by Chris Miezitis, Fathers Network Scotland
I love pictures of small babies. Who doesn’t? Small, wide-eyed, open-mouthed, soft-haired beautiful wee tiny totsy, gentle quiet creatures.
Despite being a dad to twins, I don’t recall ever having seen a baby such as this myself. Something I do remember is this: One morning at 3am, I briefly tripped into a half-wakened state, having just settled my son. My very small baby daughter was lying on her changing mat, naked as the day she was born (around a week previously), clean as a whistle and ready to be put back into fresh clothes by her mum. Suddenly, and with no warning, out of the corner of my eye I clocked a stream of viscous brown fluid shooting out of her backside towards the side of my head. Despite my near catatonic state, my cat-like new parent reflexes kicked in and I thrust my head back as, a nano second later, the offensive torpedo flew beneath my nose and struck the wall at the end of the changing table. As my heart rate exceeded 160 bpm (weight loss territory) I picked up the - now raging - tot in a futile attempt to prevent further leakage. Eyes squeezed tightly shut with fury, her screaming, panic and anger combined to produce a solid protest of projected vomit downward and onto my bare feet and pyjama trouser legs.
This - from peaceful serenity, to a scene straight from Dante’s Inferno - all in a matter of less than two seconds.
A few minutes later, I lay back in bed with my wee girl fast asleep in her cot next to me. I could sense sleep spilling over into my consciousness like a velvet blanket: warm, thick and glorious. Then my son, from the other side of the room, made a noise that seemed to turn the flesh and bone of my spine into a frozen and rigid pole of solid black metal, my eyes suddenly wide in terror with a stare into the abyss.
And the abyss?
The abyss, of course, stared right back at me.
I’m a dad to nine-year-old twins. I have to say that life now is so much easier than it was when these two little people came into our lives. I’m also Programme Lead at Fathers Network Scotland. The charity has spent much of the past two years working with frontline health professionals across Scotland who deal with the very earliest stages of life: pregnancy, birth and infant childcare. We have helped midwives, health visitors, family workers, social workers – and many others who work within this perinatal period - to consider how fathers can be supported to be more confidently involved during these early stages. This has also meant shining a light on the mental health of new parents: not just mothers, but fathers too.
While we are all trying to adjust to this new normal, here at Fathers Network Scotland, as in so many organisations and community support groups around the country, we have been thinking a lot about how parents, families and children can continue to be supported with some of the ordinary, and possibly not so ordinary, day to day challenges that will endure.
Indeed, it feels a bit like stating the obvious, but we need to consider how families can cope with the added pressures brought upon them as the world around us closes off, and we all become isolated and insular.
Our abilities to cope will of course be compromised by the shock of current events. Even at the best of times, during the often-relentless cycle of chores that is parenting in the early years, mums and dads need reassurance that feeling isolated, lonely, anxious, stressed, bad tempered, exhausted, frayed, emotional, helpless… This is normal.
Men and women who are becoming parents right now, will perhaps feel these emotions even more acutely. With social distancing and reduced community midwifery and health visiting services, reassurance and support may be more difficult to come by. Dr Roch Cantwell is Lead Clinician of the Scottish Perinatal Mental Health Network and says, “While being a new parent (or getting ready for your second, third or fourth child) can be one of the greatest things, it’s also tough at times - for every mother and father. No-one escapes the exhaustion, sleep deprivation and change in family relationships and routine. Everyone struggles at times.’’
Some questions that new parents might ask are:
What if I don’t feel a bond with my child?
…That happens, and it’s normal.
What if I don’t think I love my child?
…This is a not too uncommon experience for many new parents. Try not to be afraid – in time that love will come.
What if I don’t feel as though I can cope with the anxieties and stresses of being a new parent? Or what if I’m worried about how my partner’s coping?
What if I may be struggling profoundly…am I depressed?... One in five new mums and one in 10 new dads will suffer from postnatal depression during the early stages of parenthood.
All of these experiences will put a strain not just on our own sense of mental wellbeing, but will put an added pressure and strain on the relationships between new parents. Again: this is normal, and to be expected.
About four weeks into our six week antenatal class for parents of multiple birth children, I remember our midwife pausing while imparting some biological wisdom, or thoughts about the benefits of whale song and candles during labour (for anyone who’s not had a birthing experience: meanwhile back on planet Earth…) she said, “Now, being a parent to twins will, at times, put a strain on your relationship… Now, back to the uterus…!”.
Oh how I wish the balance had been reversed: five weeks talking about relationships, with a little bit of biology lessons chucked in.
Don’t get me wrong: It’s important to be informed about the inner prenatal workings of a mum’s body. It’s nice to know that your baby can float into our world to the sound of pan pipes playing Enya while incense sticks burn in the corner. But the fact is that once the birth is over, the rest of your life with that child begins. And goes on. And never stops. And is all consuming, exhausting, exhilarating, horrible, amazing…all at once. And this is where the single most important thing that can make or break a family is thrust front and centre: your relationship with the people you live with.
Both of our children insisted on a fairly consistent poor sleeping ‘patch’ from birth until around, say, four years old. So we shared the burden. In the early days, I remember heading down stairs with our daughter in the middle of the night for a feed, and passing my wife with the other one on the way back up, neither of us saying anything or acknowledging the other, like two silent ghost ships passing in the night. Our relationship was definitely strained, but we managed to get through it, together, eventually. We survived.
So, what can isolated parents do to cope with some of the struggles, so that love, bonding and confident parenting has a space to thrive?
We must look out for ourselves, and for each other. We must try to find the time, and the space, to think and talk about our own and each other’s well being. This isn’t always easy, and sometimes it can be very hard to take a step back and reflect when the whirlwind is upon us.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was from my mum: Try to enjoy the small, quiet moments when you can. Advice we are all familiar with, but also adept at ignoring. Now that our twins are nine-and-a-half years old, I find myself squeezing as much as I can from each moment I have with them, as I have become acutely aware that the onset of young adulthood waits just around the corner. The unconditional love they have for you will never be as unrestrained or raw as it is when they are small children, even if it lasts a lifetime. These are the moments we became parents for, each moment a unique exchange as part of the stuff of life. Even the tough moments.
We must always try to give ourselves, and each other, some slack and some support, where and when we can. Even if that just means a thought, or a simple question, “How are you doing?”
And if any parent, new or not-so-new, feels unable to cope, there is still support out there you can access. You may be isolated, but you are not alone.