When Lizzie and I had a baby, my mental health shot through the roof. From the moment my daughter and I met, holding her next to my thundering heart with my nose pressed to her scalp, smelling her incredible smell, I felt for the first time less than ethereal. Dora was here, and now I had a reason to live.
I wasn’t expecting this to happen. I thought I’d be like my mother and find children a terrible burden on top of the depression already present, and end up having crying competitions with my baby. But this didn’t happen. And it wasn’t just because of my sudden shift in the world, or my elevation to motherhood. It wasn’t just because Dora was indescribably magnificent and brilliant and my pal. It was because I changed my behaviour to make to her world wonderful.
When you have a small person your job is to cuddle them all the time and keep them comfortable. When they want to sleep, you get them there with songs and walks up and down, up and down. When they want to eat, you cuddle them up to your breast. When they’re awake your job is to stimulate them so they’re never upset through boredom or loneliness. When you don’t know what they want and you’re tired and your ears are hurting because of the screaming – this is the important part – your job is to never lose your cool, keep your heart thumping at a calm rate, and use logic, intuition, empathy and intelligence to work out where you might be falling down so you can solve the problem. It might be that there is no problem and the baby just wants to cry. That’s all right; crying can feel good from time to time. Your job in this case to make sure your baby has a safe, positive space all the time, even when you want to throw her out of the window. All your energy is focused on creating this world for her, this safe happy place where she’s beloved.
One day it came to me that I hadn’t been depressed in a while and this was because I had no time to be a complete arsehole to myself. I was so busy with Dora I hadn’t had any other thought in my head than to make a happy place for her. So I didn’t have the usual self destructive thought processes going on. I had accidentally made my world ordered and thoughtful and logical and happy, too.
I treated this thought with a certain amount of caution. Surely you can’t be too busy to be depressed? I’d never heard another parent say a new baby had a positive impact on their mental health before; quite the opposite. Maybe this was because we’re a quite moany society? Maybe it’s socially acceptable to whinge about how hard it is to be a new parent, and not so much to talk about the amazing side? Honestly I don’t know. I had first hand experience of post natal depression from my mother, and NHS warnings about it happening to Lizzie. I was braced for a mental shit-storm. So what was happening?
1: Oxytocin. The chemical released when you cuddle your baby all day is so brilliant and creates such woozy well-being that if they could bottle this stuff and drop it in strategic locations around the world, armies would be hugging and dictators would revise their wicked ways. I would call it the Cuddle Bomb and send free samples in envelopes to world leaders. Oxytocin is my crack.
2: Treating my child with respect meant I had to treat myself with respect first. Turns out it’s a bit of a game changer.
3: Physical gestures can change your state of mind. Even if you don’t feel like laughing, laughing will happen when you’re playing with your baby, and even if it’s a bit forced as the game goes on it will become genuine. One of the best tips I ever got was from a clown who said if you feel like crap before you perform, say ‘Yippee!’ It will make you grin, and you’ll feel better. It’s the same with making a happy baby world. Playing is hard work but it affects your emotional landscape in all kinds of good ways.
4: Love. Profound, important love.
5: Physical health: To survive the early days, eating well and having good chats with your partner and going for the occasional walk and generally taking care of yourself helps everything else to fall into place. We sometimes put Dora to bed and drank a bottle of wine, true, but this is always accompanied by a good game of scrabble which is the same, right?
6: My brain was completely rewired to be a parent and suddenly I had hearing like a bat and thought her poo smelled marvellous. Who knows what other knock-on effects my brain’s chemistry went through?
This doesn’t mean to say I don’t sometimes get sick. Sometimes I have terrible crushed days. But my approach to myself is as kind as it is to Dora most of the time, and this has changed everything for me.
Some things that haven’t changed:
1: My brother killed himself about six months before Dora was born. I miss Tristan a lot and I’m grieving for his death and it hits me when I’m not looking and it’s awful.
2: I’m still ashamed of my depression.
Grief comes to sit with you sometimes, and that’s just all there is to it, really. You can’t take a day off for it, or spend deathaversaries feeling sad or trying to create a synthetic grieving day. You just have to spend time with your loved ones and do your best by the people who are near you. I spent Tristan’s birthday in December shopping with friends, for instance, and that was lovely so I felt like he was with me and we could chat about what a lovely day we’d had afterwards. So that’s where I am with that. Sometimes Dora sees me crying, but that’s all right. She knows it feels good to cry from time to time.
Being ashamed of depression is whack. I don’t quite know how to shake this one off, but I’m working on it.
I remember standing in the sunshine in the garden one day when Dora was very tiny and realising that she was healing me in all kinds of small ways. I think above all the reason I’m better is because she loves me. She loved me from the moment we held each other while Lizzie was being stitched up in the operating theatre. It was her and me.
Depression will always be with me and I’ll have sick days, but I think things are all right in a way that things were not alright before. I am not a miserable and shy ghost who can’t touch the world anymore. I don’t question my right to be here or have a lurking lazy backstroking swimmer in my brain telling me to just roll over and drown. I have never experienced this kind of confidence in my own existence before because Dora’s here, and she loves me.
As Tristan used to say, quoting Julian of Norwich, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.