past lingers and reminds me daily of what I missed – and I did miss it. It was there to be had and I couldn’t feel it. I’m not sure why this matters, given that I’m deeply in love with my daughter now. Kinda like one of those teatime quiz shows, when they say ‘here’s what you could have won’ and they crack out a top of the line Volvo and you left with loo roll. You’d be gutted to say the least. But there’s not much you can do with it, you just need to sit with the feeling until it passes. Acknowledge it, but let it go. And in time I’m sure this grief will depreciate. Eventually.