An apology to the mother I blanked at the playground

An apology to the mother I blanked at the playground

I’m not being rude. Well, I guess I am, but that’s certainly not my intention. I’d love to be able to wave and smile, indulge in idle chat and get to know you and your kids better. Yes, I recognise you from my daughter’s nursery, or the children’s centre. I probably know your kid’s name, but I’ve never managed to find out yours. 

My daughter, with all the amazing self-confidence of a three year old, exclaims “It’s my friend!” when she spots her playmate across the park. As she runs towards your little girl, she stops to look back for me. I’m following behind, pushing her little sister in the pram, and while I smile encouragingly, she must sense some unease on my part, because she pulls back, then heads towards me muttering that she’s “a bit shy”. This is the moment I should reassure her that there’s nothing to fear, take her hand and take the lead, demonstrating how to approach a friendly acquaintance, to smile at you and strike up a conversation so she and her little friend can relax and make sand castles together. Instead, I mutter “that’s OK”, and try to direct her attention to the slide or swings. 

It has already taken a great deal of courage and determination for me to get us to the playground that morning. Where once I was confident and self-assured, although always naturally an introvert, I am now cowed and anxious. This period of mental illness has been ongoing since that moment at my eldest’s first birthday party where, house packed full of people, I locked myself away upstairs to rock back and forth and pray that the first panic attack, and worst, I’d had in years would soon dissipate. It did as soon as I heard the car doors start to slam as friends and family made their way home, having been kindly but firmly ushered out of my house at the end of the afternoon by my mother. Since that June day, two years ago, barely a week has gone by without a similar attack, and my world has continued to shrink, even as my daughters has expanded. Friends have fallen away, jobs lost, weight dropped along with the confidence I was a good mother. Now, most days, I only see my failings. 

The fear that you will see them too is what keeps me from reaching out. 

I tell myself I will get there. I tell myself my kids will be OK – after all, they are blessed to have the love and support of a gregarious grandmother who makes friends with anyone and everyone, a quietly brave father, who although shy, has an aura around him that people gravitate to, and a grandfather who enjoys the outdoors and knows the names of all the local flora and fauna. 

I also tell myself that maybe, without me having to apologise or explain, you might already understand. 

Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

Motherhood, containment and emotional contagion

You might have heard the phrase ’emotional contagion’ bandied around from time to time. It’s a phenomenon that you’ve probably experienced to some degree or other. Sharing a space with someone who is experiencing an acute emotional response (i.e. happiness, anger, fear) can trigger that same emotional response in you. It’s hardly surprising if we consider that we are effectively herd animals. Being attuned to other’s emotional states can help us predict their behaviour and perhaps by experiencing a little of what is going on in other’s minds can motivate us to try to problem-solve it if it is a ‘negative’ emotion, or enjoy it if ‘positive’.

Some people are more clued in to other people’s mental states than others. You might know someone who doesn’t seem to be able to emotionally read other people at all, and another who super-sensitive. Interestingly, this normal human skill seems to be heightened in mothers, and a recent study has shown that a woman’s brain actually reshapes itself to accentuate this skill during pregnancy, with the changes still visible on brain scans two years after giving birth. When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. A baby has no way of expressing its emotional needs other than by wailing its head off, and if you’ve let it get to that point, it’s already quite distressed. So instead, mothers (and it is mothers, fathers in the study showed no grey matter changes) have to be clued in to extra-subtle cues that the baby may give so that she can keep it safe and well. She is effectively mind reading, and experiencing some of her infant’s emotions as her own. This part of her brain works overtime until her infant becomes verbal and starts to be able to identify and articulate their own needs, which is usually around two years old.

On top of this, a mother also has to ‘contain’ her baby’s emotions. We know, even as adults, our own emotions can be overwhelming. Anyone who has ever held a screaming baby knows that the intensity of infants’ emotions can be overwhelming both for the infant and the caregiver. The caregiver has to keep their own emotional state in check and also take on those of the baby, ‘holding’ them within themselves, to allow the baby to eventually be soothed. This is exhausting work, as any parent, or anyone who cares for children or vulnerable people knows (‘containment’ is not a phenomena solely of the parent-infant dyad – we find it in many relationships and it is often discussed in therapeutic relationships).

