18th September 2020: The Black Dog

18th September 2020: The Black Dog

Dear Edith,

It’s been a while since I’ve written something. I wanted to write regularly and document every tiny moment of your early life, every little adventure we went on so you could look back and have a little storybook of your first few months.

Unfortunately, the black dog has reared its head.

If I could spare you one thing as you get older, it’s this. I’ve struggled with my mental health before but usually I can stave it off by identifying it and recognising that how I feel isn’t real. This time it seems harder. The pandemic is raging on, and Scotland has just introduced some new restrictions that say you can’t meet more than six people from two households. I can still see your Granny and Granda, but the little group of mums and babies that met twice a week is a no-go. It was my anchor, the one moment of normality that made me forget that absolutely nothing is normal.

It’s hard. I’m struggling. I’m trying to motivate myself, but it’s difficult when every day there’s signs that the virus is creeping back again. The schools and nurseries have reopened and every day it seems like there’s a different primary school or nursery that’s had to close to kids because they’ve had an outbreak.

I’m sorry there’s such a gap in your story. There’s so much I could have written about. The way you’ve discovered your tongue and you used it to make a whole load of new noises. The way you’ve discovered how to alter the pitch of your voice so you can make increasingly high-pitched sounds. The way you can nearly roll over, if you could only figure out what to do with the arm that gets in your way. Your new game is shouting “ah!” and looking absolutely thrilled when I do it back. You had your first tummy bug – not serious, fortunately, but it did lead to me having to wipe sick my jeans with a soapy cloth in the toilets of a service station in Lancaster. I optimistically booked a spot at Santa’s Grotto in December, because I was devastated that, on top of everything else we’ve missed out on, I might not get to take you to see Santa for your first Christmas.

We’ll get through this, because we have to. I’m grateful for WhatsApp groups and social media for helping us maintain connections – it’s the only thing that’s stopping me from having a complete breakdown as the prospect of another lockdown starts to become a real possibility.

And we have you. You make everything better.

15th July 2020: The Loneliness and the Scream

15th July 2020: The Loneliness and the Scream

Dear Edith,

Last week we achieved something that under normal circumstances would have happened weeks ago: our first trip out.

Okay, so technically we’ve been out to get your jags, and we went to the hospital to get your hip scan done when you were only a few weeks old. We’ve been to Granny’s house and for a walk round the park, but this was the first time we’d gone out somewhere for more than an hour.

More importantly, it was the first time I’d taken you anywhere on my own.

A classic Armstrong family outing memento.

We went to a little village not far away to meet up with some other mums. I’d knew one of them a little from WhatsApp, but for all intents and purposes I was heading out to see people I’d never met or really spoken to before.

It was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done since I had you.

No matter what anyone – including your dad – thinks, I am not an extrovert. I’m really good at talking to people I don’t know at Magic: the Gathering events, but I usually find myself in a group with people I do know well when that’s happening, and it’s much easier to talk to new people when you have some friends to bounce off. I am not at all good at meeting people for the first time when I’m on my own.

Going out and meeting new people would have stressed me out on its own. Taking a little baby out on my own for the first time on top of that had me a nervous wreck.

As usual when I get freaked out about something, it was completely fine. You were absolutely perfect. You had a wee bit of a cry when we were sitting on the grass, but I expected that – you’ve never been a baby who sits and looks around, you need to be entertained in some way. You fell asleep looking out of the pram when we walked to the coffee shop, which was a little hole in the wall because of COVID-19.

It was needed. Not so much by you, because you’re still too little to understand, but by me.

One of our earliest (solo) adventures.

I have two lockdown modes. I either blitz through tons of stuff in a day until I’m knackered, and the sense of achievement fuels me and I don’t stop and think about what’s going on in the world and what’s going to happen in the future and I go to bed full of positivity and accomplishment.

If you’re unsettled or I’m tired and we achieve absolutely nothing other than getting through the day, that’s when the dread kicks in. It’s not so bad now that you’re a little bigger and you can interact with us a bit (we can make you smile now! It’s so much fun) but it’s really, really monotonous having a baby in lockdown. The other day I was getting ready for bed after an Off Day and suddenly time just gaped out in front of me. I don’t know how long it’s going to be before things get even close to being back to normal. I don’t even know what “normal” is going to look like.

