After admitting defeat in my efforts to diet, I hoped I’d reach some state of zen acceptance of my new, postpartum body. It didn’t come, and didn’t come. So a few weeks into motherhood I tried to jumpstart it: I put all my clothes on eBay.
Back before our first child arrived, as part of a classic DINKY (“double income, no kids yet”) couple, I had disposable income and didn’t think twice about it. I had some lovely clothes: Hobbs shift dresses for work, Levi’s that went with cute tops, nicely-cut suits. And once the baby was born, every time I saw them in my wardrobe I felt a stabbing in my muffin-topped midriff. Listing them all for sale, I felt like they belonged to someone else, and didn’t know whether it was someone I envied or hated. The money I made from selling them I spent on things my new life seemed to demand: long pyjamas, to keep me warm while I traipsed about during night wakings. Cheap and ugly tops with wide necklines, compatible with breastfeeding and okay to ruin and quickly bin. A hideous bright pink fleece I could fit over both the baby in the carrier and me. In a week or so I had transformed my young professional wardrobe into scissor-bait for Gok Wan. It was a relief: the imaginary pressure to get back into the shape my old clothes required was gone. It was a shame: with this act, I blew up the bridge back to an old self I had enjoyed being. It was a mistake: constant eating be damned, the demands of breastfeeding and caring for a new baby actually brought me back below my pre-pregnancy weight within months. And it was a proxy. I hated on my body because I was terrified of my new life.
Here’s another proxy. Early in the morning of The Bird’s seventh day, I stepped out of the back door of our building to take out the rubbish at just the same moment that a neighbour stepped out of the building next door. I didn’t know him at all. He was my age or a few years older, dressed in a nice suit with no tie, glowing with preppy hair and clear skin. He had his hands in his pockets and a smart laptop bag slung over his shoulder, and his back was straight and his head was high. He stepped through the front door of his building, walked down the path and out onto the road, and as he turned the corner he started whistling. He didn’t see me. And I hated him.
I stood and stared as he disappeared up the street, and I hated him. I hated his free hands. I hated his showered head. I hated his smartness, and his casualness, and his whistling. I hated his job and the coffee he was going to buy on the way to it. I hated the friends he’d see and the drinks he’d have with them after work. And I dropped the bin bag full of stinking nappies into the outdoor bins, and turned back to my own building’s door, and the wave of my hatred for that place hit me like a tide. Inside that building was the mess of a flat we suddenly found we hadn’t the time to keep up. Inside was my daughter crying inconsolably. Inside was the huge stack of cushioned maternity pads, and the pot of salt and jug of water I had to keep in the bathroom to manage the agonising sting that came with using the toilet. Inside was sleeplessness, and vomiting, and so many nappy changes that my hands were cracked from the associated handwashing, and all those clothes that didn’t fit. Mostly, inside was the enormity of what I had done. This was it. I’d never be like that man next door again, unencumbered and self-possessed. I’d stepped off a precipice into a new life that was all drudgery, and intensity, and life-and-death stakes. I couldn’t quit. I hated it, and I couldn’t escape it. And then that tide of hatred dragged back and sucked me under. Inside that building were the people I loved and everything I had ever wanted. What kind of person could hate that?
This was the worst feeling I had ever had in my life. But I don’t believe it was depression, for which the health service watches very vigilantly in new mothers. It was shock. This was the feeling that made me want to turn to all the mothers I’d ever known and demand “Why didn’t you tell me?” But the truth is, they had. I knew there would be sleeplessness. I knew I would spend all my time changing nappies, and that birth would hurt. But knowing those things at a cognitive level did nothing to prepare me for the actual experience. And that’s partly because it’s considered unsporting to go into too much detail. There’s a clear taboo against frightening mums to be.
That is simple kindness, and it makes sense. And it makes me reflect, too, on my motives in writing this blog. One first-time-pregnant friend recently told me she was alarmed by all the negativity and scaremongering about parenthood: ‘Why does anyone do it if it’s so rubbish?’ There’s a stock response to this, which is: ‘Ah, but they’re worth it of course. I wouldn’t change them for the world.’ The truth is that in those early days I would have changed it. I couldn’t see how it was worth it, not while my baby screamed desperately and I seemed completely inadequate to the job of mothering her. But the crucial ingredient in fixing that feeling, the reason I’ve not had that same gut-scouring disorientation and self-loathing the second time around, is something simple and free: perspective. That’s what I’m hoping to convey a little in writing this, that’s what I hope I can give to anyone reading who’s about to step off that same precipice that caught me out. Yes, this again is a truism — ah, this phase passes so fast — and again, hearing it is no consolation at all, but having the living incarnation of it jumping on your feet and splashing you with bathwater every night does bring it home. My toddler proves, in her every word and wiggle and grin and tantrum, that change does come, incredibly fast. I look at my newborn’s scrunched-up face and imagine it resolving into the round cheeks and turned-up nose of an excited six-month-old, an adventurous, one-year-old, a two-year-old with plans and tastes and friends, and who knows what’s next to come. And because of my toddler, I believe that these early postpartum days of disorientation and discomfort are just now, not my life forever. a month after birth, there’ll be fewer nappies to change. Six weeks after, you’ll be seeing smiles as well as hearing those nerve-shredding cries. At four months they’ll be impossibly cute, with eyes making up a third of their faces. Slowly, sleep will come. Your body will recover. Your schedule will settle down. New challenges come, but they feel like boss-fights now, not eternal damnation.
When I hated my next door neighbour, I thought I’d never be him again. And in some ways, I never will: I’ll now always be defined, and define myself, by my relationship to someone else. Several someone elses. I’m not the atomised unit of self-determination that I spent my twenties being, and that I took for granted. I am no longer my own top priority and I suppose I never will be again. I hope I never am. But in many other ways I was back to being him sooner than I could have anticipated. I’ve been out alone. I’ve walked down the street in the sunshine with nothing and no one in my arms.
Though I’ve never whistled.