Welcome back to another installment of New Mum Stories. This week’s story is from a lovely lady called Helen. Helen contacted me asking if she could write a piece for my blog sharing her story with you all. Her new mum story is rather different from most due to her daughter having additional needs from complications as a newborn.
Over to you Helen
I have to lay my cards on the table from the outset: I’m a pessimist. I always have been. A glass half empty kind of girl. However, when I was approaching motherhood I was torn between my natural instinct to expect the negative and the regular daydreams of cradling and singing to a fuzzy headed newborn, walking hand in hand with a cherub faced toddler with ice cream running down their chubby fingers or hearing about the exploits of the school day with a little one talking at 100mph.
What if it’s not?
Following the social convention expected of any pregnant woman whenever I was asked ‘Girl or boy?’, I duly replied ‘I don’t mind as long as it’s healthy’. But I was always holding back my follow up question of ‘What if it’s not? What if something goes wrong?’. This was the question that was hiding away in my pessimistic brain and kept elbowing its way into my daydreams. It was therefore a pleasant surprise (yes, I was naturally expecting the worst from the experience) when my husband (also a pessimist) and I found ourselves in a circle of other expectant couples at a local antenatal class and the midwife posed the question ‘What are you worried about?’ This was going to be the opportunity I had been waiting for, I could ask my question and then continue my daydream of skipping through woodland with a little girl with pigtails bobbing up and down.
The midwife cheerfully covered all of the posed worries about pain relief in labour, problems with breast feeding, home births and the reaction of the existing household pets (what??). However, my question seemed slightly glossed over. To be fair to the midwife, who had quite likely spent most of the previous 472 Saturday mornings answering the same questions, she didn’t completely ignore me. She reassured me serious problems were unusual, that I would be in expert hands, that the paediatricians were always available and would arrive complete with superhero masks and capes to save the day, there was a mention of both elective and emergency caesareans in the birthing methods half hour and a quick whip around the baby resuscitation equipment in the labour room. For my fellow circle members this was more than adequate because why would somebody raise the possibility of something going wrong? Nobody wants a doom and gloom session on the perils of childbirth and the neonatal period on a Saturday morning. So, my question was answered with a reassuring smile with the take home message being: everything would be ok, problems were rare, hospitals are amazing and even if there are problems they would get better.
Fast forward to week 35 and 4 days and my fuzzy headed newborn arrived via the emergency sun roof. I had just short of two days with her in our little corner of the postnatal ward when I tried to give her the few drops of milk I could muster and tell her she could choose any glittery bobbles she wanted for her pigtails on our woodland adventures. But things weren’t right, she was really quiet, not feeding and breathing funny. The ever present paediatrician did come when they were summoned and ‘just in case’ took her to the ever beeping world of SCBU. The night doctor must have taken off her sparkly cape before coming to wake me up in the middle of the night, or maybe I just don’t remember it because she was talking about seizures and breathing tubes. Actually, now I come to think about it none of the hospital staff had superhero get ups on*. Not the one who told us our daughter had sepsis. Not the one who told us she also had meningitis. Not the one who told us her kidneys were failing. Not the group of 4 (who could have easily donned their Fantastic Four outfits) to bundle her into a travel pod and take her to an even beepier Paediatric Intensive Care Unit miles from home. Definitely not the one who told us the meningitis had left her profoundly deaf with global developmental delay.
*I am pretty sure a few of the amazing people we’ve met along the way do a Clark Kent/Superman routine and if you look closely enough you’d see some brightly coloured skin tight number lurking beneath the pinstripe cotton.
And this is where my ongoing problem lies. The struggle between natural pessimism and the ‘expected optimism of parenthood’. Obviously every parent has concerns that something will go wrong at some point in their child’s life; this is why the baby safety industry is worth millions of pounds. However, the accepted social response to somebody voicing these worries is a version of ‘don’t be so silly, that will never happen’, or ‘don’t think like that, you MUST stay positive’ i.e. the expected optimism of parenthood. We are too scared to face the fact that sometimes bad things happen to babies and children and, worse still, sometimes they can’t be fixed.
In the early days when people learned of the prematurity/stay in special care/ongoing problems a common reaction was to say that ‘so and so’s daughter/son was early/much earlier than you and now they are in Oxford studying rocket science/single handedly carrying people up Everest, so no need to worry’. Not once did somebody acknowledge that maybe her problems could not be solved. That no matter how much time and effort we devoted to her care, various therapies and hospital appointments some things couldn’t be ‘fixed’. I don’t want to sound ungrateful at this point for the support and encouragement people were offering and I’m sure they were trying to help, but from our side, as each milestone was passing us by, despite hours of devoted time, the amount of energy needed to keep up this optimism was overwhelming. You maintain a constant mask like smile of determination, because you can’t say that some things are not getting better. But at some point I realised that it was ok to admit that she would never do some things and I was not being pessimistic for feeling this way, but actually realistic . We continue to push her and remain optimistic about some aspects of her development, but there are some things we can’t make ‘better’, they are unfixable. We are also entitled to worry about those uncertain things in the dreaded ‘grey area’ that nobody knows if they will improve or not.
A couple of years on and we’ve nailed some milestones (woohoo!), but others still very much allude us. I’m not ok with it, I have days when I feel like I can’t take any more, can’t continue putting so much hard work in for tiny gains; but you do, you carry on and your optimistic dreams just change. Instead of singing to my newborn we had tickles and raspberries. With splints, special shoes and an extra pair of hands we can just about slowly stroll through a wood. We can’t eat ice cream at the same time but we can sit down at the end of it and share some as a reward. The optimism/realism jury is still out on the having a conversation dream.
I often want to ask the ‘What if it’s not?’ question, not to scare the expectant or new Mum, but just to start challenging the reaction that everything with pregnancy, childbirth and parenting is a skip through a woodland. We all know it’s not; it’s hard and there are tough times for all parents. Let’s do ourselves a favour and shake off the expected optimism of parenthood cloak, so that when someone has a worry about their child, big or small, they feel able to talk about it and get realistic support in return, even if that means just listening and not trying to ‘fix’ it.
Thank you Helen for sharing with us your New Mum Story. We wish you and your daughter lots of luck.
If you are interested in joining the New Mum Stories series or any have any questions about featuring your story you can contact me at: firstname.lastname@example.org
I would love to share your New Mum Stories.