Maternal mental health – ok, let’s talk about it.
So here’s a little warning, this could be a long one and there are things I’m going to talk about related to maternal mental health and more that could well be a trigger for other Mum’s (see tags for an idea of what to expect).
Let’s just start with a few facts shall we, get them out of the way:
– I have depression and anxiety. It was diagnosed about two years ago when I was also put on medication and referred for therapy.
– In hindsight, I have probably battled both of these things from a very young age. It went unnoticed by people around me, ignored by me and misdiagnosed by people that should have known better.
– Upon falling pregnant I was petrified how my mental health would affect my pregnancy and my unborn baby and how my pregnancy and my unborn baby would affect my mental health.
Getting to this point today.
I think the day I walked into the GP’s office and sat down in front of her, tears rolling, and said the words “I think I need some help” was one of my most courageous days. By the end of that appointment both of us were in tears and I left feeling like I had both progressed and failed simultaneously: progressed because I had reached out and recognised I had a problem but failed because I was broken. I needed medication just to be ok. It was that unshakeable thought that it meant I couldn’t cope and I was weak.
I try now to be quite open about my struggles with my mental health because it was the fact that in general, not many people talked openly about it and no one I knew personally was brave enough to talk with me about it, that meant it had taken me so long to get the help I needed. If I can help even one person to feel brave enough to seek out support then I’m happy with that. (I shared a very honest post on my Facebook and personal blog, not too far into my journey with this, with just that idea, you can see it here if you so wish!)
Fast forward to baby days.
The first baby we lost certainly was a huge set back for me in regards to my emotional and mental wellbeing. I had worked super hard to get on top of things and was making good progress and the fact that the pregnancy was a complete shock – we found out we were pregnant when I discovered I was miscarrying – really knocked me for six. How was I supposed to get my head around the idea that I was going to be a mother but at the same time I wasn’t going to be a mother after all.
People say you can’t miss what you never had. This is so completely untrue.
The grief, love and loss I felt for something – someone – I had never had, hadn’t planned and didn’t even know about, disproves that idea. This is something that makes me really sad, when people discount miscarriage because you didn’t know that baby, it wasn’t a real baby, you can have another one etc. Can I just say there is NOTHING worse you could say to a woman that has just lost her unborn child.
So yes, I had a serious setback and I think it took me months to get back on top of things. I remember those early days where I literally lay in bed and cried. I looked at the ceiling and I thought about what my life would have been like with a baby. Each day I thought about how pregnant I would have been, how big the baby would have been, today would have been our first scan, today we would have found out if our baby would have been a boy or a girl. It was torture.
Distractions, distractions, distractions.
I can honestly say the best thing for me was distraction. My husband dragged me out of bed and we went out for the day. We bought a tree for the garden to commemorate the baby and then I had to get on with life. I was lucky, we were getting married in April (this was January) so I had lots to do to keep me busy.
I still think about that baby regularly. Perhaps not every day anymore but a lot. We light a candle on the date we lost them and every spring when the baby’s tree flowers I think of them. It still makes me sad to talk about and I’m sure it always will but for my own sake, I had to get on with life.
Then I discovered I was pregnant with Sophia.
After the excitement had sunk in a little, I was petrified. What if I lost this baby too? As I believe many women do, I had convinced myself the miscarriage had been my fault – perhaps it was my medication? – so in the early days of Sophia’s pregnancy, I stopped taking my medication. I know, bad move.
Sometimes the Doctor really does know best.
I was so worried about harming my unborn baby that I really didn’t give myself a second thought. You don’t think about the fact your body is hosting and growing a small human and so needs to be as well as it possibly can be. And your body can’t be well if your mind is not.
My GP gave me a really stern talking to and made me realise that actually the teeny tiny risk was totally outweighed by the risk of not taking my medication and falling apart. How could I look after my small baby as she grew and once she was born if I wasn’t in a good place myself. Happy mum, happy baby is a phrase you hear a lot; it’s not a cliche, it’s the best piece of advice I’ve received.
Pregnancy is a strain for all women.
It’s important to remember that pregnancy is hard. Like really, super hard. No one really talks about the epic exhaustion you feel or the mental drain you experience as your growing baby seemingly devours your entire essence! And then there’s the body changes that you don’t really think about that really give your self confidence that boost you needed… right?
With or without a mental health background, growing a human is going to push you to your absolute limit. So when you then chuck into the equation crippling self doubt, dysfunctional relationships with my own parents, panic attacks and days where brushing my teeth takes an internal mental battle with myself, it all gets rather overwhelming.
The support is there, if you look for it.
I knew quite early on in this pregnancy that I was going to need additional help. I spoke to my midwife about it and she was very noncommittal and, I felt, more dismissive than anything else. It wasn’t until the third time I had gone into the maternity ward convinced something was wrong with the baby, that a wonderful midwife there recognised that all wasn’t quite ok with me. She listened and she took down my email and amongst her crazy, busy schedule of bringing life into this world, she remembered to send an email on my behalf to the perinatal mental health team and the boss lady midwife for the hospital I was set to give birth in. Between us we managed to organise for additional support for me but also for a private room to be booked for our induction so that my husband could stay with me after the baby was born.
I don’t think that lady knows what a difference she made to me and to my pregnancy and labour, I wish I was able to tell her and to thank her. I didn’t even get her name.
Welcome to the world.
I don’t want this to turn into my pregnancy and labour story because I’ve already told all of that. The idea of this is to explain the additional things I had to deal with. The days where I was so petrified that I couldn’t possibly look after a baby, that I was going to be like my own parents, that I seriously believed I had made a tremendous mistake. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want my baby any less. In fact it was the opposite; I loved her so very much I just couldn’t bear the idea of letting her down.