I can see why baby groups are a thing. I love you more than I ever thought I could possibly love another human being, but lockdown has reduced our life to a carousel of making bottles and changing nappies and rotating you between my knee and the Mamaroo chair and the play-gym on the floor to keep you entertained. When I do get out of the house now it’s mostly to Granny and Granda’s, and we start again – just in slightly different surroundings.

There have been times when I’ve been so exhausted by human interaction that I’ve cried at the end of the day, but I didn’t realise until now that not having any was just as bad. Talking to other mums made me feel human again, and for the first time I felt like I could breathe again. The other day we had a spontaneous visit from some friends and we all sat in the garden and drank coffee and I was a brand-new human being at the end of it.

Whatever comes next, I’m glad that opportunities to connect and reconnect are starting to come up. For you they’ll be photos to show you when you’re older, or faint memories, but they’re the flicker of hope that’s keeping me going when everything is too heavy.

Dear other mums in this situation,

Solidarity. I know that having a baby completely throws every single aspect of your life off-kilter and the pandemic and lockdown has removed everything that was designed to keep us anchored. It’s been the most emotionally turbulent few weeks I’ve ever had, because having a baby is so great but I’m also grieving the things I would have been doing under normal circumstances. It’s really hard for, as a chronic introvert, to express exactly why I have such a strong desire to meet and talk to other mums. Even if it’s not to discuss baby stuff.

I know reasonably that I was in no fit state to take Edith to baby sensory or baby massage or any other groups like that in the first few weeks. I had a traumatic birth and an emergency section and the recovery from that took up what little energy I wasn’t pouring into keeping a tiny human alive. Even so, the grief for the experiences I haven’t had with my first born is stronger than I thought it would be.

In conclusion: I see you. I know we’ve been robbed of experiences and introductions and being able to see our family with our newborns. I know the sadness of being handed a list of baby groups and resources at arm’s length when you haven’t seen past the front window for weeks. I know that it’s a loneliness that isn’t even remotely comparable to anything that’s come before it.

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know what things are going to look like when we reach it, but it’s there. Hang on, mama.

July 5th 2020: Teg Reggib Reggib

July 5th 2020: Teg Reggib Reggib

Dear Edith,

Another milestone occasion! Lockdown restrictions changing means that we can see more people, and today you met your other Great Granny for the first time. Your Great Auntie Megan and Great Uncle Gavin brought you a play gym and a little bouncy chair, which is excellent as you really hate not being able to see what’s going on, but you aren’t quite at the stage of being able to sit up unaided. We have to gather all the cushions in the room and make you a throne.

(I do have photos of you having a cuddle with your Great Granny McIntyre, but I know she completely hates having her photo taken so I don’t think she’d thank me for posting them. Instead here’s one of you in the play gym. Honestly it looks so comfy I’m dying to have an adult-sized one for naps.)

I had another milestone realisation of sorts today. I’ve been going “ooooh you’re HUGE” when I pick you up for weeks, and people keep exclaiming how big you are when they see you, but you don’t really realise how big your baby’s getting when you’re around them all the time. It’s like the Roald Dahl story Esio Trot, where he swaps tortoises for incrementally bigger ones every day and the owner only realises when they’re too big to get into the little tortoise house. Suddenly I realise that you’re not the fragile, helpless newborn who slept and ate and screamed in the bath any more, and I don’t quite know how that happened.

It’s bittersweet. You’ll never be the sweet tiny baby that was dwarfed by the first-size babygros again, but you’re turning into a little person. You’ve got a cheekly smile and, it turns out, a spicy little temper when you’re hungry. You have a bedtime, a favourite song (the William Tell Overture) and the ability to take your dummy out by yourself.

(Although, I have noticed, not the ability to put it back in before you start yelling for someone else to do it.)

You’re becoming a little girl, and every day I can’t wait to find out more about you.

June 30th 2020: The Long Goodbye

June 30th 2020: The Long Goodbye

Dear Edith,

We looked forward to a lot of things before you were born . Everything’s exciting when you’re having a baby! Aside from actually meeting you though, I think what your dad and I were most excited about was introducing you to the rest of your family.