I’ve been familiar with both concepts for some time, and have always been someone who might be considered on the ‘sensitive’ end of the scale. But when I read the study above, something really ‘clicked’ for me. During my recent period of mental illness (which started during my second pregnancy and is now starting to peter out approaching my youngest daughter’s first birthday), I began to really, really struggle with anyone else’s emotions. I would get irrationally worked up if anyone was experiencing anything that might be perceived as negative. My partner being tired after a hard day at work, or my toddler’s frustration that she couldn’t figure out a particular jigsaw puzzle, would send my anxiety sky-rocketing. Coming upon someone experiencing a major issue, say a visit from my mother while she was experiencing depression following redundancy, would send me in to full blown freeze mode where I de-personalise and de-realise and would have to withdraw.

I would (internally) rant and rave and be genuinely really fucking outraged that these people had the audacity to not be 100% content all the time. I perceived any discomfort they experienced as a criticism of the care I was giving them. Another thing for me to have to ‘fix’ to add to my teeteringly high to-do-pile. And I already felt I was running on less than empty. I was effectively angry at the people I loved for being humans and not robots. This used to just fuel my self-loathing – what the hell was wrong with me? Why was I such a selfish bitch? But reading that study helped me realise perhaps I could blame the process of pregnancy and early mothering itself. My brain changed and left me like a huge satellite dish. I was so attuned to their emotions it hurt, because I didn’t have the internal space left to contain them alongside my own, and so I just broke down further.

I am thankful that my youngest daughter was, from day one, a pretty chill and content baby. She has a serious pair of lungs on her when she is upset, but 99% of the time she is smiling and amiable. Family, friends and strangers alike comment on her sunny disposition. I wonder how much of this is just innate in her, and how much is because I was in such a state of nerve-stretching hyper-awareness when she was very small that I was actually very good at reading her cues and responding. Maybe these god-awful months of illness have had one positive outcome.

My recovery from this bout of illness is ongoing. I am working hard in therapy and in my day to day life to try to tackle my anxiety, phobias and OCD behaviours specifically. But I still really struggle living with other people. I have to constantly check in with myself if I notice a bad mood coming over me – is this my shit? Most of the time I’m still not sure – it feels like bad TV reception or fuzzy radio static. And I sometimes dream that I would get a lot better a lot quicker if I just took myself and my kids somewhere remote and could get a clear signal. But if the science is anything to go by, things should start to return to something approaching normality in another twelve months. So perhaps I should hold out in society just a little longer.

Six reasons my libido has gone AWOL

Six reasons my libido has gone AWOL

Let’s talk about sex, baby. Or rather, the complete and utter lack of it.

Sex has always been an important part of my life, my relationships and my identity. I have been lucky enough to enjoy a pretty healthy and fulfilling sex-life, even during my pregnancies (which were oddly the times I had the highest sex drive) and after the arrival of my first daughter. Sure, it was different, and not as frequent as we both might have wanted, but it existed. Lazy weekends in bed became a longed-for memory, but were substituted for snatched moments and more inventive locations. So why, this time around, are we now coming to our twelfth month of sexual drought?

Reason No 1: Exhaustion

I cannot remember the last time I had more than about three hours of straight, uninterrupted sleep. I think it might have been the summer of 2013. That is not an exaggeration. While pregnant, I was constantly up all night weeing, or fighting off waves of nausea or acid-reflux, or all three. Once our eldest arrived, breastfeeding meant I was on night duty and she fed nigh-on constantly. By the time I weaned her and she started sleeping through, I was already five months pregnant, and my bladder had once again shrunk to the size of a raisin. And the cycle repeats. This is beyond tiredness, this is sheer, visceral, bone-aching exhaustion. My eyes are only open due to a diet of caffeine and biscuits. The idea of expending the last, precious vestiges of life left in me having sex is not appealing.

