After sixty-two hours ‘in labour’, I’d failed.
I’d failed to deliver my baby girl, and the room was flooding with blue and green-clothed professionals as they prepared me for surgery. A whirlwind of people, monitors, surgery talk; a form signing away my life should anything go wrong. Spinal block in, I was wheeled out of that quiet room I’d been in for so long, under bright lights and sudden noise and down the corridor, through the double doors; emergency c-section.
I don’t remember a lot about the delivery, except for shaking so violently that the anaesthetist firmly held me down on the table so they could do what they needed to. I remember my husband’s ashen, worried face. I remember feeling like someone was washing up in my stomach, and finally, vomiting as they lifted my womb out to inspect it for nicks as I was bleeding so profusely they needed to find the source. I vaguely remember her first cry, but I’m not convinced that is a memory or rather something my husband told me. I remember the anaesthetist telling me it was all over, and them showing me my tiny girl, her face all squidged and I remember feeling completely outside of my body, as if I was floating above the table and I sort of brushed her towards my relieved, elated husband and threw up again.
Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. What have I done?
There was no rush of love. There was no beatific moment, no fireworks in my heart, no elation. There was just nothing, a deep, gaping chasm of nothingness. I desperately wanted to sleep, or curl up in a corner like a frightened animal, licking my many wounds. I hurt all over. My body ached, my head throbbed, and I felt ill. Not poorly. I mean really, life drainingly, ill.
My tiny girl was placed on my chest, and I went into auto-mode. A weird phrase from Mumsnet popped into my head – fake it until you make it. Fake it, Kate. Smile, cuddle, do what you are supposed to do as a ‘Mum’. I drew this tiny girl to my breast and encouraged her to latch, which she did with ease – she knew what she was supposed to do, but I was lost. She connected to me, she needed me and she needed my body. She calmed next to me, and slept in my arms. I had an instinct to not let her go – not a bond, but rather a fear that if I let her go, I wouldn’t want her back. Where there were loving arms available to hold her – my own mum, my husband – I handed her over without question. A moment of relief, a moment of not faking it, a moment to lick wounds before she was back on my chest, feeding furiously again as she worked the colostrum out of my body, nourishing herself, giving herself the best start.
I cried. Everyone thought I was crying with love. I was crying with fear and an overwhelming sense of responsibility. I smiled. Weak smiles, fake smiles. Smiles for the camera, smiles for the midwives, smiles for visitors. I didn’t want to be a problem. I was scared that they might find out that I was a dud.
A few midwives came, checked me over, and a blood transfusion was set up. I needed four pints of new blood, someone else’s blood to make me feel normal again. I was ill. I then had bowel failure and stayed in hospital in pain for a week. After a couple of days, I was moved to a side room and although everyone told me it was a great thing, all I could think about was a scene from ‘The Beach’ where they move the dying friend to a separate tent, so that the rest of them can get on with the party and not feel guilt.
I finally asked to be discharged. I was miserable, and felt if I could just get home, get my baby home, things would be different. After an enormous wait, where I think they forgot about me at one point and left me without pain relief, we finally got out, and arrived home. I felt more comfortable, but not better. Breastfeeding was now hurting so much that I had to bite into a flannel every time she latched and silently scream while sobbing. Everyone around me kept telling me it would get easier. I wanted to talk about the birth all the time, to put the pieces together, to work out why I was feeling the way I was. Everyone just agreed it was a shitfest, and many said ‘the main thing is that she’s okay.’ I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs ‘But what about me?’
I learnt to be a ‘good mummy’; to meet my baby’s needs, almost to the point it was overwhelming because I became fond of her, and she was such a ‘good’ baby and so I didn’t want to fuck her up. She slept well, and although I was still screaming into a flannel every time she latched, and through most feeds, she fed well, even if the milk was tainted with blood from my cracked nipples. I hated myself for hating her feeding from me. I instinctively recoiled when she cried for a feed because I knew that pain was imminent. I changed her outfits five times a day because she looked cute, and it was something to occupy time, and because that’s what mums who love their babies do, isn’t it? I took her out for walks, I took her to baby groups, I talked about breastfeeding and I focused on other people’s parenting – judging some, offering concern to others; it was all deflection.
Because I didn’t love my baby. I didn’t even know what love should feel like. I just knew that I didn’t feel it. I didn’t feel a bond, and if someone had called one day at the door and said they were here to take her to her ‘real’ family I would have handed her over without hesitation. I felt detached, and I felt alien. I felt I was playing a role, pretending like I did when I was little and played ‘Mummies and Babies’. I gave her to other people to hold, I pretended that I missed her. I just pretended, for a long time.
When she was about eight months old, I remember sitting with her in a cafe on my own, waiting for my husband to join us. She was asleep in her pram and I leaned to check on her before I ordered a coffee and warmed her bottle. She looked so beautiful, her rosebud lips gently pursed together and her enormous eyelashes daintily fluttering in her sleep, when she suddenly woke, and sleepily smiled at me. And out of nowhere, a gush, a tidal wave of love, of a bond, of a sense of absolute purpose and fierce protection swept over me. It knocked me for six, and I leant back, stunned, hot tears pricking in my eyes and slowing falling down my face. I was her mother. That beautiful baby was mine, and not just that; a part of me that I couldn’t even begin to imagine life without.
It wasn’t just over like that – I didn’t realise at the time, but I had been experiencing post-natal depression for those months and the detachment was part of that. But it was the start of my motherhood journey – the start of the real, connected, instinctive mother that I have become. She’s now five, and I feel so fiercely for this little, bright, beautiful and funny girl. There aren’t words in the English language that adequately express that emotion, that bond, that instinct. It’s something you just know, it’s a part of your heart, of your body, it’s deep in your core; that profound, maternal love.
The guilt, for these initial eight months though, for not loving my girl enough, will last a lifetime. Every day, I make sure she knows how loved she is, how cherished, how wanted – nay, needed – and adored she is. With every fibre of my being, she is loved.
About Kate Dyson
Founder of The Motherload®. Wife, mum to two girls, two cats and shit loads of washing in baskets that sit around the house waiting to be ironed. It never happens. Hater of exercise, denier of weight gain, lover of wine. Feminist. You can follow me on Twitter