The pandemic essentially scuppered that. Some people have said that it’s a blessing in disguise in a way, because it’s given us the chance to get to know you and bond with you without feeling obliged to pass you round everyone we know for cuddles, but we’re very close to our family and you were so adored before you were even born that it was painful to watch you change and grow and know that you’d be weeks and months old before anyone else got to see you.

But there was one person I wanted you to meet, more than anyone else.

Your Great-Granny Paton is in a care home. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease years ago, and I knew when I found out I was pregnant that the time we had where she’d be able to appreciate who you were was very finite. I also knew that however much I thought we had, we probably had less.

Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. They call it “the long goodbye” because it takes people away painfully slowly, loosening their grasp on memory and reality until they don’t recognise anything – themselves, their relatives, their surroundings.

The last few months before she moved into the home were almost poetic in their irony – she would sit with me and watch TV when I was a baby in the early morning when I wouldn’t settle, and I would sit with her and watch TV in the evening as she asked after her mother (who died when I was little) and fretted about getting off home.

I don’t know where she thought “home” was. I’m not sure she did either.

Last week, as the lockdown restrictions start to lift bit by bit, we got to visit at a distance. Great-Granny sat in the conservatory and we sat outside and shouted through a sheet of perspex placed in the open doorway. I held you up at the window in your little dress and tights and we waved.

I don’t think she knows me any more. Her concept of who I was was already tenuous and she’d quite often say “hello” to me the same way she would to the home staff when I walked in until she saw me with your Granny and then it seemed to click. I knew when they announced they were locking down the home for the foreseeable future that not seeing her for weeks would likely sever the fraying threads that were holding onto the memories of me, and I was prepared.

Even if she doesn’t really get that you’re her great-granddaughter, you’re still a tiny little squishy baby. The staff print out photos of you and put them on the wall of her room, and she likes to see you when we video call. When you started grizzling because you wanted a bottle she offered to hold you while I was fiddling around in the bag.

She might not remember this moment, but I will.

June 23rd 2020: On Love And Struggle

June 23rd 2020: On Love And Struggle

Dear Edith,

It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote anything. I haven’t been well. When people said “your body will never be the same after you’ve had a baby” I thought they meant I’d be a slightly different shape and pee myself when I laugh. Fortunately having a C-section means I’ve avoided the latter. So far, anyway.

I swing between being just having achy, sore joints and being a total wreck who can barely move from exhaustion. Theories on what’s wrong with me range from vitamin deficiency, thyroid problems and ongoing trauma from having a C-section, although I struggle to understand why abdominal surgery would result in my knuckles aching when I carry a mug of coffee between two rooms.

I did have a doctor say “there may be nothing medical science can do for you”, which was lovely. Remember this – doctors are notorious for fobbing off symptoms in women. If you ever need to see one for something that gets minimised or ignored, do not give up and do not downplay how you feel because you’re worried you’re being a pain in the ass. Being a pain in the ass is how to get things done.

Being physically unwell is only half of it though. It sucks, but the emotional struggle is worse.

Don’t worry kid, I know where the food goes.

I knew before I even got pregnant that I’d have postnatal depression. It’s been passed down through our family like some cursed heirloom in a horror story, one that you burn in the garden and find on the mantelpiece again the following day. I was expecting the thick, heavy sadness that seeps into the soul like mould. I thought it’d be endless tearful days, struggling to bond, refusing to leave the house.

Instead it’s somehow more insidious. It waited nearly eight weeks to let me know it was here. It disappears during the day and creeps in after dinner. It’s anxiety that stops me sleeping, a sick fight-or-flight instinct that means I’m constantly terrified and I don’t know what of.

I haven’t had the easiest time since you were born. I had an emergency caesarian section (long story, and one I’ll tell here at some point) and had no sooner gotten over that before I ended up with whatever mystery illness is plaguing me now. There’s very little time, if any, where I’ve been anywhere near on top of my game physically and a lot of the “heavy lifting” has been done by Dad and Granny. I feed you and cuddle you and lie you on the floor to watch nursery rhymes on the TV when you get bored of sitting staring at my face, but for most of the past nine weeks I haven’t been the one rocking you to sleep or putting you in the bath or staying up all night to feed you until your little eyes close.

I get tired and have to lie down in the middle of the day, and if you aren’t sleeping I hand you to Dad, or your Granny, or Grandma. Every time I do, I feel like I’m “shirking my responsibilities”, even though I’m ill and it’s not like I’m being lazy. The guilt is awful and I feel like a failure, and it haunts me all day every day.

But worse – and this is my major, major hangup – every time you’re not literally attached to me I feel like I can almost see your little Bond-o-Meter plummeting.

I’m sure everyone must be sick of me waiting “but what if she doesn’t love me?” at least once a day. I keep getting told that whenever I get up to go to the kitchen your little eyes follow me until they’ve basically rolled back into your skull, but that doesn’t matter to my head. It’s like the anxiety trope of “I assume people hate me for no reason all the time” but you’re only two months old, I can’t talk about it the same way I do with my friends or your Dad do when I need it, and that’s what’s difficult.

It brings me to tears. It makes me so stressed out I can’t eat or sit still. I’m jealous and irritable and and every time you smile for someone else I want the ground to open and consume me.

One of the most powerful things I took away from therapy in my early twenties was the ability to detach from my mental health and acknowledge it. I was able to recognise irrational thoughts and say “this is not real, this is my brain disease”. For some reason, even though logically I know it’s the same in this situation, I am really, really struggling with this right now.

You’re nearly ten weeks weeks old and you’ve lost that helpless, tiny little newborn-ness once and for all. You smile more and more, you’re so close to laughing (you did it in your sleep at Granny and Granda’s house the other day, which was hilarious and deeply creepy), I can see you little tongue going when I talk to you like you’re trying to form the same words I am. You make tiny, cute little noises back at me instead.

It’s only been two months and already I know watching you grow up is going to be the most fun. I know it’s going to make all the bad brain stuff worth it.

June 6th 2020: Things That Matter

June 6th 2020: Things That Matter

Dear Edith,

You’ll learn as you get older that summers in Scotland are incredibly unpredictable. It can quite easily go from pouring rain and “Mum’s taking a hot water bottle to bed” to temperatures that are hotter than parts of Spain.

This weekend just past a big heatwave coincided with Scotland beginning to relax some of the rules around the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown. Non-contact sport is starting back up (and your Granda’s already had at least two rounds of golf), garden centres are opening and we’re allowed to hang out and sunbathe in parks.

The most exciting thing, though, is that you’re allowed to socialise with people again, provided you observe proper social distancing and do it outside.

And that means your Auntie Megan could come and visit.

One of the hardest parts about being pregnant in a pandemic was knowing that when you were born the first few weeks were going to be nothing like we’d planned. I remember out of nowhere having a massive crying fit a few weeks before you were born because it hit me that your auntie wasn’t going to be able to see you when you were tiny and new, and it really upset me. We had no idea how long the restrictions were going to be in place and how long it would be before she’d be able to come and visit. I sat in the bathroom and cried so hard your dad heard me from downstairs.

It wasn’t how I envisaged you meeting, but I’m so glad that you did get to meet while you’re still a baby. Hopefully as things get better we’ll be able to see family further afield – you have family in Plymouth, in Derby, in the Highlands who are all dying to see you. Photos will do for now, but it’s not the same. You are so loved already.

There’s a lot going on in the world. Americans are currently protesting and rioting after a police officer in Minnesota killed an unarmed black man eleven days ago by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. You’ll learn – because I will teach you – that black people in America (and elsewhere) have faced years of oppression, injustice and indignity. There are “Black Lives Matter” movements all over the US, from Minnesota to California to New York and Seattle. The protests are mostly peaceful, and the violence largely stems from the police response, which is indiscriminate, violent and terrifying.

I hate the world that I’ve brought you into, and at the same time I watch the tide starting to turn with some small amount of hope.

I hope I can raise you to be unafraid, to be able to stand up to people with racist or homophobic or transphobic or sexist views whether they’re strangers or friends. The latter is often hardest, but it’s also the most important.

To be able to question what you see and realise that sometimes things aren’t as cut and dry as they appear, and to be able to take circumstances into account before you judge.

To be as angry as I am when you see injustice and cruelty and inequality, and to be as motivated to do something to help.

But most importantly, to have empathy and love and compassion and a drive to make the world better for people who don’t have our privileges or circumstances. Because that’s what’s going to change the world.

