A support network

We often talk about support networks when someone has a problem. If the person, for example, has a drinking problem, that would include perhaps medical professionals and charity support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. If your partner is the one suffering, there are groups such as Al Anon. Mental health is also covered by a raft of charities which offer everything from sewing classes to cognitive behavioural therapy, along with the host of doctors, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses in some way on board. But a key part of any such network is the normal people in your life. Family. Friends. Colleagues. Employers, if you’re lucky.

It is that home network which is perhaps most important when it is a loved one who is in the crushing grip of a mental illness. While I have seen my GP twice and she has offered suggestions and support to a varying degree, I cannot make an appointment to simply moan and groan. And if I did not have a history of depression myself  I am not sure if that would be an option for me. Doctors are there for your health. They are not there just to be a sounding board or indeed to pick up some of the slack when you are struggling.

I am lucky. My family lives less than an hour away. I like them. They like me.  I have many friends who live close by.  I have a sympathetic employer. For the most part they cannot do all that much. They cannot breastfeed my baby to sleep or do the school run once in a while. They cannot pop in and do all my washing and make my dinner. And yet they can support me. For example, when I go to stay at my parents, my daughter sleeps terribly. I don’t get to finish any meals while everyone else is eating. I still rise when the girls do. But I don’t have to worry about cooking or clearing up. My father will happily entertain my elder girl. They will both talk and listen to my husband. There is a sense, an atmosphere, of loving support. They have my back. I am not alone.

Last week a friend invited me to stay for a couple of nights. Someone who, due to the weird virtual lives we lead, I know pretty well but had only physically met once. It was a daunting drive alone in an unfamiliar city with two potential troublemakers in the back. But once I arrived in what some would describe as a stranger’s house, that same atmosphere of safety was there. Despite her baby trying her hardest to eat mine. Despite my four year old being so in love with her new six-year-old friend that her behaviour went a few degrees south of what I would usually expect. Despite being surprised in the shower twice by my daughter’s curious new friend. And even though her best efforts to allow me a little extra sleep were met with the unexpected and sudden arrival of separation anxiety, it was so much easier than being at home. Because I felt supported. I wanted to have a couple of glasses of prosecco and a chinwag even though I was no less tired than any other day. I’ll probably never be able to return the favour but I won’t quickly forget either.

Then there’s the friend who turned up a day early for a meeting with others expressly to help in any way she could.  I couldn’t quite offload the children, who had never met her, on her so I could retire to my bed but I knew the offer was a genuine one.

The little things do count. So do the big ones. A network of support may not be what you think it is and may come from unexpected sources. And it can be hard to draw on it – to cash in on offers. To ask in the first place. But it can be the difference between coping and not coping. I am coping.

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Half a bath

I love baths. After a long, trying day, preceded by a night of awkward co-sleeping perhaps with an unexpected incident in which one is inadvertently trapped under a sleeping baby for two hours, the feeling of being able to slide into a stingingly hot, super deep bath is matchless. I like mine with lots of bubbles and I like to use it as an opportunity to immerse myself in either a book or, more likely, a glossy yet worthy magazine. I can happily soak for an hour, indulgently topping up with scorchingly hot water every so often. Ideally I like a little music on in the background, currently Icelandic folk pop group Of Monsters and Men is riding high on my playlist but according to mood, belted out female power ballads, anthemic rock or ageless Britpop can also fit the bill nicely.

Of course, this scenario never happens any more. I have limited choices when it comes to bathing at the moment. I can attempt a daytime bath – unheard of decadence – during nap time on a school day. This is rendered tricky by my daughter’s propensity to nap no longer than 45 minutes at any given time and often, having shown all signs of being out for the count, to wake and call for me angrily 5, 10 or 20 minutes later. Once I attempted a bath with her in the room, awake, surrounded by toys. Unfortunately my running commentary not only spoiled the mood but also failed to keep the sproglet entertained for the necessary duration. Frantically washing out conditioner to the soundtrack of a screaming baby gets old very quickly. If I ever bathe when my elder daughter is home and awake, she will inevitably join me. To tell me what she is doing. To find some random item. To blow her nose. More often than not, to do a poo.

