1994: In which she figures out which way is up, eventually

Bringing Steven home from the hospital was surreal. I walked outside into the lemony April sunlight and the whole world seemed completely different. It was a different planet, as if I’d woken from a coma after thirty years to find that men had walked on the moon. Or something. The world in my head had changed so dramatically, so permanently, I was sure I’d see the change outside, too. After what I’d just done, how could anything in the world still be the same?

We were all on cloud nine and, in our excitement over-ambitious, which led to a grave error in judgment. Why not go straight from the hospital to visit Gran and my great aunts and uncles? What a lovely idea, we thought. Everyone wanted to see Steven, and I wanted to show him off. Big mistake. Huge.

There is a reason why the books say you should limit visitors in the first few days, and it’s not only because you’ll be a red-eyed zombie with baby puke for hair gel. Of course you will be. Or because you need the time to bond in private, although you need that, too. No – it’s actually so that you don’t scare friends and relatives by revealing what an absolutely bungling disaster of a useless, reject mother you truly are. The books should quit beating about the bush and say this directly. It could save many an over-confident new mother the embarrassment of being dragged off to the Child Welfare offices by concerned mothers-in-law who have witnessed the first solo, nurse-free attempts at breastfeeding. Nobody likes to look stupid. But believe me, you are guaranteed to look monumentally stupid. So best you do it in the privacy of your own home, without any witnesses besides those directly involved and as inept as you are. Or ones you can send to sleep with the fishes without arousing too much suspicion.

I didn’t know this then, obviously, so off we went to visit the relatives. What can I say? It seemed like a good idea at the time. Of course, so did the second George Bush, and we all know how that turned out.

I’ve never been on a more terrifying drive than that day, not even the time an angry policeman ex-boyfriend drove me home ten minutes after me dumping him. As always, my mother drove perfectly, but now we seemed to be surrounded by danger on every side – crazy, reckless road hogs, stray cows, drunk pedestrians, crater-sized potholes. Perils I’d never noticed before. They seemed to have come out especially for the occasion, hell-bent on our annihilation. I held my bundle of breakable porcelain in my arms and sat with my eyes screwed shut all the way there, bracing myself for the moment of impact. I was surprised when it didn’t happen and we arrived in one piece.

While the family oohed and aahed, Steven was a little angel and didn’t fuss at all, even when passed from one cooing old lady to the next – another big Miriam Stoppard no-no. I was ordered to sit down and relax. (Ha ha! Tell that to a new mother on her first day home with baby and see where it gets you.) Meanwhile, various interchangeable aunties mollycoddled and reminisced on days gone by, when you stayed in bed for two weeks after giving birth. The word Confinement was mentioned a lot. Sounded like scarlet fever to me, but I was too polite to say so. (Oh Marmee, it’s Beth; she’s caught the consumption… Why do the words quinine and ipecac spring to mind? What the hell is quinine anyway? Not sure I care to know about the ipecac. Actually, I don’t think it was Beth. I think it was Amy. Jo was the one who cut all her hair off, I do remember that. It’s been a while. I may even be confusing Little Women with Anne of Green Gables. God, I loved Anne. So much cooler than that wench Pollyanna. And Gilbert… wow! Unfortunate name, but yummie boy, all the same.)

I soon realised the visit had been a bad idea. It was fraught with tension. I was touchy and took every offer of help as a condemnation of my as yet non-existent mothering skills. Hey, it’s not paranoia if they’re really after you, right? Oh, but I was wrong about that. So wrong. Nobody was after me then, and they still aren’t (except a select few – you know who you are). It’s taken me years to get this. And I still find it hard to remember.

Do you know how much time I’ve wasted obsessing over what people thought of me, staggering under the weight of the giant chip on my shoulder – so tightly wound, always on my best behaviour, because you never know who might be watching and making notes in the Bumper Compendium of Bad Mothers. I’m sure living on cigarettes, vodka and Big Macs for thirteen years would have been a healthier option than spending all that time dissecting every look, every inflection in every word, even those of perfect strangers – people I’d never see again. Scrutinising every move from every angle until pretty soon you forget what you’re looking for, or looking at. I should have a bleeding stomach ulcer by now.

I held it together until it was time to feed and change him. Bear in mind this was my first time outside the hospital. And I’d be staging the performance in front of half a dozen extremely helpful elderly relatives whom I didn’t know all that well. Mom could tell my nerves were shot, so she rescued me from my embarrassing, emotionally-scarring nappy fumbling. She bustled in and took over, straightening the pitiful nappy and wiping the rogue Fissan Paste off the upholstery. That done, she began supervising bottle-making, telling me how to measure out the milk powder correctly (level spoonfuls, Tracy – don’t forget!). Again, big mistake.