This is a blog about postnatal depression, the danger of comparisons, returning to work, and a girl who has it all.
We’ve all known one, at one stage or another. If you’re honest, you probably know one now. She’s that bit prettier than you. A bit cleverer. A bit thinner. A bit more confident. A bit more sorted. A bit more successful. A bit of a better mummy, perhaps, without all the shouting and threats. A girl who has it all.
Personally, I’ve always made a point of making friends with these people. Sure, at various stages of my life I’ve found myself in the unenviable role of ‘ugly sidekick mate’ or even found that I’m being used, which is always a fairly unpleasant experience. But mostly I’ve found that I’m being inspired, that I’m learning, gaining energy and experience and expertise from some of the wonderful women I now count as my friends.
I’ve since heard that saying that ‘If you’re the XXist person in the room, you’re in the wrong room’. I rather like it. I certainly don’t worship perfection, but I do love being with folk who make me spark – even if I’m lit up only by their reflected glory! I’ll take that and happily bask.
There is one girl who has it all who, unusually, is no longer my friend. Her name (for the purposes of this blog) is Rachel, and we used to be colleagues and pretty good pals. She’s gorgeous, brilliant, perfect boyfriend, blah blah blah. She moved quickly up the ranks because frankly she’s got an awesome strategic mind, and she’s just better at shit than I am. And that was okay. In fact, I was – and still am – kind of proud of her. I was even prouder to be counted as her friend.
Rachel became my boss, and it worked well because we still sparked off each other. And then I had my first baby and she had her career and we didn’t cross paths that much. That’s when it changed, or I changed, or something. Maybe it was different priorities. Maybe it was my postnatal depression and the sleep deprivation, which fuddled my brain. Going back to work I wasn’t as good as I was, and I didn’t have the hours anymore to throw in and make up for it.
Like so many return to work mums, I struggled to remember who I was in the workplace and how to fit it all in. Suddenly I was easily overwhelmed, unfocused, and so, so tired. Certainly too tired to chase the promotions that would have kept me Rachel’s peer. I told myself that prioritising my child and staying part time (and low down) was the best thing for my family. In hindsight it probably was. I wanted to have another baby anyway, so why not get on with that?
So I tried to get on with my work and get pregnant to boot. But life doesn’t often adhere to a schedule. I’ll happily own I didn’t deal with my subsequent health issues and fertility struggles very well.
There is something of a statute of limitations on sympathy, especially in large traditional industries like mine, where it is easy to be anonymous. Another number. As I went in and out of hospital for various treatments it inevitably waned. Rachel took a step back and left me to deal solely with my new line manager – someone ambitious and inexperienced. As my only contact with the organisation, they played things by the book (to the excruciating letter), and all the good will, hard work, relationships and experience I’d built up counted for nothing. I felt abandoned – particularly by Rachel.
Colleagues not friends
In the months of nastiness that followed, when my marriage nearly broke down, when I was being prodded and probed and scraped and inflated and doped up on hormone drugs, Rachel never ONCE asked me how I was doing. I’ll be honest – that really, really hurt. The girl who had it all didn’t need to have my crap dragging her down. She was above me, not just in terms of hierarchy but above my messy life and pesky emotions. I’d mistaken us for friends, and she made it super clear we were only ever colleagues.
As a newly over-emotional, and long-term passive aggressive type, it goes without saying I found this very hard to deal with, and it’s taken a long while to gain any perspective. Just as I need other people to light me up, when I’m left alone I dim. And for some reason this was the catalyst that threw me into one of my very darkest places.
Looking back now, though, what did I really expect her to do? What choice did she have but to follow procedure with my immediate boss? Duh. Perhaps I was too fragile to approach in a work setting. And perhaps she had shit of her own to be dealing with, and I wasn’t there for her either. When she did start to make personal overtures, I was too sad and too angry to be able to respond. I see that now. And what’s more, I also see that maybe to Rachel – to anyone on the outside – I was the girl who had it all.
Having it all
I don’t think it ever feels like you have it all, you see. Even if you’re the luckiest bugger in the whole world. Most of the time, I remember to be really, really fucking grateful. Eventually, I got my second baby, and that IS a miracle. And I get to work part time to spend time with my babies, because I’m not the main breadwinner – and there’s some real luxury in that.
Sure, I don’t have a career. But in reality I’m not even sure I want one – certainly not the one I essentially gave up on. Perhaps I once defined myself too much by my work, but I liked being good at something. So who the hell am I now? It’s a question I think a lot of new mums find themselves asking. Several years down the line I still don’t have an answer.
