PND & Me
I would say I had a fairly textbook maternity leave experience — on the surface.
I had a group of NCT mums that I would meet with regularly (as well as other mum friends from various places), we went to baby groups from 8 weeks and we started baby swim when she was 12 weeks old. We had even taken her on holiday abroad twice by the time she was 9 months old. She wasn’t a particularly “difficult” baby, aside from the usual sleep issues that you would expect at that age, and thankfully didn’t suffer with any particular health concerns.
But something wasn’t right. What was it? I didn’t know. Everyone spoke about the instant rush of love that came the minute you saw your baby and how nothing else mattered as soon as they were born. 2am feeds and poo explosions? No place they would rather be! #mumlife! Where was THAT? I didn’t know. Everyone said you should really cherish these early days as they go so fast but why did I just want it to be over? I really didn’t know.
I don’t recall much about the immediate aftermath of childbirth and when I see pictures from that time now it’s like I am seeing it for the first time and wasn’t actually there. I had a fairly long and traumatic labour and I was in a daze, which I presumed to be that newborn fog that everyone said would take over in the early days. I struggled to breastfeed and, in the end, moved on to formula feeding, which made me feel like I had failed my baby.
“Are you loving mum life?” people would ask and I would immediately say yes, afraid of what they would think if I told the truth. I remember being almost afraid of my baby, and definitely afraid to be alone with her. My husband going back to work after paternity leave seemed like the worst thing ever to happen. I felt like I would be stuck in my living room changing nappies for the rest of my life and would never sleep again — but I didn’t want that. I knew that I would’ve run through a burning building to save her, yet felt completely detached and like I didn’t know her at all.
Once we were signed off by the midwives, the health visitors would make regular visits. On one such visit they asked me whether I was looking forward to plans in the future, and I said not really. They made me fill out a questionnaire about how I was feeling that day and said that they would be back in a couple of weeks’ time. I didn’t realise at the time that I was being monitored for Post Natal Depression. We were now around 7 weeks in and she was gaining weight and developing really well. She only lost 8% of her birth weight and her jaundice had cleared up quickly. There was nothing to be concerned or worried about, I was told, she was doing great!
The health visitor returned as promised. “Oh you’ve put your Christmas tree up! How lovely”. She gave me another questionnaire to fill in. I was feeling ok that day. “Ah so glad to see that you are feeling much better! I will sign you off then and fill in your paperwork”. And with that they decided that I needed no further support or monitoring and I was advised to bring my baby to the weight clinics to be checked from then on. Christmas came and went and I wasn’t really present, in fact I don’t even know where I was — barely leaving the house and still waiting for that amazing bond to appear. Where was it?! All around me I was seeing lovely picture of families in matching pyjamas and endless elves on shelves, yet I felt as if I was just surviving. In fact there is one particular photo of me in which I am wearing a Christmas jumper but I remember feeling so sad inside.
Over the subsequent months I found that my mental health went in a sort of cycle. I would go through periods of feeling fine and would think to myself “oh great! Whatever it was has gone and I am now cured”. But then I would suddenly start to feel low again and so it would go on. I visited my GP for the first time when my baby was 12 weeks old. “Right — I’m going to prescribe you some medication and that will really help”. I didn’t want medication — I wanted someone to talk to me and explain what this was. I took the prescription but never even opened the box.
The weeks and months went on and I had started to have more regular intrusive thoughts. “Why don’t I LOVE being a mum like everyone else? I think she would be better off if I just wasn’t here because clearly I am a terrible mother. I think everyone would be better off”. I thought I was the worst mother of all time, that I didn’t contribute anything and that I didn’t see the point in even existing. I felt sorry for her because I was her mum. Why was everyone else so hopelessly in love with their babies. What was wrong with me?!
These thoughts became more and more frequent and I ended up going back to my GP but seeing a different doctor, however I didn’t mention these thoughts. I was afraid of being sectioned or worse, having my baby taken away from me. I didn’t even want to tell my family as I thought it would sound silly or over the top. It was around this time that Louis Theroux released a documentary about maternal mental health and I remember feeling that a lot of what was shown was all too familiar. Again, the GP tried to give me a prescription but this time I declined. They told me to self refer to a mental health service — I took the card but never did it — I couldn’t even explain why.
I returned to work part time at 9 months post partum and despite now having work as a “break” I still found motherhood to just be a constant hard slog. It didn’t feel like part of who I was or my identity or natural in any way, it just felt like another “job” that I had to do, that was never ending. Again I felt guilty because I knew there were people out there who had fertility struggles and would quite literally give their right arm to be in my position. My baby wasn’t yet sleeping through the night and was going through some fairly regular and major sleep regressions, so I was constantly tired and even if I had an evening out could never fully enjoy it as I didn’t know how much sleep I was going to get. Again, why did I not think “oh but isn’t it all worth it for my wonderful baby!” like all the other mums.
So the cycle went on, I would go through periods where I felt ok, but it always returned and I could never quite say that I enjoyed life. The Instagram wave continued on, smiling faces and family days out and I continued to be both baffled and consumed with guilt that I was not feeling the same. At nearly 10 months post partum I was back at the GP, this time seeing yet another doctor, and this time I told the truth. “Sometimes I just wish that I didn’t exist, and I really think my family would be better off without me. It’s been a while since I gave birth so I’m just not sure whether this is normal at this stage”. “Well that’s TOTALLY NORMAL! Specifically at 9 months post partum, it will pass, let’s just give it some more time and if it still doesn’t go away we can get you on some medication” Really? I felt so alone.
At 12 months post partum, I was offered a new job. It was full time, which was fairly frightening to think about at the time, but a really good opportunity and the chance to get my foot back in the door of my career. We had been using nursery part time and it was going well so I convinced myself that cranking up to full time wouldn’t have too much of an effect on her. For me, this was a huge turning point. I didn’t know until now that work had formed such a massive part of my identity and even working part time was not enough. I needed to feel like I had a purpose, beyond being a mother. But why wasn’t my baby enough of a purpose? I knew of women who never wanted to return to work after maternity leave and hated every minute of being apart from their baby. In fact I was told by one mum while I was pregnant that this was EXACTLY how I was going feel. So why did I enjoy being at work?! The guilt returned (does it ever really go away?) but we persevered and fell into a new routine. We were now entering toddlerhood — the night wakings had completely stopped and I was no longer perpetually tired. She was starting to play, and sing, and chat. We were getting something back! I started to get that feeling. The one everyone spoke about, the one I had been waiting for. It had taken more than a year.
This was a revelation to me. Maybe I didn’t HAVE to love the baby stage? Maybe I felt pressured to love the baby stage because that is what we are all told we should do, and felt guilty when I didn’t. Maybe I am allowed to work full time and still love my child just as much and maybe this way she was actually getting the best version of me. Maybe I don’t have to be a DIY-activity-crafting-making-organic-food-from-scratch mum. Maybe there was more than one way to be a mum.
I recently came across the term “matrescence” meaning the transition into motherhood, which is likened to adolescence in terms of the scale and intensity of the change. It can involve a “grieving process” for your old life which is exactly how I had felt at the start. I remember longing for my old life to return and feeling so trapped, but at the same time not understanding why because I had planned and expected this. Motherhood is so complex because there is no question that you love your child, however you may still have these kinds of thoughts which aren’t seen as “acceptable” by many, resulting in a lot of mothers just burying it to keep up this façade that all is well and they are a perfect earth mother. The more we aren’t talking about it, the more alone we all are.
I wasn’t going to elaborate on my “dark thoughts” too much and I have deliberated over whether or not to include this part, but here it is. I have suffered with feelings of inadequacy for a really long time, even before motherhood, and when I did become a mum it just exacerbated that feeling into the context of motherhood.
