Maternal mental health and me

With this week being maternal mental health week, I feel it is the right time to share some of my parenting journey, experience with postnatal depression and post traumatic stress disorder. I hope this brings some comfort to those out who are currently suffering - you will get through this.

Falling pregnant for the first time just 6 weeks after being married was a massive surprise, as I had been suffering with menstrual and fertility issues for years and had been informed that I would likely need to use fertility inventions to conceive. However, although shocked we were extremely happy. At the age of 24, I was married with a 15-month old daughter and fell pregnant for the second time. Again, this was not expected as the previous medical issues had continued and let us just say the relationship was on a downward spiral.

I remember the exact moment I realised that I must be pregnant. Sat on the side of the bed feeling nauseous and lightheaded I felt the same as I had before, only this time I instantly recognised the feeling and had an immediate dread for what the future may hold. Confirmed by a test, here I was expecting for the second time in a marriage which was unhappy and challenging in many ways. My husband had always liked to drink, and our social life was a big part of our relationship for a long time before the children came along. However, with motherhood came financial responsibility and having to stay in most of the time (for me anyway). I already felt like a single parent, trapped in a marriage which was making me feel lonely and unhappy and struggling financially.

My son was born 8 days over the due date (the same as his sister) weighing a massive 10lb 4oz after a relatively uncomplicated pregnancy and quick labour. I am sure you can imagine that giving birth to such a large baby naturally can have an impact on your body and I still experience difficulties today as a result. Things fell into place and we soon found our daily routine. I remember being thankful that it was easier having two children so young together than I had imagined it would be. My daughter was always advanced for her age which made a big difference. She was walking at 9 months, and by the time her brother was born, two weeks before her second birthday, she was already out of nappies and walking everywhere so no need for a double buggy which was a relief because we lived in a flat with not much space.

My daughter was a relatively easy baby. Happy and content with just the occasional days of colic and sleepless nights. In comparison, her brother hardly slept and wanted to feed every other hour! Nothing much has changed 17 years later! The night feeds were always my responsibility with my husbands’ attitude being that he had to get up for work! By the time he was three months old, I was exhausted, lonely and could barely manage to function without bursting into tears. The paranoia then set in. I felt as if everyone were talking about me, saying things like I could not cope, I was a bad mother, I should know what to do because I was a trained nursery nurse. I remember a family member telling me one day that I was spoiling my daughter because I had let her get her own way with something. This upset me a great deal because as far as I was concerned, I was giving her the best start in life that I could. I was patient, calm and gave her choices and a voice. I respected her as a person and let her explore the world through her own eyes and experiences. What if my best wasn’t good enough? What if I was doing it all wrong? Surely the people who had already got children knew what they were talking about.

I distanced myself from everyone because if they didn’t see me, they could not judge or comment – or at least I wouldn’t know about it. Not because I thought I was a perfect mother and didn’t want their views but because I couldn’t take the negativity, I didn’t want to be made to feel any worse than I already did.

Over the next couple of months, my weight increased significantly which made me even more self-conscious, I spent most of my time on my own and felt so lonely, unloved and useless. I did go to the parent and toddler meeting once, but not one person spoke to me, so I left before the end and cried all the way home, with silent tears streaming down my face. Had I become invisible? Contemplated walking in front of a car just to check I could be seen.

My son was only 12 weeks old when I returned to work, part-time. I was deputy-manager in a nursery and loved my job. This was partly a financial decision, and maternity leave at that time was only 16 weeks and I’d taken four weeks before he was born because I was so big and struggling at work. It was also something to give me time away from the children and home and to be with people who cared for and respected me. As much as I loved my job, I found it very hard being away from the children and although my daughter loved nursery and being with her friends, there were times when I could hear my baby crying in the room next door and I felt I couldn’t go in and see him. I would sit at my desk with tears rolling down my face, trying to be brave and get on with it. I was exhausted, I was more than tired, it was as if my whole body ached and just wanted to shut down.

So much of this time is a blur, I was just getting through the days and putting on a brave face. Things at home had gone from bad to worse with my husband out drinking most nights and over the weekends. He would say he is popping to the shop for groceries then roll up at 2am staggering through the door. I felt unloved and insecure. I accused him of having affairs and choosing the pub over us on so many occasions.

Then one day, when my son was around four months old, a close friend who I worked with said she was worried about me and that she had made me an appointment to see my doctor. He diagnosed me with postnatal depression and put me on antidepressant. Anyone who has ever taken them knows the first 2-3 weeks on them are hell. The side effects can be intense and difficult to manage. I experienced, headaches, dry mouth and sweats, dizziness and a feeling of ‘brain fog’. I also remember having very horrible nightmares. Some of these side effects continued for a while but gradually calmed down. I don’t recall talking about my depression to anyone at the time, but I am aware that my family knew.