Reason 2: Being ‘touched out’

Most mothers will relate to this feeling, especially those who breastfeed or have more than one child. Your body is not your own. There is someone cuddling, holding, pulling, licking, biting, wiping their nose on, pinching or kissing you at virtually any given moment. That golden hour after the children are asleep, when finally you regain a smidgen of bodily autonomy, is spent quickly restoring order to your house, maybe taking a bath, or reading a book or watching a show with a glass of something if you’re lucky. I tend to hide in the garden, relishing the quiet and listening to the birdsong; trying to breathe out the day. I do not want to spend that time having anyone else touch me. No sir.

Reason 3: Hormonal changes.

As a species, we are not always as stupid as we look, and we’ve evolved some pretty nifty biological systems to ensure our survival. So, if you’re breastfeeding an infant, your hormone levels alter. You’re likely to not ovulate or have a period. You’re also likely to have a decreased sex drive. And even if your baby gives you five minutes and you do manage to muster the energy to do the deed, you’re likely to experience vaginal dryness and a thinning of the vaginal walls making sex uncomfortable or possibly even unpleasant. Clever! Now with care, attention and lubricant this can be overcome, but it’s a bit more complicated for me (see reason number four).

Reason 4: Pelvic floor trauma

Not to frighten anyone out there, but giving birth twice has severely messed with my vagina. But not in the way I had expected. Before having a baby you’re told in hushed tones that things might feel ‘different’ (i.e. looser) afterwards, but are assured that with time and regular Kegel exercises it’ll all come good again, or at least workable. No one told me that the opposite could happen: that your pelvic floor could react to the trauma of giving birth by basically going into spasm and try to seal itself shut. Add on top that I have fairly extensive scarring from tearing during both my deliveries – penetrative sex is just not going to happen. A trip to my GP, a gynaecologist, and a women’s health physiotherapist later, and I’ve got a plan drawn up to try to fix this. I plan to devote a post to the information I got from the physio because this is stuff that NO ONE TELLS YOU! But right now, I feel incredibly disconnected from, and almost scared and ashamed of, my own body – for the first time. Which is fucking stupid because it created, delivered  and continues to provide sustenance for two human beings.

Reason 5: Perinatal mental illness

I started relapsing into severe anxiety with a side order of depression and OCD early in my second pregnancy. I was the sole breadwinner, pregnant and still breastfeeding my eldest, trying to run the household, and isolated from a lot of my friends and family. Then I was made redundant. Financially we were under extraordinary pressure, and I began to get sicker and sicker. Things got worse after I gave birth, and nearly twelve months on, I’m only just starting to see that there might be light ahead. If you are depressed, or constantly in fight-or-flight-or-freeze-mode, or frightened that everything is contaminated and might make you sick, you do not want to have sex. Even though good sex with someone you care about is one of the things known to be an excellent counter to mental illness.

Reason 6: I’m really angry and full of resentment

I love my partner. He has many amazing qualities and is truly a beautiful person, inside and out. But the last few years have been very, very tough, and he hasn’t always got things right (and nor have I). Unfortunately, we both suffer with the inability to express negative emotions. We both sit on them. And in my case, silently seethe and/or shout at children and animals. In his case, deflect them inwards and mope. We have been in fire-fighting mode for nearly three years and had little time to take stock of where we are, and where we might want to be. As a result I am still holding on to a lot of resentment and anger that I haven’t felt able to share. I know I should probably just ‘let it go’ but I’m clueless as to how I might go about that. And sometimes I wonder if I am so angry and resentful that I just don’t feel like having sex with him – that maybe the reasons listed above, although each very real, could be more easily overcome if I wasn’t so fucking pissed off at him still. We have plans for couple’s counselling in the near future, in case you’re wondering!

So there you have it, six reasons my libido is absent without leave. I’ll be sure to keep you all posted on any progress as I’m sure you’re all agog with interest!

I’m fairly confident that I can’t be the only one who has experienced this particular delightful postpartum phenomenon. I’d love to hear any tips and tricks or just ‘I hear you’ rants – please leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter.