There are certain things the ‘baby books’ don’t tell you. For instance, that you might not fall instantly in love with your child; that your body will almost certainly never return to its pre-childbirth state; and that having babies can seriously damage your relationship.
I’m a slow writer. Not so much with the actual writing, which when it finally comes, comes pretty fast, but with the germination of ideas. The first idea for Hush Little Baby, a story about the impact on a family when their injured baby is removed from them, came in 2010.
It was the first year of my own son’s life, and two things happened that set the pulse of a story beating: I read a feature, in a Sunday supplement, entitled ‘What it feels like to be accused of hurting your baby’; and I attended infant and toddler First Aid training. In among the standard anxiety-inducing advice about choking, burns, etc., someone asked about broken bones. The nurse replied: ‘Babies and young children hardly ever have fractures. Their bones are too soft.’ He went on to say, heartbreakingly, that any time he read of an abuse case in which a young child’s bones had been broken, it upset him because he knew real force must have been applied. We all shuddered and I gave my sleeping son a few extra kisses that night.
By the end of that first year, by the time he was ten months old in fact, I had other breaks on my mind. My son’s father and I had separated. Our seven-year relationship (clichéd itch, anyone?) and three-year marriage were over. Our still-tiny son was no longer the member of a family unit; he was the subject of ‘shared access’.
What led us to that point? Our relationship had been far from perfect, at worst stormy, at best ill-matched, but what caused it to splinter when it did?
When our baby was born (before, in fact), I read all the books. I know they say babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but that’s what I do, what I’ve always done when I’m stuck: I find solace, guidance, in the written word. We had The Baby Whisperer, What to Expect…, The Contented Little Baby, a veritable library stacked up at the back of the bed, but none of them really offered answers. And I needed answers.
I needed answers to why I felt so broken. Why I adored my new son but failed utterly to understand him or read his cues. Why I couldn’t seem to feed him; why he wouldn’t sleep; why he cried, it seemed, all the time. Why I cried quite a bit too, for that matter. Why none of it seemed to ‘come naturally’.
I have friends who endured post-natal depression. I don’t believe I had PND but I was in shock, I might even go so far as to say I was traumatised. It’s my belief now that a lot of new mothers go through this, but they don’t talk about it to anyone. Worst of all, they don’t talk about it to their partners.
We both changed in that first year of parenthood. I became Not-Me. And it was Me my husband had fallen in love with. To be frank, the main things that had drawn us together at the start were sex, and going out getting drunk. There aren’t much of either in the first year after childbirth. That might sound glib, but it’s true. And we stopped communicating, except in games of one-upmanship (let’s play “who’s the most tired?”) or resentment-fueled arguments driven by a total lack of understanding of what the other was going through. We looked only at each other’s behaviour, without pausing to wonder what might be behind it. I thought he was selfish and immature and couldn’t handle the new responsibility and the fact that someone was more important than him now. I never considered that he might be anxious too, might feel threatened or inadequate when I seemed to be coping, or frightened when I didn’t. We slipped into the classic, sad cycle: I didn’t want to have sex because I wasn’t getting any tenderness or affection; he didn’t feel like giving me affection because I wasn’t ‘giving’ him sex.
I eventually found and ordered a book (of course!) about the impact of having a baby on your marriage. There aren’t many books of this type, I suppose because it feels a bit like blaming the baby for your problems, which is grossly unfair, obviously. It’s not the baby’s fault; it’s the fault of the two people you have become, who have failed to grow together at this crucial stage and have instead grown apart.
Unfortunately, by the time my latest manual arrived, my husband had already moved out. And in all too short a time, he was in love with someone else.
The greatest pain of that time, and the only part of the pain that endures several years on, was the fact of being separated from my son. In among my gratitude that his dad, unlike some divorcing parents, wanted to be involved to the extent that he demanded 50/50 access (and, to his credit, became a better parent post-separation), was a deep, yearning sense of loss. In the throes of the divorce I remember saying angrily, ‘However unhappy we were, the difference between you and me is there is nothingyou could have done in our marriage that would have made me choose to cut my time with him in half.’
I didn’t write at all during that period. Friends thought I would, that it would be cathartic. But I’d stumbled from Baby Fog to Divorce Fog and there was no clear space for my writing brain. In time, though, the idea of a family breaking, a hurt child at their centre, solidified and became a cast of characters, and a story I had to tell.
That story became Hush Little Baby. It’s not ‘about’ what happened to us, but it is honest. A lot of the feelings in it are real. Thankfully our son was never hurt, or taken from us; but I did feel the pain of the empty cot. Even now, on the nights he’s with his dad, and I know he’s happy and safe, I stand and look at his made-up bed and feel sad, and miss him.
It sounds funny, but my divorce is among the things I’m most proud of in my life. Not in itself, because it’s obviously not what anyone hopes for when they get married, but in the way we handled it and, in the end, put our son at the centre. The way we continue to share access, communicate, and don’t badmouth each other or use him to score points. Out of an awful situation, the best possible result for our son emerged. He has two loving families now and we both put his needs ahead of our own. As it turns out, in the end, that part did come naturally.