I am mother to two beautiful, funny little girls, 2 years and 9 months. They are the joy in my life and like all mothers, I cannot imagine my life without them. The feeling of them growing in my tummy was magical, and I relished every movement (except the big kicks towards the end and the ones in my bladder) I had always dreamt of being a mother, and having that dream realised has made me happier than I could ever have imagined. Yet with this happiness has come internal conflict and feelings I had never anticipated.
I had heard of postnatal depression over the years. I was warned about the baby blues, and the description given conjured images of an unwashed, bed bound new mother in a state of constant sadness. I was ready to spot that, and was so relieved when I wasn’t experiencing it after my first baby was born. My first labour was 37 hours and while I won’t bore you with the details, it ended in an assisted delivery and more stitches than I care to remember. Yet despite this, I returned home and never spent one day in my pjs. I saw this as a sign that I was recovering and 'coping' well. I got up every day before my husband left, showered, dressed, applied my make up and began my day.
My daughter was suffering with silent reflux and colic, as well as a very severe tongue tie, and as a result of these factors, she was quite unsettled in the early months. And yet, every day I was up, dressed, made up and 'coping' very well.
From the beginning I had some intrusive negative thoughts. I often told my husband that I didn’t think our daughter liked me. He laughed this off, as did I most of the time, but I genuinely thought it. I did everything to make her happy, but inside I felt very separate from her, and was plagued by fears of injury to her and even her death. Each time I walked down the stairs with her, I imagined I would drop her and she would be injured. While driving I imagined that she would be propelled from the car seat when I stopped.
All completely ridiculous, and yet they kept coming. As my daughter approached six months, things escalated, although those around me were completely unaware. I began lying awake in bed panicking that she wasn’t breathing, and when she cried, I found myself in a state of panic. Panic that she would stay awake all night, and panic that I couldn’t soothe her. Either would be noted as a mark that I was failing. I was my own judge and jury, and I was anything but lenient. When my daughter was seven months, I finally broke down to my husband and sought out help in the form of a counsellor who specialised in postnatal anxiety. I attended a number of sessions and began to feel more in control, so I ceased going. I returned to work a couple of weeks later, and life became a blur for a while.
My daughter was just a year old, almost to the day, when I discovered I was pregnant again. Overjoyed but shocked, we began to prepare for the new arrival. My mind swarmed with decisions and visions of the future, but I did not give PNA (Post Natal Anxiety) a second thought. My pregnancy was physically tough, but I was excited to complete our little family and give my little girl a sibling.
As with my previous pregnancy, I set out with a natural birth plan. I was attending the Domino Clinic in CUMH and felt completely at ease with the midwives and the system. I was so excited to get a second shot at a 'natural' birth, but my little one had other ideas (don’t they always?) At my 36 weeks appointment I was measuring slightly bigger than I should have been, so was sent for a growth scan. Surprise, surprise, my little one had decided she wanted to come feet first and had turned breech. The following weeks were consumed with tears. I did not want a section as I feared the recovery with a toddler, but more than that I felt like I was being robbed of the chance to try again for the drug free birth I had envisioned. I tried everything to turn my little minx, but to no avail and on December 21 she came roaring into this world through the sun roof.
I fought to be released from hospital on Christmas Eve, desperate to have Christmas at home with my husband and girls, but to be honest I should have stayed in hospital. Given that our room is up not one but two flights of stairs, I slept (or didn’t sleep should I say) on the couch on Christmas Eve, waiting for the time when I could take more pain relief. This was when my dog started to appear.
Winston Churchill described his depression as a black dog, forever haunting and following him. I can understand his reasoning now. Depression is not something you see coming, but reflect upon with almost 20/20 vision. In the midst of it my companion did not seem so odd, weren’t all mothers tired? Weren’t all mothers prone to mood swings? Weren’t all new mothers struggling to adjust? For the first six days at home, I allowed myself to stay in my pjs. I allowed myself to relax and take the help that was offered. After the first week though I became more adamant that I would cope by myself, after all, I was super at coping.
