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.

11th July 2020: Cry Baby Cry

11th July 2020: Cry Baby Cry

Dear Edith,

Overall, you’re a very laid-back and happy baby. I joked before you were born that I’d had such an awful pregnancy I wanted a chilled out baby to compensate, and I really couldn’t have been more lucky. You only cry when you’re hungry, up until a couple of nights ago you slept from 10pm until 7 or 8 in the morning, and you never stop smiling.

On Wednesday we took you to get your 12 week vaccinations. Last time I was prepared for days of awfulness, for fever and crying and general malaise. I was armed with infant Calpol and a stiff upper lip.

I needn’t have worried. After the initial screaming fit when you were injected, we dosed you with Calpol every four hours and you were completely fine. I couldn’t believe my luck.

Filled with confidence, I breezed into the twelve week vaccinations to discover that you were getting a pneumococcal one this time, not meningococcal. Apparently it’s only the latter that causes fevers and general unwellness. “Magic,” said I, holding on to your chunky little thigh as you screamed the place down. When we got home I launched the Calpol back into the cupboard and we went about our business as usual.

I’m starting to think I might need it instead.

The past 48 hours have been so uncharacteristically unsettled I’m starting to wonder if the fae folk have swapped you. Your crying has gone from a slightly pissed-off sounding yell to a proper red-in-the-face scream that sounds increasingly hoarse and descends into choked sobbing. We’ve tried bottles, dummies, Calpol, putting you in clothes, putting you back into pyjamas, singing, praying to the Old Gods and assorted blankets. The only times you seem to stop howling are when you exhaust yourself and fall asleep, or when I hold you and pace around the living room over and over and over again, but I’m exhausted and I can’t do it forever.

You’ve gone from sleeping all night to waking up anywhere between one and three times, sometimes for a bottle and a nappy change but sometimes you just fall back asleep against my shoulder. A couple of times I’ve taken you into the bed and let you crash out on top of me, and while usually you do go to sleep like that it means I’ve got to watch you constantly.

I hate seeing you cry. I hate hearing you sound so distressed and not knowing exactly what’s bothering you. I hate that the moment I put you down to get a drink or have a rest you scream like I’ve abandoned you. I feel like a horrible mother. I worry that I’m doing you some psychological damage when I leave you bawling on your Dad’s knee while I put a washing on. Am I ridiculous? Probably, but lockdown is hard and exhaustion is getting to me.

You woke up from a nap this evening and greeted me with a big gummy smile that almost turned into a laugh, so I hope whatever’s ailing you is past. But I’ll keep the Calpol out, just in case.

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 22nd 2020: The First Letter

May 22nd 2020: The First Letter

Dear Edith,

I’m writing this, the first letter to you, on the sofa just after midnight. You’ve just turned five weeks old. I feel like this is an introductory lesson on just how quickly babies grow and change. It can’t possibly be five weeks since you were a tiny, fluffy-headed newborn who wouldn’t even entertain the idea of sleepingin the pram, and insisted on lying flat on someone’s chest with your legs drawn up like a little frog.

I originally wanted to start Letters to Edith for somewhere to put my anxieties before you were born. I had the worst luck while I was pregnant, so I really shouldn’t have been surprised that your due date was smack in the middle of a global health crisis and government-mandated lockdown. Between freaking out that you’d stopped moving (you woke up, without fail, every time they got me on a heart monitor) and panicking every time they announced a new set of rules for the hospital, it wasn’t the greatest time to have a baby.

There was, however, one fear that stayed with me from the very early days right up until I was in hospital: that I wouldn’t bond with you, that I’d forever feel like I was looking after someone else’s child.

It’s not that you weren’t wanted, at any point, but I certainly didn’t feel like a mother while I was pregnant. For the first sixteen weeks I suffered from Hyperemesis Gravidarum, which is extreme and unrelenting nausea and vomiting. I’ll probably write more about that later, but it put me in hospital and ruined my physical and mental health. For nearly half the time I was pregnant it felt like an illness. I thought viewing pregnancy as an uncomfortable biological process rather than the run up to having a daughter would leave me feeling rather detached at the end.

I realise as I’m writing this that I’m trying to be clever about it. The truth is I was terrified I wouldn’t love you.

But when I was lying on the table in theatre and I heard this wet, choked little cry behind the screen I burst into tears, because I felt it. It was like someone had inflated a balloon in my chest. I couldn’t breathe, there was no room for anything else, and I thought I’d probably fight anyone who tried to take you away from me for any reason, even if it was one of the midwives.

The first five weeks have been a struggle, physically and mentally. There have been a lot of tears, a lot of sleepless nights and a lot of times when I’ve felt like the worst mother in the world, like I should leave you with your Dad and disappear somewhere.

But the one thing I haven’t struggled with is loving you. You’re my daughter.

This isn’t exactly what I envisaged when I thought about life with a newborn. We’re in lockdown, I spent quite a lot of time unable to move after having a caesarian, and the combination of the two has blown open all of the things I was looking forward to doing with you.

The first was take you to meet your Great Granny, the one who you take your middle name from. All the staff and volunteers in the care home have been beside themselves waiting for you. Even before you were born, before the lockdown, we were given little knitted hats and booties and blankets, because April is typically just about as cold as January in Scotland.

I wanted to walk round the park with your pram. The first time the fact that I was going to be a mother really sank in was when we bought it, and I stood in the middle of the pram shop with my hands on the handle and I could suddenly visualise a tiny baby lying there, ready to go on whatever adventures were ahead. I couldn’t wait to take that pram out. Just now we go to the end of the street, turn around and come back. Living on top of a steep, steep hill means it’s a struggle to walk up at the best of times, never mind pushing a pram and nursing a healing wound from a caesarian section.

I wanted to see the looks on the faces of everyone in our family when they arrived in the hospital to visit us – your Grandma, your Auntie, your uncles if they were over from Spain. I imagined for weeks what it would be like to watch everyone come into the room, having anticipated the arrival of this first grandchild, or niece, and see you for the first time. Your introductions instead have been over video calls, with me holding you up to the camera and your little face all scrunched up. People can see you, but it’s not the same. I think that’s the biggest reason I’m desperate for things to return to normal – the idea of people watching you grow up virtually makes my heart hurt.

It’s not easy having a baby at the best of times, but the constant threat and isolation constantly hangs over me. I’m so proud of you, and I can’t show you off. I’m so motivated to be the best mother I can be, to take you places and show you things and watch you learn and socialise and enjoy life, but right now the world situation seems like it will never end and the prospect of endless days and weeks shut in the house while you grow is agonising.

I don’t know when the pandemic will be over, or what’s going to happen afterwards. I don’t know what you’ll have lived through by the time you read these letters. But every time I stand over the pram and watch your little chest going up and down (because the anxieties didn’t go away, they were just replaced by new ones) I realise that it doesn’t matter. Because you’re here.

You’re here and we love you.