The next couple of years went past in a haze. I gradually felt better and more in control of myself, but my marriage was still unsettled and unhappy, I felt like I was doing it all alone, like I was the only one taking responsibility and making decisions for the children and me. I threw myself into studying and embarked on a degree, part-time. When my oldest children were 3 and 5, I made the decision to end the relationship and then the marriage. This was, and still is, one of the most difficult decisions I have ever made. Knowing that you are causing hurt to people who you truly care for and love makes you feel guilty, selfish and like the world is against you. It is a decision which I have had to defend repeatedly to family members and my children. I didn’t share much of the issues in our relationship with many so I can now see that it must have come as a shock to some.

Life resumed in a calmer, happier routine and although there were emotionally difficult times over the years my mental health improved, and I felt like me once again. I began a new relationship, and we decided to try for a baby together. Knowing that I had done this twice now meant there should be no issues this time. We fell pregnant quickly and were so excited to share the news. However, this was to be short-lived as I suffered a miscarriage on the day that I graduated from university with a BA in Early Childhood Studies. My heart was broken. The agony I felt was so overwhelming, I cried for days. I still have flashbacks to seeing the foetus remains in the bathroom over 10 years later and have never been able to put my graduation photograph on the wall because it reminds me of such sadness. I felt like this was my fault, it was because we had planned this baby and I didn’t deserve it, it was because I left my first husband, it was punishment for me being happy. So many mixed emotions and not all rational.

We tried again and fell pregnant a second time. This time I felt anxious throughout most of the pregnancy for fear that something was going to happen again. The pregnancy went smoothly but my husband was made redundant which resulted in us having to move to a new house when I was 38 weeks pregnant which was very stressful. Luckily, our baby boy, safely in a birthing pool at our local community hospital, just two hours after arriving. Before morning arrived, we were back home, and the older children came down in the morning to their new baby brother, such a special moment.

For the first time as a mother, I felt that I could attempt to breastfeed. However, I really struggled with this because he just wouldn’t latch on. My health visitor came on one occasion to try and help but stayed for about 5 minutes and didn’t even take her coat off! I resorted to using a breast pump to express feeds which meant that it felt as if I was expressing then feeding constantly, day and night. I could feel my mood begin to slump and then the overwhelming exhaustion began once again. I could barely function, and never got through a day without sleeping at some point. Why was this happening? I was in a loving relationship with a baby we had planned, and I still felt the same as I had previously. It didn’t make sense to me. My partner (now husband) was amazing. He changed nappies, got up through the night to help to feed and helped with the big children. I couldn’t have asked for more so it must just be me causing it.

I remember one morning when I was in the shower, in agony with my breasts because I had now stopped breastfeeding all together and they had hardened and were so tender that the water hurt them, the tears began to fall. My husband came in and asked if I was ok, and I completely lost it with him. I told him that the baby didn’t need me because he was such an amazing dad, he could do everything and give him all that he needed, I was so useless I couldn’t even feed him. I said it was ‘his’ baby, and that neither of them loved me anyway. My heart breaks for my husband and how he must have felt at the time. I slid in a downward spiral once again, but this time I felt worse than ever.

More antidepressants and a turbulent couple of years followed. I tried CBT but it was in a group session and we were not allowed to talk about our personal situation so for me this didn’t help at the time. I felt like I was living in someone else’s life and just going through the daily motions of existence. A week before our youngest turned two, the oldest son, at the age of 9 ended up in hospital with suspected appendicitis. He stayed in overnight and was discharged the next day with a diagnosis of gastroenteritis. Something didn’t feel right but they are the experts and who was I to question them?

Two days later we were back in A&E and he went straight to surgery with a burst appendix which had caused peritonitis (an infection in the tummy). To cut a long, emotional and drawn out story short. He ended up with an infected, indented open wound, from his tummy button to groin and was seriously ill. Nine nights in hospital with me sleeping in a chair next to him, then daily visits to the doctor and nurse for six months. Finally, he was physically healed. During this time, I was juggling the family with an early years training job, working nationally, trying to support my family financially as the main breadwinner too. My husband had been made redundant for a second time and was now in a lower-paid but local job which meant he could help with doctor visits too. In the years following this, my eldest son was diagnosed with an adjustment disorder due to the scaring he has been left with and I had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. We have now both recovered from this.

Roll on several years and we are all now in a very different and much better place. Even with the lockdown and pandemic I am feeling good. Not like my old self but like a new me with more confidence, determination and love to share. I am still on antidepressants and have no desire to come off them, but I have learned to be more open with the people who care for me and manage my emotions and stress levels in a different way. Meditation is now part of my daily routine; I am mindful and live more in the moment. I am much stronger and have built a network of positive people in my life. I will continue to grow as a parent and unique person with experiences which have shown me that life is challenging but is also amazing. Sending love and positive energy you anyone who needs it right now.

If you think you may have postnatal depression please speak out. Don't be like me - don't suffer in silence. It is only by speaking out that you can receive the support you need to overcome this. Postnatal depression happens to many, many people from all walks of life. It does not discriminate and it never means you are to blame.

The following charities and organisations will be able to help.

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