When a friend told me to listen to my instincts when I was a new mother, I wondered what she could mean. At the time, not only was I unable to tune into my instincts, I had little idea that they even existed. My instincts might have been a group of old women, draped in shawls and patterned head scarves, amulets and herbs in their pockets, crowded in a corner of my consciousness, waiting to be heard. What would they sound like, if I were to listen to them? Would they be shaking their heads in frustration at being ignored for so long? Would they be sitting with arms crossed, watching me with their heads cocked to one side, chuckling at my inability to find my way through this labyrinth of new parenthood without their help? Would they be brewing up a cup of tea, ready to offer me a seat when I chose to be in their company?
Those instincts: where had they been all my life?
It took a long time to tap into their voices. I’d ignored them for so long that they’d atrophied. Their voices faded away to whispers, and their intervention became less frequent. Life seemed to be going along fine: I was a successful, well-educated woman, and I was content.
But when I became a mother, I sank into depths of unhappiness previously unknown. My post-natal depression may have been, in part, owing to chemical imbalance, experiences growing up, heredity. But there was also an element of feeling utterly alone, while at the same time being surrounded by other mothers. It seemed that each mother was responding to her child in the culturally expected way: breastfeeding for no longer than six months, letting babies cry it out, trying to teach their babies to self-soothe. I listened to their stories, and wondered why I couldn’t bring myself to do those things. When I applied for the job of mother, I must not have read the job description carefully enough. I hadn’t realised that I wasn’t up to the task. So when I found myself in a group of mothers, I wanted to feel like a sessile object, like I belonged. But in reality I felt out of place, a cork bobbing in the waves.
When my baby cried, I felt helpless. Should I pick her up? Or would that be spoiling her? Should I breastfeed her? Or would that teach her to rely on breastfeeding for comfort? Maybe I should pass her on to someone else who might be able to soothe her better than me? I interrogated every decision, in much the same way I’d been taught to interrogate and research ideas during my education. And all the while, those old women, those instincts, rumbled and plotted and began to beat their drums within my heart until I could ignore them no longer.
I wish I’d known about those instincts way back then. I wish their voices had been louder, that I’d tuned into their signals earlier. I could have saved myself a lot of pain. I could have saved my baby many moments of unhappiness. It took so much time and practice for me to learn their language.
Even now, more than ten years later, the pain and confusion of those days is raw. An editor asked me to write about post-natal depression, and I spent the night lying awake, drenched in sweat, reliving the experience of being lost at the bottom of a well, hoping desperately that someone would throw me a rope and tow me out. The next morning I wrote to her and turned down the assignment.
“Listen to your own instincts.” I say it to mothers all the time. I wonder whether it has the same hollow ring for them that it once had for me. Or perhaps mothers these days are becoming more conversant with the language of that huddle of women who sit in a woman’s consciousness, waiting, drinking tea and guiding her from within.
What do you think? Were you immediately aware of your own instincts, or like me, did it take you time and practice to hear them? I’d love for you to share your stories in the comments.
©Lisa Hassan Scott 2013.
Photo credit: By David J. Fred [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons