Probably one of the key moments when a part of my mind sounded an alarm to say all was not well in the world of my mental health was the time I managed to get a burglar cornered by police and arrested in my neighbour’s house on a crisp, sunny Monday at 12pm, and the only thought that came to me was ‘Phew, I got the baby to sleep.’
I had, two days before, returned from Sleep School, a residential hospital stay where you are taught settling techniques and a routine for your baby. Sleep Schools can also offer you good mental health care, if you score low enough on their test for postnatal depression, which I had.
I declined that care. I saw a therapist already, and in any case I was just finding it hard to adjust to normal new motherhood, I told them, because we had no routine. Normal new motherhood should have routine and I had failed at it because my baby didn’t sleep. Which was my fault. That was all. If I could be in a predictable routine, I kept telling myself, I would feel like my old self.
I was very well-schooled in mental health declines: I had grown up with a father who worked as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist; I had suffered bouts of depression and anxiety in the past. But this new, postnatal, experience was all so new I convinced myself the panic was part and parcel of the terrifying responsibility all new parents face, in keeping their new baby healthy and alive.
Also, I felt so much love for my little boy I was certain that discounted any possibility that what I was feeling was within the category of a diagnosis. No one talked about a thing called postnatal anxiety.
I knew there was postnatal depression, and that I should be alert to feelings of apathy, an inability to bond with my baby. I did not feel those things. I felt the opposite, in a sense: live-wired, heightened love, lurching, crashing sorrow, sharp terror. Just normal motherhood, I thought. And at the same time: I cannot live like this.
There had been immediate signs of this anxiety: nonstop crying, physical feelings of panic, an inability to eat, an obsessive focus on a need to sleep. But surely that was new motherhood, I told myself.
When I was a child I had a question I ruminated on a lot: if you went to escape a room at super slow speed, so slow that no one ever registered you moving, what would be the point that you would be sprung? It turns out the point would probably be about when you were awkwardly halfway out a window and gravity was taking its course.
Here were some things that I did and did not do that, later, I recognised as the equivalent of the small, slow steps of trying to escape a room unnoticed and finding yourself hanging out a window:
I kept a ledger of every minute of the baby’s sleep.
I kept a ledger of every minute of my own sleep.
I kept a ledger of the time of every single breastfeed, the side I fed on and the length of the feed.
I googled, incessantly, things including: ‘Will baby sleep better after 3 months?’ ‘ ‘Will baby sleep better in cot?’ ‘Will baby sleep better in baby carrier?’ ‘Do big babies sleep less?’ ‘Is my baby suffering colic?’
I forced the dog into a body-lock under the doona whenever I could.
I cried on an aeroplane back from Brisbane because the baby was crying.
I cried in the car to the doctor because the baby was crying.
I cried in bed and in the kitchen and in the toilet.
I stood at the front door and waved my husband off to work and grit my teeth together and leaked tears.
Fortunately for my crying habit, I had cleared great swathes of time in my schedule, on account of cancelling most of the other things humans did as part of living, even with new babies.
I did not read (not even the back of a cereal box), cook (not even toast), watch TV (save for Offspring, but only because I was obsessed with working out if other people, even fictional people, did the things I did after they had a baby).
I did not talk to friends on the phone, plan more than a day ahead, get my hair cut, go to a shopping centre (except once when I cried), sleep when the baby slept.
After sleep school, I returned home with my head full of a routine Sleep School had modelled for me, and I swiftly transferred my anxiety onto that routine, absolutely fixated on the idea that the schedule they had suggested to me for feeding, sleeping and playing was essential to the survival of my self and my baby.
Which meant that it was highly unsettling to know that a man was attempting to break into our house, had failed, and then had succeeded in breaking into the neighbour’s house at exactly the time that I needed to get the baby to sleep. (I knew all this because I could watch the external happenings of our street from the window high up in my baby’s room while I pat pat shhh’ed him to sleep, but only through the tiniest chink on the side of the blind, which I had taped shut like Fort Knox because light was the enemy of baby-settling).
But it all worked out fine. It took exactly seven minutes for the cops to arrive, another five to cordon off the street and climb onto our garage roof and surround the neighbour’s garden, then another forty-five minutes for the burglar to emerge in handcuffs, leaving a good hour for me to give my witness statement while the baby completed his scheduled two hours of sleep.
It took a little while longer for me to get better. A few months still. My family, my therapist, my dog, everyone had noticed; but sometimes you’ve got to get to the point yourself of realising you are half-hanging out a window, clinging on for dear life before you find whatever it is you need to give you that leg-up back in.
Nicola Redhouse’s memoir Unlike the Heart (UQP) is out now and examines the unrelenting anxiety that quickly overwhelmed her after having her first child.