I awoke each morning, showered, dressed, applied my make up and attacked the day. I baked, I played with the girls, I cooked and tidied. I had a mental list in my head which I ticked off daily. The children were fed, cleaned, changed, played with and cuddled, tick. The dinner was made, the washing was done, and I even started decoupage and upholstering projects. I was coping like a pro, nothing to see here!
Then the night time would come. So exhausted from all of my coping, I would slide into bed and fall asleep immediately. When my daughter woke for her first feed of the night, I would promptly feed her, burp her, and give her a quick cuddle (tick, tick, tick) before settling myself back to sleep. But sleep became more and more elusive. I lay there in the dark, awake, usually with a song playing on repeat in my head (usually not even one I remotely liked) My thoughts whirred so fast I could not hear them. They sounded like seven radio talk shows all being aired at once. The more I sought sleep, the louder it all became, until the next feed arrived and I duly completed my duties again, tick, tick, tick. Once again, alone with only my loudest thoughts. Nights passed, weeks passed and nothing improved, if anything it became worse. The confusion that had been exclusive to night time snuck into the daytime, so now the radio stations played all day. I couldn’t hear myself think of anything else, and yet could not hear the conversations that were taking over.
My daughters needs were all met, but the connection wasn’t there. I felt empty so I began to cope even better. I set play dates, attended coffee mornings, met up with friends and dived head first into projects at home whenever I could. I was just so brilliant at coping.
The day it all came to a head, I broke down to my husband, and told him I was drowning in my thoughts and emotions. I looked forward to nothing. I did not get enjoyment from anything. I had tried everything and anything to feel that spark. My relationships felt like they were crumbling. I was failing at being a mother, a wife, a friend. I was a failure. I felt completely alone and like I was being consumed. My dog was snarling. He wasn’t black though, he was pink with purple spots. Terrifying but confusing at the same time. This wasn’t like the last time, but I knew I needed help.
Counselling was not an option for me this time as my thoughts were so jumbled, I knew I could not articulate them. Making an appointment with my doctor was hard, as this was officially admitting that I was not coping, and I rattled and cried as I walked into her office. She listened with compassion, and talked through options with me. I have never taken anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication before, and did not accept them easily, but I am so thankful that she threw that lifebuoy in my direction that day. I went straight to the chemist, filled the prescription and went home.
The first week was still pretty much the same, albeit for the presence of some slight side effects like nausea and hot flushes, but on day eight something happened. I was changing my little girl when I looked at her and suddenly my heart burst. It was as if I had seen her for the first time. I scooped her up, and hugged her, and for once I didn’t feel like it was a functional action. I sat and snuggled her and she fell asleep in my arms. My first real connection with her and she was three months old. Slowly but surely the talk shows and songs faded and I began to hear my own internal dialogue again. I smiled and genuinely played with my girls, not feeling like a chore to be ticked off but an enjoyable interaction. I was coming back and it felt amazing.
Once the dog had retreated, I saw clearly the pressure I had put on myself to cope. I realised that I was so focused on everything being fine that I had neglected to keep myself healthy. My husband has gone above and beyond to get me through, and I will be eternally grateful to him for the love and compassion he has shown me when I was unable to show it to myself.
I tell parents I meet in my job that they cannot pour from an empty vessel, and yet mine was completely arid. These last six months has taught me so much about myself, and the clarity which the medication brought has allowed me to work on my own self care and explore my needs further. I will be ceasing the medication soon, but should I need it again, I will not fear it as I did previously. I realise that my experience was not the text book version of PND and that is why I felt compelled to write this piece.
If airing my most personal experiences makes even one mother stop and ask for help, then it will have been worth it. I am proud to have asked for help. I am proud to have worked it through, and I am especially proud that I have now said it aloud. Do not suffer in silence. Do not “cope”. Your child needs a healthy and happy you. Reach out and someone will catch you and support you.