Purulent by Hawra’a Khalfan

A journal entry on the postpartum period:

What they don’t tell you when you’re about to be a mom is that it takes a while for that tsunami- over the moon- head inside out- intense motherly love to kick in. I remember the exact moment it kicked in with my daughter. Before that moment, I would still do everything I had to to nurture and sustain her. I clothed, bathed, nursed her. I didn’t sleep or eat properly. I fully came second and she was the most important thing in my life. But what I felt wasn’t love in the beginning. It was a need to take care of this little tiny thing I birthed. So I nursed her on demand, often meaning I barely slept. I worried about her nonstop; is it too cold? too warm? is she clean enough? full enough? healthy enough? safe enough?
This continued for two months. When she screamed I ran to her, when she cried I felt guilty and made a pact to myself that I would never let her cry for as long as I exist (she cried again 5 minutes after I made this pact). I felt like I had this fog which persisted and followed me everywhere. It was in my brain, consistently. It was like a purulent infection of the mind, consuming who I ‘was’ and oozing this layer around my brain. I was not myself anymore. I could not think straight. It was predominantly caused by lack of sleep. But there was this other side to it, where I knew I wanted things done a certain way and as the mother, I had to be the one to do those things that certain way.

I had to protect her. I had to help her grow. I had to nurture her. I didn’t have a choice. My brain was in overdrive. Now was the time to apply all those things I learned when I was pregnant. The baby is here, I would remind myself before bed. I’d look at her helpless body and knew if it wasn’t for me, she wouldn’t get the best shot at life. My mom friends seemed to have it all put together, I wondered and wondered how they figured it all out so quickly. I didn’t love this baby yet, and this was adding so much extra stress to me. I mean, I cared for her. I fed her. Bathed her. Changed her. I just didn’t have that tsunami mother love. It didn’t kick in yet. All I had were my helpless tired hands doing things the best way I knew how, and a husband who had never done this before either. He was also on his own journey transitioning into a father. Still not yet grasping the depth of what I was going through, but trying his best to support me the only way he knew how. He took time off work to be with us, and that really helped. It didn’t ease the stress we were both feeling though. It didn’t allow for the journey to be faster. We both were still trying to figure out how to juggle all the extra responsibility.

I remember one of my friends warning me that she didn’t ‘bond’ with her baby quickly at first. She asked about my experience and I said that I bonded with my daughter instantly. When I said that I genuinely meant it. I genuinely believed I had. But in retrospect, no. All I had in the beginning was pressure. The pressure didn’t allow me to bond as much as I would have thought I would with my baby. That first month of motherhood is difficult. Especially your first time, and people somehow with the best intentions to help, actually make it much worse.

You are in physical pain from labouring and birthing this baby. You are hormonal and your body is still trying to find a way to regulate itself. You are suddenly not sleeping right. You are not eating right. You still don’t look or feel like yourself. But it is the most important time in your life. While you’re this physically drained. Societal pressure kicks in with “introduce a bottle” “there’s nothing wrong with formula” “she’s too cold” “she’s too hot” “don’t hold her like this” “this is the best way to burp her” “don’t feed her too much” “you let her sleep too much” “you’re not feeding her enough” “why is she in the other room” “she needs you” “where’s her pacifier” “when can I come see the baby” “can I come drop off her gift?” and it just continued.
Within the first couple of days in the hospital, I literally got no sleep. People kept coming to visit unannounced. Visitor after visitor. No rest in between. Some came at eleven o’clock at night. Some said they were stopping by for 5 minutes and stayed 4-5 hour stretches. This extended to when we went back home. Within the first month of her life, I had hosted two gatherings and a dinner for friends to come see my daughter. Some people even spent entire 3-4 hour stretches with us, sitting on our couch and expecting to make small talk. I couldn’t say no to any of it. I didn’t know how yet. I had gotten so used to putting on a brave face and being strong.

Meanwhile, I was sitting there physically, but mentally I was wondering when I’d need to nurse again, when I can take a break to shower, when I could eat and sleep, when she needs to be changed again, why her jaundice is getting worse, what time we had to be at the doctor’s office that next morning, why my nipples hurt so much, if it was normal to bleed this much? If everyone who had a baby felt this way? When would it stop? All the while with a mental tape on repeat of the events that unfolded throughout my labor. Labor was the most traumatic thing I had ever endured. Granted, I pretty much got the labor I wanted. But the trauma of it all hadn’t settled in. The pain, the surprises, the unexpected turns. All of it. It wouldn’t sink in. So in between this endless reel of thoughts, I had to try to locate a spot within my mind to store this experience that I just had.

I felt like I was not allowed to be selfish for one second. I was not allowed to take care of myself for one second. I was not allowed to say no to people because they cared about us and wanted to see our daughter. I was not allowed to say ‘I’m sorry, I need to go rest’ when people stayed until midnight. I was not allowed to ask people to stop telling me what to do because my position in the family hadn’t yet shifted from ‘singular person’ to ‘mother’. This was hard because everyone assumes you need their advice. With all of this going through my head, I just didn’t know how to politely tell people to leave me alone. To let me rest. To let me figure it out. That their advice was unsolicited. That I just needed space.

I remember that my brain was so on overdrive that even when I took 5 minutes from my day to shower, I’d hear my daughter cry and run out of the shower because she might need me. I remember waking up to her cries to find her asleep. I remember falling asleep while nursing her and dreaming I dropped her and crushed her skull on the floor. I remember being consistently frightened to open my eyes and not find her next to me.

So now I think back to my daughter’s first two months of life, before I felt this beautifully exhausting love for her that I have now, and wonder if I would have felt this love sooner if it wasn’t for this infection of the mind in my postpartum period. I wonder if this pus surrounding my brain would have been drained out by actual kind words from people. I wonder if my bonding experience with my daughter would have been different if society understood what postpartum mothers were going through and knew how to be more caring.

2 thoughts on “Purulent by Hawra’a Khalfan

  1. This is so beautiful and informative. I`m not married, but I know the idea scares the heck out of me..yet, I`m dying to try motherhood once I do marry and be ready to have a child. May Allah bless all mothers out there. It is a hard job since day 1. Thank you for this piece, Hawraa! <3

  2. Those surrounding you who push unsolicited advice have decades worth of unresolved angst within them. They were never able to stand up for themselves against those they perceive have power over them, so they force their word upon younger women that they believe are below them in experience and are therefore in need of their poison tipped advice, and you must be grateful for it or risk a vicious guilt trip. I have been there, in a different way.
    It’s about them, not you. You are doing nothing wrong.

    Trust yourself, listen to your instincts. You know what to do and how to protect your daughter because that will be a huge part of your life’s journey now.
    From my heart, I wish you and your daughter health and happiness.

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