I was one of the lucky ones and became pregnant at first breath. Later on my husband said that this may have been part of the problem: I had not had the time to really begin to wish for it, to yearn for a child. But maybe that was not the only reason those first few months of motherhood were so hard.

A new mother once said to me: “We wanted this child for years. All those treatments and tears. So why am I so exhausted and sad?” A new father said rebelliously: “I am much fonder of our cat than I am of the baby. The cat I have known for seven years, the baby has been with us three weeks.”

Our culture is not very sophisticated when it comes to the deepest areas of being human. Parenthood, love relationships, ageing and dying are all imagined to be “easy”, something natural and mostly biological. In truth, they are all skills that must be learnt with humility and love.

A nurse I met had worked in Africa and in the poorer regions of Helsinki before landing in bourgeois Viiskulma. She held the view that having well-to-do career women become mothers for the first time in their thirties wasn’t necessarily a good thing. “The younger ones are not nearly as nervous. They have a more flexible self-image, and are not so resistant to discomfort. They take motherhood more in their stride, and don’t turn it into a major project that needs to be executed to perfection.”

We had only recently moved back to Helsinki after several years of working and kicking it up in Asia. Reverse culture shock had set in, the endless darkness of winter arrived, and days and nights of sleeplessness merged into each other. There had been literature at the hospital on baby blues, but I paid no attention to it, since I had been so certain that I would love being a mother, and was only very worried about learning how to care for him. As it turned out, the first few months were the exact opposite: the physical care was not very complicated, though physically demanding. It was the psychological growth into motherhood that turned out to be hard.

There was no milk. I felt I had failed at the first hurdle. A big part of my self-image had been that of a competent working woman who delivers what she promises, and quality work too. But there was no milk. The baby would be red all over from crying with hunger, and I would be crying from the humiliation of not being able to provide him with what all the literature, the professionals and the other, successful mothers assured me was the very basis of his health and our balanced relationship. At every feeding time, my grim-faced husband would eventually hand me the bottle or take the child, who was already calming at the scent of the substitute. I would button up and wipe my face and vow to try some other rustic remedy to get the milk to flow.

I would walk the streets of grey, cold Helsinki with the pram and explain to myself that everything was really very well, that it was wonderful to have a little boy, that I loved him and that that should certainly be enough. That we had supportive relatives, my husband was always there to help, that there really was nothing to worry about. But there was the sleeplessness, the nightmares, the constant fear that something would happen to the child while I was sleeping or in the other room, that having no milk was “a sign”, that I would never find work again, and that my life as an individual with legitimate needs of my own was over.  

Before the baby is born, all focus is on the mother-to-be (the father’s emotions are eclipsed already at this point). Everyone cossets you, asks how you are, you are constantly being measured and petted. As soon as the water breaks, the mother disappears, and all eyes turn to the child. People would often not say hello to you, their eyes already glued on the beautiful little creature in your arms. It is natural, and not really anything that you can blame anyone for. The only trouble is that it happens when a woman – and a man – are at their most vulnerable, when the biggest revolution of their lives has just happened, and hardly anyone asks you for months, “How are you?”

The marriage is under all sorts of strain as well, some of which are more obvious and some more subtle.  For new fathers, the child can seem an interloper: he is in hopeless competition with the baby for love and attention. It may seem that that will never change, that he has “lost” her.

One evening, half a year after our son was born, my husband said to me: “You have to get help. I am afraid that your unhappiness is going to affect our son.” That was probably the only thing that would have mobilised me: we are brought up to bear whatever comes, and put ourselves aside. I would not have felt that I have a right to happiness: I thought that I had made the choice of becoming a mother, and it was simply my own childishness and lack of understanding that was making it so hard. I was quite sure by then that I would never be a “good mother”, certainly not like the ones in the books and in the sweet, soft-lens pictures of women’s magazines. The depression and lack of sleep blended in with the severe psychological strain of constantly fearing failure that might lead to the baby mysteriously dying. Tunnel vision and hopelessness ruled.

Things were acerbated by the behaviour of others, particularly older women whose own children had already grown up: “Oh, you must savour this moment! It is so wonderful, they are small only for such a short time and then it’s gone forever!” I said to my husband that if one more person in rapture tells me to  enjoy this, I will hit their teeth in. And then I went to see the nurse-back-from-Africa again.

She looked me up and down and said, “You’re very brave, did you know that? Many women feel the same way, but they never admit it, not even to themselves. There is nothing unusual in what has happened to you, you describe it very well. You don’t have a history of depression, do you? No wonder you didn’t recognise it for what it is. It’s partly hormonal, but partly it’s because the things that have served you well until now in other areas of life don’t work here. And you know what? That’s a very good thing, because not all those societally acceptable reactions are healthy. But the things that motherhood teaches us are actually the essence of life. You’ll be fine.”

 Fragment from piece by Ernesto Neto.

Fragment from piece by Ernesto Neto.

That was the turning point, of course. A few weeks later, I found yoga, the baby started sleeping – perhaps in response to me calming down. I should have gone to find help much sooner, but I was so ashamed. Post-partum depression is still something of a taboo, a sign of weakness, and media and general conversation reflect that. “Negative” feelings are not dealt with very well in our culture in general. I still sometimes wonder whether those first months of misery will reflect on my son’s life in ways that I do not yet see. But on the other hand, I am probably a better mother now, because I faced up to my suffering then.

When the baby is born, the woman and the man are reborn as well. We have to shed so many of the conventions and outer trappings that we have clung to, and begin to build ourselves from the core. The babies have the hardest job, teaching their parents to become human beings in a wider sense. The baby is our guru, the one who shows us what is spontaneous action and joy, endless perseverance and the will to grow, learn and change. He teaches us to dismantle our ego, but also to reclaim our true value, which is not dependent on whether we are “good” parents or on the attitudes of others.

It is a slow road, and the more you have built your sense of self-worth on outer things, the harder and longer it will be. The rewards, when they begin to come, are worth every single tear. The trick is to ask for help, to be honest, to declaim from the rooftops, if necessary, that you are not feeling well or doing very well, but that you love the child and will do your best…to relax.