How are you? It’s a loaded question when you’re a new mum, and you think to yourself how much do they really want to know?
In my past life I was a successful white collar worker, moving project by project up the corporate ladder. My work had allowed me to visit some remote and beautiful countries, and I went from being an Aussie backpacker in London to a home-owning, loft-converting immigrant with indefinite leave to remain.
A preventative double mastectomy slowed me down in 2013, but following that I got married, we travelled the U.S. for 5 weeks, and I ran my first marathon.
Then I had a baby.
And what a baby! A hefty, squalling lad who looked so alien to me I thought ‘who is this stranger they’ve placed on my chest’. I remember the weight of him and how awkwardly I held him, not sure what I was supposed to do. Hubby stood by, feeling exactly the same I’m sure.
It didn’t help that my legs were still in stirrups and I could feel every stitch being sewn. I jokingly asked the surgeon to give me a designer vagina, and he promised to do his best. Days later, when I developed an abscess beneath my episiotomy and those carefully sewn stitches dissolved much too soon, I wasn’t laughing.
I visited a dark place in those early days and weeks, when the fatigue and uncertainty of being a new parent only worsened the horror and pain of the infection.
‘How are you?’ friends and family and strangers would ask. I would stare at them blankly for a moment, thinking how on earth do I answer that honestly or in a way they might understand?
‘I’m good’ was the standard response, depending on who was doing the asking. I’m good but I want to scream and I’m very scared was closer to the truth.
Three people stand out clearly around this time, because each of them ‘got it’.
The surgeon in A&E who diagnosed the infection, and who told me that it would get worse before it got better. That the exact same thing had happened to his wife, that they went on to have more children, and that the second came so fast she had him in the car on the way to hospital.
The midwife who saw me at my 6 week check, and who said that while the abscess was bad it certainly wasn’t the worst she’d seen. Who explained that with time the body would heal itself. That I needed to be patient. That I would be okay.
And the checkout lady who served me the first time I took baby to the supermarket on my own. I was still in pain, and it probably showed on my face. ‘How are you doin’ honey?’ she asked. ‘How are you doin’ in yourself?’ I looked at her and I nodded and when I said ‘I’m okay. We’re doing okay.’ I meant it. It took everything in me not to break down on the spot and launch myself across the checkout and into her arms for a hug.
But how do you explain all of that to someone? How much will they really understand? And it’s not just new mums either. When something happens – a bereavement, a separation, a serious illness – how can you convey just how much your life has changed, irreversibly and forever?
Unless they’ve been in the same situation as you, it might feel impossible. But what you can remember is that everybody has a paper cut.
When baby was around 5 months old an elderly gentleman walked past me in the street and said ‘cheer up’. His delivery told me it wasn’t a friendly or light hearted comment, and he didn’t look at me or pause when he said it. I was sitting outside a café having a coffee, and I watched him walk away before messaging two friends about it.
I spend a lot of time inside my own head, and I played out the scene where I got up and followed him and asked him why he said it. But no one does that. I certainly don’t. And I’m pretty sure that only works in clever legal dramas anyway (I’ve been binge watching Suits).
Here is what I WOULD have said:
‘I’m sorry sir, but I don’t need to cheer up. Until you said that to me I was enjoying the morning. I was enjoying the sunshine, and some time to myself. I was enjoying drinking a coffee while it was still hot, and watching people go by.
But I was also sad, because I’d just read an email from a friend who was trying to decide whether it was time for his increasingly ill wife to go into hospice. Today, on his birthday.
I was wondering how another friend – terrified about medical menopause – was coping today, after she had a preventative hysterectomy the day before. And how her mother felt about the situation, as she continued to battle her own advanced ovarian cancer.
I was feeling tired and very sore, following surgery a week earlier to replace my breast implants, after a preventative double mastectomy two years ago. I felt bad because I’d been physically unable to hold the door open for someone when I always do. And I was worrying about how I’d cope looking after my 5 month old baby when my husband went back to work in a few days. Because I’m not supposed to lift anything heavy for a while you see? And he can’t get any more time off.
If my face wasn’t showing how content I actually felt in that moment, and instead you saw sorrow, concern, and worry, so what? Whether I’m happy, sad or indifferent, isn’t your business. Shame on you. At your age you should know better.’
Because everybody has a paper cut.
It hurts a lot. You look at it and pick at it and can’t stop thinking about it. And you might even forget about it for a little while until boom! The tiniest bump and you’re right back where you started.
Most importantly though, you don’t know whether someone else has a paper cut, unless they point it out.
I finished my coffee that day and continued to the hair dresser. Not something I felt particularly up to doing, but it was my last chance before my sister’s wedding.
I was trying a new hairdresser, and *Anne and I clicked immediately. She was lovely, and had a baby boy at home too. We lived in the same area, and we spoke about birth and weaning and all things baby.
And as we spoke it hit me. I was just as guilty as the old man who passed me earlier. As Anne and I spoke I thought to myself she’s so lucky! Look how skinny she is! She has such great style! And she has a baby! But Anne had a serious medical condition. She’d developed an infection after giving birth, and had been hospitalised for two weeks after having her son. At first they didn’t know what was wrong, and she’d needed steroids and further testing before they figured out the problem and let her go home. She explained that while she was now medicated and stable, and thinking about having another baby, her husband was against it. He was worried she’d get ill again and he’d lose her.
It’s easy to forget that people are people too, and we’re all guilty of judging others in the moment. Of not giving others the chance to understand our pain or share the burden. Perhaps instead of worrying how to answer when someone asks ‘how are you?’ we should be phrasing the question differently:
‘How are you really? How are you in yourself?’
And when someone asks the question? When they genuinely want to know? It’s okay to tell them sometimes too.
In the end I’m glad I didn’t say those things to the elderly gentleman that day, because no doubt he had his own paper cuts.
So, how are you really?