Or the days where I had panic attack after panic attack because I was so afraid of labour. Not the birthing a human bit, but the what if I wasn’t mentally strong enough to be able to do it. What if I let her down?
And what if we lost her? Because depression and anxiety does this to you. It takes everyday situations; harmless, happy, normal situations and it convinces you that something absolutely awful is going to happen to ruin it all and turn everything on its head. And you believe it. You panic and you cry and you believe it.
My husband pops to the shop, 10 mins down the road. But what if he crashes and dies? But what if someone attacks him and he dies? But what if someone storms the co-op at gunpoint and he dies?
You see it right? The ridiculous, illogic of it all. Welcome to my world.
And so this plagued me, almost everyday towards the end. It was torture and I just couldn’t wait for her to be born so that she was here and I could actually see her and protect her and my husband could help. Because she just didn’t feel safe inside me anymore.
I wish so much I could have enjoyed the magic of those days.
And now what?
And now we just get to leave with her? On our own?
Ask any new parent and they will tell you that those first few days are like nothing else. I remember not sleeping because I couldn’t take my eyes off her. That whole sleep when the baby sleeps thing. Yeah right! Who was going to watch her and make sure she’s ok and she’s breathing if I’m asleep?! And when I finally did allow myself to snooze I did so with the light on dim and my glasses on because if I woke up or she woke me up and needed me, I needed to see her! (You see I’m blind as a bat without my specs!).
Looking back it’s quite funny, but at the time I honestly didn’t how I was supposed to do it.
Throw in some mental ill health and what do you get?
So I developed Postnatal Depression. I’m still unsure whether I really did or if it was my normal depression and anxiety, but I’d just had a baby, thus I was postnatal. Who knows?!
Before all of this, when I thought about PND I just thought it meant parents that couldn’t bond with their babies. I didn’t realise PND can manifest in different ways. You see I in no way struggled to bond with Sophia. Far from it. I went right the other way.
I couldn’t bear to be away from her, I panicked if I was, I panicked when other people wanted to hold her, I panicked when other people wanted to feed her, I panicked when other people just wanted to push her pushchair. I held her constantly and double and triple checked things like how tight her nappy was, how wrapped up she was to sleep, her skin, her body – was this mark normal, was her tummy normal. It was exhausting. Not letting anyone in and doing everything myself.
It was also hard for my husband. He had to deal with me and my psychotic moments, he had to deal with a newborn baby but at the same time he didn’t get to deal with her enough because her Mumma needed to do everything.
It took me a long time to get better with this. Small steps like letting Sophia’s own dad push her around the super market, letting her aunties feed her her bottle, going out for 30 mins and leaving her with her grandparents. Each time was agony. But each time after that it did get easier.
Sophia is one now and I still have new milestones that I’ve faced and that I’ve still to face:
our first whole night out – I text home a lot and have never eaten a meal so fast in all my life,
her first sleepover – I sobbed so hard my throat was sore, I had a physical pain in my chest and it took 30 mins for us to be able to even pull away from outside the house,
her first day at nursery – I had a panic attack and completely showed myself up, she loved it and didn’t even look back at me!
I question myself a lot, am I doing enough, am I doing it right, am I letting her down? And that’s exhausting and hurtful but I’m working on improving it.
To present day
I fell pregnant again the September after Sophia was born. It wasn’t planned as such but we knew we didn’t want a huge gap if we were going to have another baby and so we stopped contraception and just let nature take its course. I knew I was expecting this time. For a whole week. And then we lost our second baby that was just too precious for this world.
It doesn’t get any easier at all the second time around. We bought a jasmine plant for the garden this time and a special candle. It’s hard to grieve when you have a living child to care for. I almost felt guilty like I should just be grateful for Sophia; like she wasn’t enough for me. This wasn’t the case at all, having another child never means that the ones you do have aren’t enough. The same goes for losing that second child, having Sophia didn’t mean I couldn’t be sad that this one didn’t make it. Just as having Sophia didn’t mean I was no longer sad that we lost our first baby. It’s a flipping minefield.
Not long after that my maternity leave ran out. Man does that fly?! The very idea of returning to work filled me with dread on the one hand but I also think I was a bit excited to get back to being me a little bit.
I found a wonderful job and got stuck in and I loved it. And then my panic attacks returned with a vengeance. Leaving Sophia for three days a week was harder than I ever imagined.
Every time I feel like I’m winning I have yet another set back.
And so now here I am. I have a one year old and I am now approaching what would have been her little brother or sister’s due date. My mental health is not in a good place, I’m getting back into therapy, I’m getting back into yoga and I’ve cut my days at work right back to one a week. Because I know that something had to give. Otherwise it would have been me. But I needed to be selfish and put myself first because I have a baby to look after and to show how wonderful the world can be and for that I need to be well.
It was a big decision and not one we made lightly but I know that it was necessary and that it will work out, one way or another, in the long run.
And so the moral of the (very long) story
The perception and understanding of mental health is improving. But not enough.
The awareness and support of maternal mental health is improving. But not enough.
People are beginning to talk openly about mental health and share their stories so that others understand. But not enough.
I have collapsed in sobs, barely able to breathe and in a complete state: at work, on the train, while visiting family.
And I have been embarrassed and ashamed that people have seen me like that. And I have been judged for being dramatic or weak or grumpy.
I suppose I just want people to know that sometimes I’m kicking ass at motherhood and other days motherhood is kicking my ass. But either way, I’m always trying my best. I’m always showing up and doing my absolute best. But it’s freaking hard. Let’s give each other a break, let’s support each other no matter what, let’s build each other up because kind words can save someone’s day. A kind gesture can turn around a dark spell. Because it’s ok to not be ok.