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Dirt Tea and Other Lies: Navigating Postpartum Anxiety

Writing by Haylee Hackenberg // Illustration by Raina

My first child stopped breathing after she was born. In many ways, so did I. When we brought her home from the hospital the tape marks from the tubes that kept her alive still marked her papery skin. I could not bring myself to exert the force required to wipe it off.

Charged with the care of my very own human, I was shocked into a state of sheer terror. Everything felt amplified and not in a good way. If I could have wrapped us both up in veritable cotton wool, I would have. She, like most babies, would only sleep in my arms. Having diligently Googled the risks, I forced myself to lie awake while she dozed on my chest, relentlessly examining the temperature for impending danger. It would be years before I acquiesced, I was in a state of Post Partum Anxiety throughout this time.

This was bolstered by the sheer amount of ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ that come crashing into a new parent’s life. Do you know how many ‘rules’ exist for breastfeeding parents? I do. I think I could name each one. Now, a decade on from those hazy days of first-time motherhood, I understand that most of these rules are outdated and have been widely debunked by research.

At the time, though, they felt empathically important. If I wanted to be a good mother, it was the least I could do to make some small adjustments to my diet. I cut out so many food groups that a few months in, I was subsisting on rice cakes and vigilance. At least, until I learnt about the trace levels of arsenic found in rice. At one point I was warned off dried fruit for reasons I still don’t wholly grasp.

Of all the things I missed about food, nothing compared to the deep nostalgia I felt for coffee. I yearned for the sweet taste and slight jitters that my favourite bean could elicit. I tried decaf of course, and like all good coffee snobs, found it abhorrent. But decaf had nothin’ on dandelion tea. If you search ‘dandelion tea’, the internet will confidently assure you it tastes “just like coffee” and that drinkers of the aforementioned cursed liquid “don’t miss coffee at all”. Well, dear reader, I am here to tell you they are absolutely, unequivocally, dangerously wrong. Dandelion tea might taste like coffee if you strain your coffee through a filter of dirt, dust, and vacuum bag innards. And if you are in possession of not a single taste bud.

Under the spell of hyper-vigilance, I persisted with my lukewarm dirt water. I trained myself to smile and occasionally threw in a ‘you know, I think it IS starting to taste like coffee’ to subdue the sceptical looks of on-lookers.

When my daughter was four months old, something big shifted for me. I managed to make a ‘Mum-friend.’ If you have one of these in your life, you get it. This is a friend who understands what you are going through better than you do at the time. A weary soldier deep in the trenches with you. They are someone to be relied upon, to empathise with, to cry on the shoulder of and most importantly, to ask the questions you know are too bonkers to ask your non-spawning pals. My Mum-friend parented very similarly to me, except for one major (to me) difference. She allowed herself the recommended amount of caffeine per day. She divulged this casually, with a la-sa-faire attitude that frankly, I found offensive. I quizzed her intently, searching her little one for signs of (literal) unrest. Wouldn’t you know it, her baby slept better than mine did. With this information to lean on and high on the serotonin of speaking to another adult, I tried it. I made myself an awfully bad, shamefully weak, instant coffee with almond milk.

I still remember how that first sip felt. Not because it tasted good (although you’d be surprised how wonderful an instant coffee can taste after four months of dirt tea) but because it felt like a tender unshackling. That weak coffee was like the key to a door into a world of parenthood that I wanted to enter. A world where I follow my instincts less than the internet and have the confidence to make choices based on evidence as opposed to hysteria.

And if you (inexplicably) enjoy dandelion tea? Go forth and consume! The point, I suppose, is that there’s not much in life that is improved by sucking the joy out of it. When I look back on the mother I was in those early days, I want to give her a hug and tell her gently that martyring herself won’t make her a better Mum. That first coffee, for me, was a shaking off the ‘shoulds’ and now, three children in, caffeine and I are making up for lost time.

Haylee Hackenberg

Haylee Hackenberg is an author based in Brisbane. You can find slices of her life and writing journey here.


Raina is an illustrator based in Orange County, California. Her work usually portrays emotional stories and experiences in the hopes of connecting others with diverse backgrounds. Raina works with both analog and digital mediums like painting, animation, artist books… she is always looking forward to meeting new people and sharing stories together! You can visit Raina’s website here.

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