So that leaves after bedtime. Which is all very well if you have a baby who follows a regular pattern. Even if they wake repeatedly, if you can predict when it will happen, you can plan your ablutions around it. Of course my child’s waking is utterly unpredictable. Although there appears to be some, vague, improvement since starting reflux medication, she wakes at different times every single night. I also have to fit in cooking a meal and eating it. I can go by the pattern of last night – but there is no guarantee tonight will be even similar.

Take tonight, for example. I anticipated – correctly – a waking two hours after going to bed. I dealt with it and ran a bath immediately after. I had been in the bath maybe five minutes when I heard the baby siren go off. A cough had woken her. I continued reading about Jane Fonda’ s mildly diverting life story while I heard my husband go to her. I heard him holding her, crying, outside the bathroom door. Meaning he was watching the television while trying to soothe her. To say I have not found this to be successful is an understatement. The noise ebbed and flowed as he paced up and down. Perhaps five minutes later, the bathroom door opened. She was ‘inconsolable, for some reason’. I emptied my bath, made a cursory attempt to dry myself and wrapped a towel around me. Moments later I was feeding my not hungry but by now quite angry baby semi naked in the dark of her room. The peace of the bath a distant memory save from the unrinsed suds on my neck.

I try not to be jealous or resentful but I envy my husband’s ability to have a bath whenever and however he wishes. No calculations necessary. No likelihood of being disturbed. And if the baby wakes while he is submerged and I find her hard to settle, he will not be called on to abandon his blissful reverie, I will just continue to try to soothe her.  I know I am not alone in this. Many perfectly capable and involved fathers with no mental health issues will interrupt their partner’s hard-earned quiet time when they feel they are incapable of fulfilling a baby’s immediate needs. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could just continue to try, keep the squalling child out of earshot and just – manage. It is only, after all, the length of a bath. It would be lovely if everyone could get into a bath knowing they could choose how long to luxuriate in it.

For better, for worse

There are many statistics about when relationships break down. Winter tends to see a spike when people are run down and miserable. The first year after a child is born can also put immense strain on couples. A quick Google search suggests a shockingly high proportion of marriages end in divorce now. Lots of people marry too young and for the wrong reasons. But when I got married, I meant it. I only intended to be married once, with the promises I made with God as my witness (plus a large number of friends and family) being permanent ones.

Of course for a relationship to continue both people need to want it to. You can work at it all you want, compromise, change – or try to – but it takes two to tango. Both need to be invested and committed in every sense.

Today an argument broke out between my husband and me. The details are not important. I did a stupid thing during this disagreement. I asked if he even wanted to be with me, if he even loved me. And for the first time he turned round and said no. For the past few weeks he had been wondering. Because he couldn’t do this any more. I heard a lot of criticism of myself. About nagging. About tallying up who does what. About failing to recognise the contributions he had made and only pointing out what he had failed to do. About how my attitude to him had changed and others had noticed too. Oh, and that maybe I have post natal depression because I don’t seem happy.

The problem, as always, is I don’t know if this is how he feels or his illness talking. Just because he is unwell doesn’t make his opinion any less valid.

The truth is necessarily subjective. Conversely I have been trying so hard not to do any of those things in the period he mentioned. I feel I have been shouldering so much of the household and childcare burden. Trying to ensure that I am doing everything possible to ease things so he could focus on getting well. But I have been tired. Snappy, sometimes. And I feel resentful that so much ends up being left to me. That he doesn’t see the constant housewifery necessary to just keep things ticking over. My assessment of the division of labour is that the lion’s share falls to me – but of course that is only the way I see it.