I certainly don’t want to repeat the mistake and become someone who defines themselves only by their children (not least because I think that’s a lot of pressure to put them under). Half the time I’m not even that good at being a mother. It’s not easy. It’s not 100% gushy-wonderful either – anyone who says different is a bloody liar and you should cut them immediately from your acquaintance. Happy families is fucking hard, HARD work. And it’s difficult to feel thankful about it when you’re up to your elbows in poo.
Every day, motherhood continues to expose my latent (and brand shiny new!) mental health issues – as well as some personality traits and personal failings that frankly shame me. I’m not as patient as I thought I was. I’m not as quick, or decisive, or incisive. I’m often at the mercy of the most intense emotions I’ve ever experienced – love, anger, grief, worry, guilt – that I struggle to contain, and then to remember why I’m feeling them in the first place.
I said to one wonderful women (who is a friend that definitely has it all in terms of positivity), that becoming a parent kind of broke me. I’m not the contained, self-assured and poised person I once was. I was worse. She told me she thought it had actually set me free.
All that of course, made me a very different person to work with and be with. (Hell, even I don’t recognise me sometimes). Added to the monotony of the ongoing drama, it made me just too different from Rachel.
Comparisons and contrasts
So what why is it – given all the crappiness along the way – it was the experience of being dumped by a girl who had it all (whether this was reality or not) that so stuck in my craw?
I think the crux of the matter was the sheer contrast of her life to mine. From being peers on a very similar trajectory our life paths suddenly diverged, and while she was the girl who had it all – despite everything I had – I FELT like the girl who had it all taken away.
Her life was on track – mine was careening off the rails. And it shouldn’t have been. I should have been happy. I WAS happy about my baby, but I was also unhinged by being a mummy – and guilty about failing to love every second. And then it all started to get almost farcically worse when I tried to be a mummy all over again.
Look, I don’t think any of my shit is any better, worse or stinkier than anyone else’s. But after having children – when I should have felt how much I had gained – in reality I felt like I lost.
I lost a huge part of me, certainly my clarity and my sense of self. That confidence and assurance that characterised Rachel was far, far out of my reach. I lost my career, which at one point was very important to me, just as Rachel’s took off. I then lost what was (to me) this important friendship. Next I continued to lose control of not just my emotions and mental health but of my physical health as my body let me down, of my reproductive choices, my vision for my family, and very nearly my relationship as a result. I felt like a victim of circumstance – and Rachel felt like a woman who would never be so weak as to let even circumstance make her a victim.
Obviously nothing is that simple, and nobody’s life is perfect. Everyone you meet has problems and issues under the surface you know nothing about. And yes, you might even be their girl who has it all.
Maybe when one of YOUR ‘girls who has it all’ has a family, she’ll manage the whole thing effortlessly. Maybe she’s already a Mummy and she seems able to continue with her life pretty much unchanged and unphased. But maybe, just maybe, she’s finding it hard too. Maybe she’s struggling to be grateful every day. Maybe she’ll find that the job suffers, or the relationship, or even the mind – like so many of us. Maybe she’s come out the other side a little bit different.
And maybe, as my positive friend points out, maybe that difference isn’t worse. Maybe it’s actually a little bit better.
Today I’ve realised I’ve stopped comparing my life, my choices and myself to anyone else. I don’t feel like a victim anymore. I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything anymore, either. Oh don’t get me wrong, I’m still not in any semblance of control, here. I haven’t found myself or had some sort of epiphany (sounds exhausting and I’m still waaaaaay too knackered for that sort of thing). But somewhere along the way I have finally found the power in what I’ve acquired.
At last, I’m recognising not just my children as gifts, but also the change having them has wrought in me.
Crying at the 10 o’clock news
I did crack when I had children, but what was released in the process – awakened – I wouldn’t put back to sleep if I could. I wouldn’t go back to being so absolute or so pragmatic – to being someone who didn’t regularly cry at the 10 o’clock news (and who rather despised those soft-headed enough to do so). Yes I have plumbed new depths of despair and wretchedness, but I think I needed to do so in order to feel everything else. On the other side of the same coin are the thundering swells of love and joy that have literally stopped my heart beating. I have never known anything like it, and I wouldn’t give it up for the world.
I AM better. And now I can consciously CHOOSE to feel like a girl who has it all myself, even if the ‘all’ is not what I ever expected. And you know what? I think maybe I’m getting better every day.
Maybe I’m even stepping away from the (Nether) Edge.