I’ve been so overwhelmed by the response to my last post, Looks like we made it, that I wanted to share F’s story. The full story. But I want to make one thing very clear before I get started, and that is this: I owe every breakthrough, every hour of extra sleep and every tiny ounce of peace of mind to the wonderful doctors and nurses who took care of F during his hospital stay last January. It’s true that F is my hero, but if he is mine then those medical bods are definitely his. Without them, we would not be where we are today.
In hindsight, I knew that there was something wrong with F from him being about two weeks old. He was a snacky, fidgety feeder and he would often throw up an entire feed just minutes after finishing it. The vomiting probably distressed me more than it did him, but he was clearly uncomfortable most of the time and I tried everything to persuade him to feed. I administered gallons of Infacol and gripe water, rocked him until he was almost asleep so he would take the bottle more willingly, tried every milk on the market once I’d realised that breastfeeding just wasn’t an option anymore… You name it, I tried it. But nothing worked. Alongside this, F did nothing but cry. He would cry and cry for hours and there was nothing I could do to comfort him. And he wouldn’t sleep. When he woke up in the night for a feed, there was often nothing I could do to get him to go back to sleep. Once, after trying for two hours to settle him in his Moses basket, I told N I couldn’t cope anymore, got in my car and drove up into the forestry where I slept in the passenger seat under a blanket for a couple of hours.
I took F to see a doctor, who said he probably had reflux and sent him home with a box of infant Gaviscon. That worked for less than 24 hours. Another doctor gave him a prescription for Ranitidine, but neglected to tell us that the dosage would change with his weight or follow up the appointment with his promised referral to a paediatric consultant, so that worked for a week or so, then we were back to square one. Nobody seemed to want to help us.
Things finally came to a head when I had spent a whole day failing to feed F or get him to sleep. N was at work and my mom came round to find me clinging to O and sobbing my heart out while F screamed in his cot upstairs. I said some awful things that day. Things like I wished somebody would just come and take him away, or that I wanted to leave him somewhere and drive away because I simply couldn’t cope with him anymore. I said I didn’t love him, didn’t want him, wished I’d never had him. I can forgive myself for these things now because I know that I was mentally ill at the time from all of the stress and the crippling lack of sleep. But saying them made me feel sick. Saying them made me hate myself.
My mom had no idea what to do, so she called 111 and they decided to send an ambulance. When the paramedics arrived, they asked me some questions and I tried to explain that whatever was wrong with F was also, in another way entirely, what was wrong with me too. They decided to take both of us in, and as they left me in the A&E waiting room, I remember one of them saying to me “Because you’ve come in with us, they have to check you both out properly. It’s going to be alright.” We were quickly taken into an assessment room where a triage nurse took our details and checked F over, then we were left alone for a while until a doctor came to see us. When he asked me how we had ended up in A&E, I explained every tiny detail of F’s issues and symptoms right up to the uncontrollable crying that had finally led us here. I was honest about the fact that I no longer felt able to cope, which was when he asked me “have you ever thought about hurting your son?” I replied, “No, but I can empathise with a person who gets to the end of their rope and shakes their baby.” I knew it would be a red flag. I knew exactly what would happen next, but I’d reached a point where I had to be honest. A point where I knew we needed help, whatever the personal cost.
After that, I wasn’t allowed to be alone with F. Even when N arrived, the door to the room had to be left open. Then another nurse came and took him away to the children’s ward. I was told that I wasn’t allowed to stay with him, but that someone would come to see me when he’d been assessed and take me down to the ward so I could see him and say goodbye to him. I was in shock. I couldn’t even cry. I’d known what would happen, but I felt like a monster. Even though I knew that I would never do anything to hurt my child, in my mind I was already a criminal.
A crisis meeting was arranged for that night, so we hung around at the hospital once we’d seen F and been assured by the staff on the paediatric ward that they couldn’t feed him either and that they didn’t believe for one minute that I was a risk to my son. The doctor on the ward told me that she felt it was very brave of me to admit to feeling so helpless and out of control, but all I could feel was shame and disgust. It was, and still is, the darkest night of my life.
The social worker who came to assess me said he felt it was ridiculous to keep me at the hospital well into the night when it was clearly obvious that what I really needed was to sleep. I shrugged, told him we’d all seen the horror stories about shaken babies and children beaten to death by those who were supposed to protect them. I understood why I was there, why it was necessary. I answered his questions honestly and he told me that he thought I was probably depressed, but that he in no way believed I would harm either of my children. I was finally allowed to say goodbye to F, given a strong sleeping pill and sent home.
F was kept in the hospital for four nights. During that time, N and I had a meeting with the team who were looking after him. One of the nurses in that meeting asked me why I had struggled with him for so long, essentially on my own. Not really knowing what she expected me to say, I replied “I didn’t think I had a choice.” I explained that I had spent the last three months feeling like a complete failure, like I just wasn’t up to the job of being F’s mother, and an amazing thing happened; a whole roomful of medical professionals told me that they all thought the fact that I had somehow managed to feed F and do a pretty decent job of keeping his weight up in light of the severity of his reflux was nothing short of a miracle. They told me they thought I was remarkable.
Later that week I was also psychiatrically assessed and diagnosed as being borderline depressed, but it was suggested that that was largely due to the stress of F’s condition rather than anything that would require medication. Also, I was assured that there was no question of me being considered a danger to my children. Looking back, I don’t think anyone ever really believed that I was, but I know that it was necessary for them to check me out and I found that I was incredibly grateful to them for doing the best job they could to protect my son. For a while we got extra help with childcare so I could get some rest, and everyone in our families finally knew what we’d been going through. I’m not going to dress it up; it was a shitty time. Having Social Services involved was terrifying, but it was something we had to go through to get the help that we needed.
What I took away from the experience – aside from the fact that I am not, in fact, Wonder Woman – was that mothers don’t talk about this stuff enough. We all pretend that we can cope with anything. Who knows; maybe there are some women out there who can. But I’m not one of them, yet I pretended for months that I was fine even though I felt like I was drowning. And what I’ve realised, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, is that it’s actually really dangerous to internalise parenting problems. It might seem like every other mother you know is sailing through on a sea of endless patience, but I can almost guarantee you that that isn’t the case. If just one mother who feels like she isn’t coping reads this post and opens up to a relative, friend or health visitor – anyone – then my work is done. Being a parent is hard and being a mother can be very lonely. Don’t make it worse by pretending you’re okay if you’re really, really not. Believe it or not (and I certainly wouldn’t have a year ago) no one is going to think you’re a monster if you admit that you’re struggling.
And I want to say thank you to every single person who read my last post and left me a lovely comment. It’s because of you that I have felt brave enough to post this story today.