Private Lives: After the birth I felt suffocated

A Family Affair
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THIS WEEK, A MOTHER OF THREE TALKS ABOUT HOW SHE CAME TO BE LOOKING AFTER HER DAUGHTER'S SON, AND THE BABY'S REAL MOTHER EXPLAINS HOW SHE WOULD HAVE CRACKED UP WITHOUT HER PARENTS' SUPPORT AND UNDERSTANDING

Christina Alderton, 42, lives in Weston-super-Mare and has three children. Her daughter Louisa, 20, a waitress, became pregnant two years ago. She felt unable to cope after the birth and her mother and father now bring up her son Jack.

Christina

When Louisa got pregnant, the doctors and I tried to explain what she'd be getting into if she had a baby. Her boyfriend was going to university, which was only fair, and felt he was too young to settle down. We said we'd support Louisa regardless of her decision, so she decided to go ahead with the pregnancy. We went with her to antenatal classes, and bought clothes for the baby - and she seemed so for it, right up to the birth.

Then, just after Jack had been born and we'd gone home, we got a call from the hospital. Louisa was hysterical, and she didn't want the baby in the room. We rushed back to the hospital to calm her down and stayed the night with her. By the morning, she was cuddling him.

When she came home, she did seem a bit panicky when Jack cried, but nothing out of the ordinary for a new mother. Then she said she wanted to go back to work - as a waitress in a local hotel. Soon after that, she said she didn't want to breast-feed any more. One night, she stayed out all night with her boyfriend and we got up to feed Jack and change his nappy.

At that point, she started to distance herself from Jack. She didn't seem depressed but maybe it manifested itself in a different way. She'd start to say things like: "Oh Mum, I'll peel the potatoes if you feed Jack."

Soon afterwards we decided to move because of my husband's job. I tried to talk to her as calmly as I could, and said: "You seem a little vague about what you want to do", at which point Louisa broke down and said she couldn't handle Jack. It had all been a trauma for her; she was terrified of him. I couldn't be angry with her, because she's my daughter. We discussed everything, and she was so upset. She was putting distance between herself and something that frightened her - the most unfortunate thing was, it happened to be her son.

We decided that we'd look after Jack. I think she felt that he was in some way demanding too much attention.

She suggested we adopt him, but I said that would complicate things. We realised then that Louisa wasn't going to be maternal yet; she enjoys her role as an aunt or sister. So we went to a solicitor to see what could be done. As it stood, we didn't have any power if he needed an operation or we wanted to decide which school he should go to. The solicitor suggested a residency order, which is what we got. Louisa can take him back at any time, providing she gives him a secure home.

We've both realised that Jack will be with us for quite some time, but since the residency order Louisa has been a lot happier. I think she feels that he's no longer her responsibility. She dips into Jack's life when she wants to. Jack is very excited to see his "mummy" but doesn't regard her as someone who's in his life on a daily basis.

There have been downsides to this: when you imagine becoming a grandmother, you think your grandchild will be excited to see you. But I'm the one who nurses Jack when he's sick, and disciplines him. "Mummy" is the one who takes him for days out and gives him treats - it's all reversed. That's when I feel a little bit envious, but then I also feel sorry for Louisa. Maybe she'll see this big, strapping son one day and think: "Who is this man? I don't know him." I don't know how she'll feel about it.

But I admire Louisa's courage and what it took her to say: "This isn't conventional, but I can't handle this."

We didn't want any secrets or lies with our children; we wanted to have a good relationship, and that's what we've got.

Louisa

I was in a steady relationship and on the Pill. But then I got a kidney infection - I wasn't told that antibiotics would affect the Pill. I thought if I kept the baby, it would strengthen the relationship with my boyfriend, and I was all for it. I thought: "I'm going to be a wonderful mum."

Then I went through a 23-hour labour and ended up having an emergency Caesarean. After the birth, I woke up screaming. I called for the nurses and said: "Get my parents down here, or I'm walking out." I was terrified of having to feed him.

But the next day was fine - I fed and changed him. I loved him to bits - he was gorgeous. But I felt suffocated, as if I was trapped and couldn't go anywhere. I've always been the sort of person who likes to be out and about having fun.

I was living with Mum and Dad, and after a month I went back to work. It made me feel worse. If there was any overtime, I'd do it to avoid going home. It got to the point where I had to say: "I can't cope any more." I'd just been putting it off from day one. All through the pregnancy I just couldn't wait, but afterwards it was: "Shock horror, I can't cope any more."

I love Jack to bits and I'd do anything for him; Mum and Dad are the most wonderful people to bring him up. I want to know that he's safe and loved by the people looking after him.

My feelings about the whole thing are still difficult. I'm happy that I can be myself. Every now and then, though, I get upset and feel guilty.

Certain people where I work are very narrow-minded. They say things like: "If I got pregnant, I'd look after my child." But I knew there was no way I could offer the right sort of life to Jack. I didn't want to live in a council house, relying on the Government.

I want him to have the same childhood that I enjoyed. I want him to think. He knows I'm "Mummy", and one day I do hope to look after him - I'm in a stable relationship now and my boyfriend gets on well with Jack.

We take him out on our days off and I'm very protective about him. I'll say, "Don't do that", and, "Be careful", a lot. I tend to panic and think he's going to fall over and break something. I feel I'd do anything for him. If I can do special things with him I do - my mum does all the normal things. Jack probably does view her as his mother. In my eyes, she is the mother.

Hopefully, we'll answer any questions he'll ask as early as we can. I don't want him turning round at 10 or 11 and accusing me that I'm not his real mother. Sometimes it does worry me that he may resent me when he's about 13 or 14. I want him to understand why it happened, not just to say to me: "You left me."

All the way through this, my mother has said: "I understand and we'll help you", and in that way I've had it easy compared to some in my situation. My parents could easily have said: "Look after your own son." If I didn't have my parents I'd have cracked up - it would have broken me. After Jack was born, I used to cry and have panic attacks. Looking back, I think it may have been postnatal depression, but no doctor suggested that.

Jack still scares me. He's so innocent and lovely. Yet it's the trap, the staying in and looking after a child, that frightens me. Even if I go over to my mum's, I still get a bit nervous spending a day with him. Mum disciplines him in front of me and I think she gets a bit embarrassed. I can't do that. I haven't got the guts.

I certainly don't want a family yet - and I want to do things right next time. Maybe it will happen when I'm married, with my own house, but only if I really feel ready for it.

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