by Fiona Hughes
Princess Diana held me when I was a baby.
You can look it up, if you don’t believe me – I expect you’ll find the grainy 1981 photograph, if you look hard enough. Last time I googled my name, it was on page three or four, so I suppose most people miss it.
I was brand new, not even a full day old, when the midwife passed me to the Princess and the photographer took the shot. A tightly wrapped bundle, I was front-page news on day one.
‘When, when, when, will she have one of her own?’ the accompanying article asked, which is something I understand more fully now. Womb still empty, even after the wedding. I don’t think I want to have children – maybe we could adopt. I hear there is a lot of paperwork.
Ideally let your psychiatrist and GP know that you want to get pregnant before you start trying for a baby.
Not long married, the princess paid a visit to the maternity ward after opening the new mother and baby unit next door. It was her first official princess business – she waved and smiled in the sun as she cut the ribbon on the redbrick building. They named it for her. She used ridiculous scissors, bigger than her head.
‘Pink skinned, un-fathom-able fingernails, and the longest eyelashes in the world,’ my mother used to say, when I got the photograph out and asked her about it, which I did a lot.
I milked every last drop of her attention, which she gave freely. She felt guilty for never giving me a sibling, I suppose, but she gave me everything else.
‘Yes, but tell me about the princess, tell me about Diana.’ I would ask.
Symptoms vary and can change rapidly.
Not long after being front-page news, I became the messiah. Day five. That picture of the princess clutching my bundled body was still on the newspaper stand at the newsagents when the midwife came. She could hear my squalling from inside and let herself into the house after knocking on the door a few times. She had come to weigh me, but she found my mother, mad at the kitchen sink, washing her hands.
‘Where’s the baby?’
‘She’s upstairs in her basket. But you can’t touch her. Nobody can touch her, she’s the messiah.’
My mother kept washing her hands, craned her neck to look at the midwife’s case, which would carry the scales.
‘Oh no, you can’t weigh her, she’s come to save us all. You don’t weigh the messiah. Or are you here to take her? That’s why Diana came for her, I think. Wanted her for herself. But I’m keeping her safe.’
Ideally you should be offered a bed in a specialist psychiatric unit where mothers with mental illness are admitted with their babies.
My mother said they saved her life at the princess’ unit – mine too, probably. We spent five weeks there before we left, even for a day. The staff all loved that Diana had held me. Bathing me and feeding me, they were mothers when I had none.
‘How’s the royal baby?’ they asked my mother, when she was well enough.
‘Shall we take the royal baby for a stroll?’ and ‘Shall I give the royal baby her bottle?’
Gradually we joined the world, new to us both. Autumn was fast receding into winter, but there were still leaves on the ground when my mother took me for the first walk in my pram by herself. Unattended at last, she held the leaves above my face so I could see, light shone through them, brightening the colours.
She talked to me about the colours and the seasons that would come next, grounding herself.
‘Next up: winter, then spring, and summer. In the summer you will be one,’ she said, and I laughed for the first time.
There are many parts of the country with no specialist unit. You may be admitted to a general psychiatric ward.
We went back over the years, my mother repaying what she felt she owed them, however she could. Volunteering.
‘We are OK and you will be too,’ my mother said to patients when she met them, each a version of herself.
There were family days and open days and fundraising, and we were at them all.
Then last year, cuts incited more desperate fundraising, only to be followed by more cuts. Then there were the last ditch efforts, when we knew it was hopeless but we went along anyway: campaigning at council meetings, standing around in the cold holding placards, hands cradling hot drinks.
They closed just after Christmas – the building was empty for months. When I walked past in the spring, I could see decorations still hanging in the windows.
The messiahs would have loved those.
Fiona Hughes is a writer and runner from Devon. She has three children and works on websites.