May 28th 2020: Learning To Stop

May 28th 2020: Learning To Stop

Dear Edith,

You’re six weeks old! Yesterday we had a big milestone: you and I went somewhere on our own. Granted it was the hospital for a hip screening ultrasound, because being ten days overdue put you into into a higher risk category, but even so.

I was pretty nervous about it because I had visions of you needing your nappy changed or a bottle and having to try and juggle a screaming, uncomfortable baby in a public place completely by myself, but you behaved impeccably, your hips are fine and we all left happy.

(Incidentally, the Dreaded Dirty Nappy occurred and was dealt with in the car park of Asda on the way. Stripping and changing a baby in the back seat of a Honda Civic for the first time was another surprise milestone.)

It wasn’t a hugely enjoyable experience for either of us.

I knew in some part of my brain that babies grew and changed quickly, but I wasn’t quite prepared for just how different you’d be every single day. You sleep a bit longer at night. You make a slightly different noise when you’re lying on the changing mat kicking your legs. There’s a little less of your fluffy baby hair.

We’re getting into a rhythm. You don’t sleep particularly heavily during the day, so from the time I get up until the late evening it’s a blur of bottles, nappies and walking around the room singing whatever comes into my head. In between those there’s laundry to do, bottles to wash, things to tidy that I’ve thrown down in a hurry because you need changed or fed or another round of Row Row Row Your Boat.

I’ve really surprised myself with how much I enjoy it. I’ll be filling the kettle to make you a bottle and I’ll suddenly think wow, this is great.

Around 10pm you fall asleep and I can gingerly put you into the pram, where you stay for a good two or three hours until you wake up hungry. And, as much as I enjoy being a mum, I really, really enjoy those two or three hours too, because I can just sit. I write these letters. I turn the Playstation on and zone out. I read, I scroll through social media. Sometimes I don’t do anything at all.

The days are everyone else’s – yours because you need me, your dad’s because he works here at the moment and needs to be able to do it in (relative) peace, other people because I feel like I need the housework to be done in case people think we’re lazy or a bunch of slobs. But the nights are mine, and I relish them.

For that past couple of nights, though, I’ve been tired. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve hit a point where I can’t be replenished after a full day with three hours of video games. I sat on the sofa tonight after you’d eventually dropped off and thought about tomorrow and my entire body completely rejected the idea of getting up in a few hours and starting again.

I’ll feel better once I’ve had a sleep, but right now I am fatigued and tomorrow seems like an impossibly large mountain to scale.

We took you for a walk today. It was a hot, cloudless day and you slept from the moment the fresh air hit you. When we got back, I wheeled the pram into Granny’s back garden and parked it on the patio, expecting you to wake up and start squirming as soon as I stopped. But you didn’t. In fact you didn’t even twitch.

Delighted, I considered the possibilities. If all it took for you to settle was to be outside, if you slept in your pram in our front garden, I could weed! I could paint the fence! All those things I thought I’d do at some point whenever I looked out of the front window, perhaps they’d finally get done.

I mentioned this to Granny, and she said “you don’t always have to be doing something” and as stupid as it sounds, it was a revelation.

I realised that every time you’re peaceful, whether it’s in the Mamaroo or sitting with Dad for a moment, I’m looking for something to fix, as if you’re a little tornado ripping through the house rather than an infant. It’s like I’ve geared myself up for how much work babies are so whenever I’m NOT busy it feels wrong. I feel lazy.

I think what I keep forgetting is that even if I’m not constantly moving, having a baby IS hard work. I’m not even talking about physical effort – you pour everything you have mentally and emotionally into every waking moment. You’re awake quite a bit so there’s a lot of singing and bouncing you on my knee and reading the Gruffalo while you wriggle about like a fish and desperately trying to think of things to amuse you. By the end of the day I’m pretty sure when I try to talk a Windows shutdown noise from the 90s comes out of my mouth instead.

Currently there’s cat hair on the side tables, I haven’t used the hoover for at least a week and I don’t even know what’s at the bottom of the pile of stuff on the dining table, but maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s OK to sit and read a couple of chapters of a book or play a game on my phone for a little while. Maybe I should finish that cup of coffee that sits permanently cooling on the table.

Maybe I work give myself credit for, and it’s OK to slow down.