Everyone said November was the perfect time to have a baby. “It will be so cosy”, they cooed. But when the darkness arrived at 4pm, both the one creeping in at my windows, and the one filling my lungs with anxiety each evening, it felt more like suffocation. No amount of cashmere or scented candles could counteract the dread in the pit of my stomach when the blue dusk covered the world outside and my fear of the sleepless night ahead began.
“Everything is a phase” is something everyone also said. And this time they were right. Lighter evenings arrived. I managed to shake off the darkness. I felt better. This was just new motherhood, I told my concerned partner. And I was enjoying new motherhood, going out on regular walks with a new NCT friend, crocuses and daffodils splattering colour against the grey sky, a hopeful promise of easier days ahead. But as soon as winter had passed, insomnia arrived. At night, I lay awake, eyes wide open. The dread was back, and this time it had moved to my mind, conducting an orchestra of worries at 3am, doubt and self-loathing clashing in my ears.
When we had to switch my four month old son from breastfeeding to bottle due to an allergy, a crack in my foundations appeared, the earth splitting beneath my feet like an Indiana Jones movie. I felt completely unsteady; emotionally depleted at the thought of giving up breastfeeding and utterly terrified of learning a new way to feed him. The months of gradually rising anxiety had broken through into a mini earthquake of worry. Plus, without the ad hoc nature of breastfeeding, suddenly there were feeding schedules and nap times. Routine arrived like a sour-faced matron and I allowed her to become a merciless ruler. I became terrified of what would happen if this new schedule wasn’t stuck to. I snapped at my partner when he didn’t display the same sort of reverence to the precise feeding times my world had been reduced to. Waves of tears appeared out of nowhere. A few times panic inflated my chest, almost to the point of overwhelm.
Long before I became a mother, I had rejected routine. It was limiting, boring, predictable. The essentiality of routine as a parent has been such an assault on who I understand myself to be, but mourning a former version of myself was nothing compared to the daily referendum routine seemed to be having on me. Could I actually do this, I wondered each morning. Was I good enough? I lived with a persistence of tightness in my jaw, my neck, my shoulders. My face creased with confusion when I tried to figure out how to live a life alongside my baby’s needs.
Timing, they say, is everything. In May we set off for a month in Menorca. We Airbnb’d our home in Somerset and my partner took shared parental leave. I had, for the first time in six months, a moment to breathe. It was staggering just how quickly the removal from real life downgraded the dominance of routine, automatically loosening anxiety’s grip on me. Yet it was the habits of the Spanish that proved most revelatory. Toddlers sit in hip wine bars at 10pm while their parents eat tapas. Babies are in buggies next to tables in chic restaurants at 9pm. Very quickly, we saw that little ones live the lives of their parents, not the other way round. As time passed, we found the confidence to copy the parenting of the locals, and if my baby didn’t go to bed till 11pm, he was, lo and behold, totally fine. If we wanted an early evening drink, bathtime was occasionally sacked off. Long days at the beach meant he fell asleep in the car or under an umbrella on the sand, not in a cot. And, for the first time in a long time, I relaxed. My son, I could see, was happier than ever.
Sunshine and cove beaches are a luxury sadly not prescribed on the NHS, but that was not what freed me from myself. It was, I believe, being in a culture that supported parenthood. Day and night, babies were welcome. This meant that when I was out late with my son, I wasn’t scanning the eyes of those around me for judgement. I was enjoying myself. And I had a taste of a former life: an early evening drink in warm Mediterranean air; a restaurant with white tablecloths and a cocktail list. These things made me feel like me again, and the process of rebuilding my sense of self gave me the confidence and self belief to be in charge of the routine, to bend and shape it as I saw fit. I was, once more, in control of how I felt, and how we lived our lives.
I look back at the pre-Menorca me: a gaunt and ghostly version of myself, biting my nails, holding back hot stinging tears, resolutely unable to see how happy and healthy the little person in her charge was. But taken out of the context of my regular life, given the ultimate tonic of a change of scenery, I was able to see what was important, and despite what the internet or the baby books said, it wasn't how long my baby napped for, or how much he’d drunk. A happy, relaxed and confident mother was - and is - the best gift I could possibly give him. Now I’m back home, I’m doing everything I can to make sure she sticks around.