I felt like I wasn’t a good mum because I didn’t enjoy it and I didn’t feel like any of it was #worthit as I never felt any joy. This was accompanied by feelings of extreme guilt because of course, what an awful way to feel about your child! None of the other mums felt like that, they were all so happy and yes they said it was hard but they always thought it was SO worth it and that they “wouldn’t have it any other way”. To this day, when I see social media posts or receive messages from new mums showing them out and about, dressed, or to be honest *just living life* with their newborn I am still BAFFLED. I would say I spent the first 12 weeks mainly in my own living room. I didn’t think I could go anywhere or do anything except sit and hold her and wait for the next feed or nappy change. I felt like that was all my life was going to consist of from then on, and I missed the way things used to be.
I started to think that I didn’t contribute anything and what kind of a life was I living anyway? Just sat at home 24/7. My baby wasn’t exactly getting the best experience and people kept saying how they “pick up on your moods” (which I would like to point out is bullshit and a newborn does not even know whether it is day or night, we need to STOP this pressure on mums) and I thought I must therefore be scarring her for life with my lack of attachment to her. I thought if I just didn’t exist she would be much better off, and maybe my husband could meet somebody else who was actually maternal and actually enjoyed life, who was an actual person rather than whatever it was I had become.
I thought she was so young that she wouldn’t even remember me anyway.
I felt like a burden on everyone. I wanted to have a baby and now I had one. I had a house, husband, family, job. But I still wasn’t happy! What was the point? I was clearly never going to be happy. Why even bother carrying on? This just became my life, even after we started baby groups and swimming classes and seemed to be following some sort of “routine” i would very often go to the toilet just to cry.
I think I alienated a lot of people during this period and I’m sure I missed out on a lot of friendships that could’ve become something great, but I just felt so lost and confused and like everything I was doing was wrong. Don’t rock them to sleep! You’ll make a rod for your own back! I was still rocking her every day and night. She should be having a long lunchtime nap by now! She only did 30 min cat naps each time. Definitely DON’T give them a dummy!!! Or if you do, take it away before they’re 6 months old or they’ll have it forever! They’ll get married with it in and they’ll never ever learn to speak! They’ll be grunting meaninglessly at people aged 21! I did let her have a dummy. I didn’t have any confidence in my own abilities and I resented the people that did. How were they just able to get on with it and not be crippled with anxiety?! I was sure all the other mums thought I was a basket case, either that or just a bit of a bitch. I never felt like anyone was seeing the real me because I didn’t even know who that was anymore.
I don’t feel like motherhood came “naturally” to me — it’s definitely something I have had to learn and continue to work at. It’s the same with the intrusive thoughts, I still get them but with support from my family and a therapist I have learned to manage them day to day. Mental health is fluid and I don’t believe that you ever “get better” — you just get better at controlling it. It’s a cliche to talk about “finding yourself” but I feel like adjusting to motherhood involves exactly that. Rediscovering who you are, but you with a child. I’ve often seen comments online from random strangers judging other mums, celebrities, bloggers etc, “how can she be away from her children so much!” “I would NEVER talk about my child like that” “I’m always constantly playing and doing things with my children, I would never be on my phone!” Give these people a medal! *slow hand clap*
The issue of maternal mental health is hugely complex and a cause that I champion in any way that I can, as a result of my own experience. Motherhood is an entirely personal journey and nobody can (or should) tell you how to feel about it. People often talk about “things they don’t tell you about being a mum” and not once have I ever seen or heard mental health mentioned in media articles etc on the subject. The way I see it, not only do people not tell you about the effects of motherhood on your mental health, YOU also don’t tell people about it. I can attest to the fact that it is perfectly possible to be functioning on the surface but falling apart inside, especially as a lot of mothers just get on with it and carry on for the sake of their baby, which is what makes maternal mental health issues so complex and difficult to identify. I wanted to share my experience so that even one person might feel like what they are going through is valid and real. There are so many different ways to be a mum — whether you work full time, part time, or not at all. Whether you make every meal from scratch or fish fingers are your holy grail. Whether you went on a strict regime and lost all the weight or whether you have a new (still amazing!) body type. It’s all real life, it’s all fine, and the kids are all loved.
If anyone reading this is struggling please talk to someone, as you are definitely not alone, and social media definitely does lie.