Alone with another
by Rowena Mahmud
Who sees you?
Encased in the same four walls, curtains drawn, baby deep in their nap.
Who sees you?
Being a stay at home or working mum, or a whatever in-between mum, can be hard, isolating and lonely. The afternoon hours can feel like a blank wilderness. That empty time between an activity, and perhaps some respite from another adult.
This could be your first or fourth baby, you may have lost babies previously, yours may be an adopted baby, a doner or IVF baby, one of multiples, a surprise or planned baby, but sometimes it may feel that it all comes back to this. Staring somewhere into the middle distance, lack of sleep blurring your vision, thoughts a brambled, tangled mess. Motherhood is a broad church, but one theme that often unites is the slog of it, acknowledged or not.
The demands of these little beings are constant and relentless. As humans our babies are born more defenceless than any other animal, more vulnerable and more dependent. Hence the ‘fourth trimester’ period, the first three months post birth, where baby is transitioning from being inside the womb to having an independent body.
This takes a huge and often unacknowledged toll on little one’s caregivers. Paradoxically, becoming a mother to an infant can make you feel infantilised and invisible in the outside world. By giving over your bodies and minds to that little dot snuggled in your arms, you can feel bereft and drained, even whilst feeling you ‘should’ be feeling a raft of other, more positive emotions.
But of course you once were that dot, and you once were held in arms which may or may not have been able to hold you, and you carry that imprint inside of you as you parent. Often these ‘ghosts in the nursery’ (Fraiburg, 1975) can loom large.
When you venture outside, random members of the public may strike up conversation about your baby. You may switch on that smile and churn out well-practiced platitudes. Now it seems baby comes first in every interaction, somehow you have morphed into a baby-and-me hybrid, the person you used to be left behind in the distance somewhere, waving frantically, not wanting to be lost forever.
Sometimes it can feel like this tiny human has the power of a dictator, your every move, plan and sleep pattern controlled by their cry. Back in 1947 the child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott observed at least eighteen reasons why a mum might feel at least ambivalent toward her offspring: ‘Let me give some reasons why a mother hates her baby…The baby is ruthless, treats her as scum, an unpaid servant, a slave … He is suspicious, refuses her good food, and makes her doubt herself.’
Scrolling on social media fills feeding time with #cherisheverymoment. This may feel completely out of reach as you yearn to cherish a moment alone. ‘This too shall pass’, another mantra you grimly hold onto, as baby screams wildly at 2am.
To all the caregivers who have felt this.
You are seen. You are not alone.
Every time you return your baby’s glance. Every time you soothe them. Every time you scaffold what you think they might feel. Every time you hold them. Every time you (attempt to) rock your baby to sleep. Every time you are there.
Your baby sees you. Feels you. Hears you. Knows you. They may show absolutely 0% acknowledgement, but inside their mind, neurons are firing. Networks are being connected, a brain, a mind, a personality is being formed. Because of you. Because of how you care for them, what you take in from them, and how you love them. You are literally building a human.
You take their overwhelming emotions and articulate their fears, thus making them both knowable and bearable. These tiny humans are becoming someone. And that someone is in relation to you. All the day-to-day, quite ordinary interactions add up to the quite awesome task of helping this baby feel safe and having a foundation for life.
And if all that sounds overwhelming, remember it is always in progress. One breath, one step after another. It cannot be rushed. What you are is enough.
The period after birth, and the process of becoming a mother, so called ‘matrescence’ can be far more intense and transformative than many bargained for. Research shows that a mother’s brain chemistry and structure changes hugely in pregnancy and this can last for at least two years post-partum (Hoekzema et al, 2017). But often this can be overlooked in the survival of the everyday, working out how to get through until sleep can claim us (even if it is in 45 minute bursts).
The constellation of twinkling stars you see on night wakes, those stars in the sky mirror the fires burning bright in your child’s mind. It is a mind you are helping to create, a brain that will continue connecting up until 26 years old, (Arain et al 2013) and even then has the flexibility to change and develop throughout life. Both your mind and theirs are undergoing a sea change.
There are ‘missteps in the dance’ (Stern, 1977), ruptures, repairs, tears, spilt milk and despair. Sometimes these can be mended in house, sometimes a partnership needs support to heal, sometimes trauma can bite without warning. It takes courage to reach toward help.
Just know that you are not alone. And the work you are engaged in is utterly crucial. You are seen by eyes that are yet to open. But when they do, it is you they find.