Coming to terms with the hard stuff

I don’t know Holly Walker but we have some mutual friends and acquaintances. I loved her piece on the Wireless recently, about anxiety, and on the Ruminator, a while ago, on growing up and dealing with hard stuff. I went back and re-read the growing up one just now. This bit:

It’s not just because we have a small child that we haven’t been out for so long. It’s mostly because the combination of Dave’s illness and my anxiety means that in our new reality, it’s not something we’d usually attempt (in our household a Don McGlashan gig warrants special effort). In the recent past, I’ve thought this makes us exceptional, more than usually unlucky. I’ll be honest; I’ve spent a lot of time feeling sorry for myself.

But I started to think, licking my ice-cream back in the darkened theatre, that rather than set me apart, these experiences are my passport to life as a grown-up. The older we get, the more experiences we accumulate. After thirty years, it’s not surprising that they start to include the tragic, heartbreaking, and incredibly difficult to bear. To bear them anyway, and go on finding the joy in small things – that’s what grown-ups do.

Yes.

Yes.

I wasn’t quite a grown up when I had a baby. I had all the hallmarks – relationship, job, etc, but I still felt self-consciously young a lot of the time. In the first year of parenting, especially the first six months or so, I lost my footing a bit on my sense of who I was, and I came out slightly different, shaped by that first glimpse that my body and mind weren’t always going to bounce back quickly from what life had in store.

It’s taken me a long time to figure out how to feel about this, to allow myself space for the sadness without being lost in it. And still, when I read about people who’ve had worse experiences, I feel selfish for being sorry for myself. Yesterday I had a little cry thinking about the day the little dude was born – then today I felt like a fool for being so precious as to think I deserve to have everything easy all the time. I want to chide myself – life’s hard, toughen up, it could have been worse. I’m way too invested in a self-image of someone who copes with stuff and doesn’t complain. I know this is stupid, I know this attitude isn’t helpful.

I’m five weeks out from the due date for this baby, and two years have gone by since the little dude was born, and it’s probably a good idea to confront all the baggage I have about the last time round. The last fifteen hours of the labour felt like a strange nightmarish state. I remember it only hazily. When they told me they were going to perform the episiotomy, I couldn’t feel pain because of the epidural but I could feel the pressure of the surgical scissors and I felt the moment when the cut went slightly wrong and I saw the expression of concern pass over the midwife’s face. I can put words to this in a way that I hope lets other people understand how I felt, like I’m writing a story about someone else, and that helps create a bit of distance.

I can tell you about the numbness that shot through when they said my baby wasn’t breathing and he was whisked away, and then the hours following when I couldn’t hold him, and I was too exhausted and too shocked to feel much at all.

I can describe the worst moment, later that day, when they kicked my husband out because visiting hours were over and I stayed in the hospital with my baby and I felt like a child myself who had been abandoned. I remember one of the hospital midwives told me off for cuddling the baby in the bed, because I might fall asleep, and I remember crying myself to sleep that first night, so tired. I remember tripping over the catheter when I got up in the night to feed him, and struggling to get him to latch, and pressing the button for assistance. A different midwife came and she was so nice to me.

I can mention how the next day, my nipples were covered in blisters, and the next couple of weeks were an exercise in pain and frustration trying to get breastfeeding established, and the only silver lining was that my husband was on paternity leave so I wasn’t by myself.

It’s harder to talk about the pelvic floor issues, about the extent to which dealing with the ongoing problems is a limiting factor in my life, but hidden, and obviously a strange topic to mention, so it’s something that I have to be reminded of all the time but can’t easily explain to people. Shortly after I returned to work last year a colleague asked whether I had gotten back into running yet, I lied and said that I couldn’t find the time. Another colleague, also a mother, said that she found the opposite – running was the best exercise to squeeze in when you didn’t have much time.

I know. I loved running. I miss running. I’ll never be able to run again. 

I’m not totally reconciled to that, but I have to accept it, so feeling a residual strand of sadness about it is ok.

In the first year, I struggled to communicate how I was feeling to friends – we’re not good in this culture at talking about experiences that make us sad. I couldn’t even begin to broach it with new acquaintances. Two years on I can look back and feel a retrospective tenderness towards past me that I didn’t let myself feel at the time. Maybe that’s part of growing up.

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