a letter to my postpartum self

Dear Anna,

You’re sitting outside in the early spring sunshine and Robin is lying on your lap – the whole length of her no longer than your thighs – wearing a sweet pink beanie and wrapped in the stripy blanket you bought months ago. She is deeply peaceful, looking up at you, and you’re wishing her out of existence.

You don’t want her to die. Now that she’s here, you might not survive her death. But you also can’t bear the sudden death of your adult life, your sense of self, and you want to take back every decision that brought you here.

The fact that motherhood is the first difficult thing in your life that you can’t quit is what will make you a mum, but you can’t accept the reality of it yet.

I still feel deep guilt for these thoughts, and I have nothing but compassion for you, who are thinking them.

‘I just feel like someone else could be a better mum to her,’ you say to your own mum, who is sitting with you, quietly absorbing the fact that you’re in a bad way.

‘Probably,’ she says, and shrugs.

When I tell people this anecdote they’re often horrified, and if it ever occurred to me to respond to a woman’s pain this way, I wouldn’t have the confidence to do it. But the thing is, it was the perfect response. You, sitting there, realise that it’s irrelevant what kind of mum any other woman could be. You are Robin’s mum.

By the time you’re me, you’ll be comfortable with being a mum. You’ve become used to the ways in which you’re the mythical being, Mother, before you’re the person, Anna. But you’ve never entirely exorcised the imposter syndrome – the feeling that you cheated and somehow faked your way here.

Sorry.

There are so many things I wish you’d known or done differently, but the truth is, my advice would all be useless because you simply don’t have the capacity for any of it yet. You’re going to grow the capacity in the most painful way possible. You can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.

It’s the first time in your life you’ve experienced capital-A Anxiety. The way you’ve experienced it before is within yourself – you, an anxious person, moving through the world. This is completely different. This time the world is anxious – it is a dangerous, unstable place where you cannot rest in the familiar. You experience, vividly, that you’re walking a tightrope, but you know that if you look down you’ll see that there is no rope, and you’ll never stop falling.

You don’t want to eat, and every bite you force into your unwilling body is a victory. You stubbornly take care of yourself. Thank you for that.

These feelings are still so vivid, but I read back on some emails you wrote at the time to hear it in your own words, and I had forgotten this particular feeling, which seems nonsensical now: ‘I worry that if I do the smallest thing wrong she’ll die. (Of hunger? Neglect? Crying?) I don’t feel like I know how to keep this little stranger safe and happy.’

You use the word ‘stranger’ a lot, when you talk about her.

When Ken talks about the moment Robin was born, he says it was like all the flowers on every tree burst into bloom.

No flowers bloomed, for you.

You took in the fact of her. You absorbed that newborn, raw steak smell. You were vaguely aware of some urgent activity that you found out later was because you had lost a lot of blood. When she cried, you held her tighter and said, ‘You’re alright, I’ve got you. Mum’s here.’

It’s going to worry you a lot, the absence of insta-love. You do love her, but it’s still just a fact at this stage. At about three months it will start to become an emotion. The world will start to steady and you’ll be better at never looking down.

Ken will go back to work when she’s two weeks old, and you’re not going to be able to wrap your head around it. Who the fuck decided you only need two weeks of support? The morning he leaves for work you’ll feel as though you and Robin are in a rowboat together and you’ve just been pushed off from shore.

You’ll get through it. Women everywhere do, amazingly. It still doesn’t feel like it justifies the way our culture leaves women to it.

You’ll get through it by spending whole days on the couch watching a vaguely exploitative British show about teen parents with Robin on you, feeding, sleeping. The closer it comes to Ken’s arrival home, the more impossible it will feel. One of my lasting memories of that time is sitting on the doorstep with Robin, waiting.

You’ll learn to deal with the needs of the moment – even when you feel unresolved, scared and out of your depth, and you’re so tired your ears are ringing.

You’ll learn to put catastrophes down. Not real catastrophes – there will, despite your every worry, be none of those – but the kind you imagine in heart-stopping, gruesome detail.

You will learn to live with the things you cannot change.

The extreme intimacy of your life with Robin is difficult for you. Soon, every time you let down milk you will be filled with a feeling of dread. My best guess is that you respond to the serotonin which is supposed to deepen intimacy adversely, because you cannot take more. You’ll learn to think of this as a chemical reaction and ignore it more or less.

When your second child comes along just eighteen months from now, it’s going to stretch you beyond your limits (you will cry while brushing your teeth, because if you don’t multitask you won’t get to bed) but it’ll be easier emotionally, because among three the burden of intimacy is shared.

Even without the benefit of hindsight, there are some things you did really well.

You were a total champ at asking for and accepting help, and it saved you.

Also, good on you for letting the house be a mess. A clean house always feels nicer, but you stayed sane, which seems like an excellent outcome.

Huge tick for always having TimTams in the cupboard.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for sticking with mothers’ group. The first few weeks aren’t going to be great. A woman from Kidsafe will tell you about a toddler who swallowed batteries that melted half his trachea, and another who hung herself on curtain cords. The woman from the library will make you all respond like children would to the picture book she reads aloud in a fake-bright voice. It’s humiliating.

But some of the women in your group are going to become wonderful, life-saving friends to you. Not because you’re particularly alike, but because you’ve stuck by each other, with dogged persistence, through all the shit.

You will invite them into your house when you can’t see the floor for toys and food and towels and the occasional wet nappy. You will feed your kids dinner together on a regular basis and toast the witching hour. They will even help you clean your monster house when you move, because for some reason you thought it would be cathartic and didn’t hire someone to do it for you. (You had to pay for the oven to be cleaned anyway. Hire someone next time.)

I wish you could have felt ownership over your early motherhood, but you will go into your second labour focussed on building the capacity for ownership and leadership – and you will triumph.

I wish you’d had the knowledge and confidence to not entertain large groups of visitors in those first few months. Those visits drained you unbearably and ushered in the first feelings of dread.

To get yourself through one particularly bad evening, when you can’t even imagine making it to tomorrow, you will imagine a three-year-old Robin, in her miraculously robust, independent body, popping her head around the door with a cheeky smile.

You can’t imagine more than a smile – not words, not play, not personality.

Last week she made you a monster out of paper and sticky tape, complete with accessory telescope and binoculars.

You are her mum, and you will do an amazing job. You will give her everything she needs to grow up to imagine star-gazing monsters, and to make what she has imagined with the powerful fingers and mind she grew inside your body.

Take a breath, don’t worry about the green poo, and enjoy that glass of wine.

Love,
Anna

This letter was inspired by the incredible book The Motherhood

Comments 6 Responses

  1. Merrian

    So lovely to hear you speaking your truths Anna. We are all doing the best we can and wouldn’t get through this vale without connection and friendship to carry us when we cannot walk ourselves

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Thank you so much Liz. It’s nearly five years ago now, and I think I needed this much time to be able to see the experience as more than the moment-to-moment survival it was at the time.

  2. Kaetrin

    Those first few months were such a steep learning curve and the “maternal instinct” I’d read so much about took some time to appear, so your post resonated with me.

    It’s so much easier to be kinder to ourselves in hindsight isn’t it?

    1. anna cowan Post author

      Oh, absolutely. All I felt at the time was that I had no idea what I was doing. I trusted myself so little that even if I’d felt instinctive responses I wouldn’t have trusted them. I’m glad you found something of your own experience in this letter.

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