If I’m brutally honest, I probably am a little emotionally unavailable. During his psychotic period, things were said which badly bruised my feelings towards him. I know it was his illness talking – but I cannot pretend it didn’t happen. I don’t really want to snuggle up and pretend everything in the garden is lovely when I feel exhausted, worried for the future, and alone. My attitude probably has subtly changed. I am protecting myself from being hurt again.

After the argument, we went for a walk. It was not mentioned further. The day proceeded uneventful. I did not get the two hours’ break I had asked for to catch up on sleep which triggered the dispute. I don’t think we will get through this without some kind of professional help. I just hope we do get through it.

A version of the truth

Can you remember a time where something happened which was partially your fault? It may have been largely an accident, or an oversight, someone else may also have been in some way to blame. And did you go home and dwell on it, simmering and seething about it until you became blind to the part that was actually down to you? It became a story where you were the victim. I think we’ve all done it. None of us are particularly good at holding our hands up and saying actually, some of that was me.

I imagine this must be what it is like to be four. We are currently going through a patch where I have no clue whether what I am being told by my daughter is in any way accurate. I don’t think she is deliberately misleading me. Not often, anyway. Sometimes the sequence of events becomes confused in her head. Sometimes she combines several different occasions into one story. On other occasions she simply cannot remember. Then there are times when she is ‘just tricking’ and not expecting to be believed. Then, of course, there are times when she is only telling me half the story.

Here are some recent exchanges:
“Mummy, Amanda threw sand in my eyes and it hurted.”
“What happened just before that?”
“I threw sand at Amanda.”

“Mummy, they keep telling me they want to kill me.”
“Okay, are you sure it’s not a game?”
“No they really do. We were playing Frozen and Elsa froze me and said she wanted to kill me.”

“Mummy Elijah pushed me over by the decking.”
“Did you tell a teacher?”
“Yes but she didn’t hear me.”
(Later) “did it really happen?”
(Cheeky smile) “it didn’t.”
“It’s not kind to make up things about people.”
“Actually it did happen!”
“Are you sure?”
“No, it didn’t”

“Mummy Nathan punched me in the leg.”
“I think the teacher would have mentioned if that happened.”
“But it did happen. And he pushed me over and he got a time out.”
“So he did all this on purpose? Where were you?”
“Actually it was an accident.”
“How could he punch your leg accidentally? And why did he get a time out if it wasn’t on purpose?”
“Because he was rushing around and first he punched me then he knocked me over.”
“But it was an accident.”
“Yes.”

I have literally no idea how to unpick fact from fiction. Invariably things are not seen by impartial viewers. When one four year old says one thing and another something slightly different, how do you decide who to believe? And how do you attribute deliberate acts to tiny people? I am a teller of stories and an asker of questions and I fear my daughter may be following the same path. I just hope I am teaching her when it’s okay to use her imagination and when she should be telling me the truth…

‘Problem’ child

Babies are puzzling things. They are handed to us without manuals. They behave in ways we do not understand and once we have started to grasp how they work, all the rules change. For no apparent reason. This can be frustrating and upsetting, not to mention exhausting. Because of the ever-changing nature of these tiny partly-formed humans, we are sometimes guilty of treating an illogical thing – a baby –  in a logical way. As a problem to be solved. If you can figure out the magic solution, the baby will ‘work’ as expected.

If a baby cries a lot, they probably have colic. If they have feeding difficulties, it must be tongue tie. If they throw up a lot, reflux is the answer. And everything under the sun can be blamed on teething. I don’t doubt in many occasions there are underlying issues such as those mentioned affecting the way a baby acts. There is nothing worse than a baby in pain, or not gaining weight, and knowing there clearly is something wrong. But also, babies cry. They are sick, some a lot, some not so much. They sleep erratically. They are clingy. They do weird poos. These are thing that babies do –  there is not always some greater purpose or light-bulb moment explanation. I have certainly been guilty of this myself but in general I prefer not to treat my baby’s behaviour, whatever it may be, as a problem, and I try to accept there may not really be any explanation. She is, after all, just a baby.

So I have accepted the gradually worsening sleep as just part of our lot. It is frustrating and tiring but I never thought it was anything other than normal. Then last week, when munching on a piece of cheddar, her face became covered in raised red spots. She seemed unbothered and they faded soon afterwards. But they did look like an allergic reaction. Friends suggested given her poor sleep an intolerance – built up over time and added exposure – was possible. I expressed doubts. Then remembered remarking on her smelly breath to a friend and being met with a blank look. I mentioned it. Apparently this is a sign of reflux. Which, some would have you believe, goes hand in hand with dairy intolerance.

We toddled off to the GP, unconvinced that either of these things was true. My daughter is disinclined to sleep but in general is a happy soul who rarely cries. We left with a prescription for antacids and an instruction for both of us to go dairy free for the next couple of weeks. And to see whether we saw any difference.

A tiny part of me is hoping for a miracle. That my daughter has a ‘problem’ which we can fix. But my rational side reminds me she is just a baby – a wee contrary soul – and tells me not to expect a ‘cure’ but to prepare myself to continue to ride it out. In the meantime my two-week sentence will enforce a degree of creativity in the kitchen. Which is no bad thing.

No two alike

Tomorrow my baby daughter will be eight months old. This is a fairly unimpressive milestone and an arbitrary one to mark. Yet it has been playing on my mind for a number of reasons.

I have never been very good at keeping records of when things happened to my daughters in terms of developmental achievements. But in my head, eight months was not only when my elder daughter began crawling but also when she cut her first tooth. I think I have chosen this age for no particular reason and it is probably vaguely accurate within a month or two. One thing, however, I know for sure happened for the first time when she was eight months old. She started sleeping through the night.

I know this because it was about a month before I was due to return to work. At six months (cover your eyes now and find Elizabeth Pantley if sleep training makes you wince) we used controlled crying after several months of spending literally all evening trying to get her to sleep. I am not going to go into my feelings about it or particularly invite judgement or comment. It happened. It took four nights, then she would happily go to bed without feeding or rocking. As a bonus, she went down from usually two wakings to one. We did not do controlled crying during the night. I had been thinking I would do the same to eliminate the final night waking to cope with the additional demands of an extremely high stress journalism job. I think possibly one or two days before I intended to do this, she slept through for the first time ever. Barring the odd early waking, bedtime resisting or illness, she has been a great sleeper ever since.

My younger daughter is so far removed from this position it is almost laughable. It makes me feel sad that I thought one night waking was intolerable. I didn’t think my elder daughter was a particularly miraculous sleeper. Compared to her infant sister she was a textbook dream sleeper. I do not know how many times a night she wakes. Of late she has been refusing to sleep anywhere other than in my arms or with my breast in her mouth. I find this particularly difficult to come to terms with given that she spent a good four or five weeks when she was fairly small sleeping a comfortable 8-10 hours. And also given I went through some fairly arduous (and reasonably successful) ‘gentle’ sleep training before Christmas to allow her to fall asleep in the cot, not in my arms or at my breast. We have lapsed so far back into old habits that it seems almost impossible to imagine her sleeping in any other way.

My husband will point out that they are not the same baby. I am not sure how this is supposed to help. It is not helpful to directly compare your child to any other, yours or a friend’s or some fictional baby in a parenting book, but I cannot help seeing the stark contrast between their sleep patterns. I am again only weeks away from returning to work. Only I am getting far, far less sleep and my sleep debt has been building up over so many months that it now equates to that of a small third world country. And this time I have an elder child to get to school – a mentally ill husband to watch over.

If they were the same baby I could use the benefit of hindsight to employ tricks that worked. As it is, it is guesswork. Square one again. I do remember saying to myself that it was always impossible to identify which change was the one which had the positive or negative effect –  because the thing that changed could have simply been the baby. What works one day does not work the next. Knowing this does not necessarily help either. Of course, I was probably saying that from a considerably more rested position.

I currently lack the energy or determination to do sleep training of any kind with any kind of consistency. It may be that she will slowly start sleeping for longer. Or this strange twilight zone where a sleep of longer than two hours is something to be celebrated will continue. But I can be fairly certain she will not be sleeping through by the time she is eight months old. Nor do I see any signs of teeth or crawling for that matter. It’s okay though. She’s a different baby. She’ll get there. One day in the future I will again enjoy the luxury of a full night’s sleep.

8.28pm

I can tell you exactly when I went to bed last night. I looked at the clock on my phone as I switched it off. It was 8.28pm. In fairness, I had a migraine which wasn’t shifting with breastfeeding-permitted medication so it was earlier than normal. But if I’m honest a pre-8.30 bedtime is very tempting any day of the week right now.

This got me thinking about the differences between my life, as it is now, with my wonderful 24 hour a day unpaid job, and those of my friends unfettered by the charming but all-encompassing bindings of parenthood. I get invited out to do things. Fairly often in fact. Some of them are things I would quite enjoy in a nice rested mood. Dinner, for example. A few drinks. Badminton. I even have an offer in the bank for my husband and me to go out while friends babysit. But in all honesty, right now it is the last thing I want to do.

There have been many invitations turned down or greeted with less than the expected degree of enthusiasm. Or cut short abruptly. My friends will ever so nicely remind me that the baby will be absolutely fine for the few short hours I am gone. I don’t doubt this. I am not at all worried about her – in fact on the few occasions I have managed to leave the house she has invariably slept throughout the duration of my absence. Cheeky blighter.

But at any given time one, more or all of the following may be true:

I have been awake since 3am
I was awake between the hours of midnight and 4am
I woke up every 60 to 90 minutes last night, each time spending up to 45 minutes resettling the baby
I changed everyone’s bedding and pyjamas twice last night after an unwarranted quantity of inexplicable vomit
I bumped into something going to the baby’s room last night and am now walking with a limp
I fell out of bed cosleeping and am 90% bruise
I can’t commit to a time as the baby is currently taking between 10 minutes and three hours to settle and will not countenance any arms except mummy’s
I don’t know what to wear – as in I only have three outfits that fit and they all have varying quantities of babysick on them
I haven’t washed my hair for three days
I can’t remember when I last shaved my legs
The baby has just been sick in my hair and there will be no opportunity to shower before planned meeting
Due to separation anxiety I have yet to put the baby down since 7am, meaning breakfast, lunch and dinner consisted of biscuits
The last time I had more than one alcoholic beverage I declared my undying love to a complete stranger and threw up in the toilets
My hair straighteners are in the room where the baby is asleep
The full-length mirror is in the room where my four year old is asleep
I just found a very cold spoon in the freezer, leading me to doubt my ability to drive a car or negotiate a bus route
I spent some time being stickered by the four year old and am fairly convinced there are a large number of stickers remaining about my person – but I don’t know where

And more to the point – any one of these things may become true on my return. When you have a baby who rarely sleeps for the duration of a film (I’m talking something with Katherine Heigl in it, not a Lord of the Rings marathon) everything is a mission. My doctor tells me I need to get out more and do more things for myself and I do not disagree – it is just that the hangover (literal and figurative) can be horrendous. There is no sleeping in. Shift starts the minute you walk back through the door. How can it be fun to compound all the myriad challenges of mummying with a late night?

There’s the answer. Fun. There is a price to pay but sometimes the rewards, however finite, are worth it. I am mostly a mother but I am still me too. So I will get out more. Small bursts. Baby steps. I could do with an injection of fun that doesn’t come from the infectious giggle of a baby or the quite-frankly baffling imaginary games led by a four year old. I am good at fun. And while 8.28pm is sometimes a good time for bed, I think I can get on board with it being a good time for playing too.