Maternal Mental Health

Four years ago I took a pretty rapid descent into motherhood and during my 3 month pregnancy (long story, he was a late discovery, oops) I was put on a crash course by all the mums I knew…

“Sleep when the baby sleeps. Fed is best. Nappy bins are pointless. The first postpartum poo is the hardest. Get yourself some big knickers. If it’s a girl wipe from front to back. If it’s a boy make sure it’s pointing down when you put the nappy on. You can’t spoil a newborn. Make sure you take time for yourself. You won’t shower for the first few days. Pack a long charger for the hospital. You’ll still look pregnant for a while after birth. Your boobs will double when your milk comes in. That first cry is the best sound. When you hold baby you’ll feel love like no other. You’ll gain a whole new perspective. You’re about to realise the true meaning of joy. There’s no love like a mother for her child. When you look at them your heart will sing…”

But I wasn’t told or warned about postpartum depression and anxiety. Both of which creeped up behind me and grabbed me round the throat, restricting me so much that most days I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

The thoughts that entered my mind weren’t just words strung together in text – they’d flash through in a reel of terrifying imagery. I didn’t think my thoughts, I saw them – often unable to distinguish between what was real and what wasn’t.

“My baby is sick. My baby is choking. My baby has turned blue. My babies chest isn’t moving. My baby is sleeping too much, sleeping too little. He’s got a rash. He’s not breathing properly. What if I drop the baby? What if I drop the baby on purpose? What if the tv falls on him? What if he falls into the sink of boiling water, or I pour kettle water on him? What if we fall down the stairs and I crush him? What if I bend his limbs too much and they break? What if I drop him in the bath and he drowns? Or I throw him out of the window, or over the balcony? What if I deliberately let him drink piping hot milk? What if that pillow falls on his face and I don’t move it? What if I let the pram go and it wheels into the road? What if someone tries to steal him? What if a stranger breaks in and tries to kill us? What if I hurt him with this kitchen knife? Or drop him on the open oven door? What if I fall asleep and suffocate him?”

“Wait, am I capable of hurting my child? Am I thinking all this because I WANT to carry these actions out? Should I call social services on myself? Am I in fact the most dangerous thing to this innocent boy? Do I love my baby? Should I actually just put him up for adoption?”

I would worry about external influences and my own capabilities to the extent that I would be frightened to look in his Moses basket at night incase he had died. I wouldn’t carry him past windows or sit with him on the balcony. I’d keep kettles and knives a whole room away from him. I’d plan escape routes for us at 3am in case someone broke in. The bathroom has a lock but no window, would we survive a jump off the balcony? I’d ring my other half whilst he was on the night shift and insist he just kept me in his pocket as he worked so I didn’t feel so alone. I’d want to spend as much time as possible with other people so I didn’t have to be subject to my own thoughts. I’d sit on the bed at night for hours cradling my son whilst he slept convinced someone had broken in. I had to make sure at all times that I was between him and the door. I’d wake in the night having half dreamt something awful and fully believe it was real.

My anxiety became so bad that one night I perched trembling at the top of the stairs with a knife, holding my snoozing baby, for hours waiting for someone to break in. I reached a level of delirium that I rang my now husband and told him that in fact someone was in our flat and he had to drive home immediately.

It took me nearly three years to recover from my firstborn and dare I say I’m not sure I ever will. Obviously none of what I thought or imagined was real, but I was too scared to get help as I was worried there would be some form of intervention. I used to joke that the health visitor was social services but there really was part of me that’s saw her as someone who was coming to vet me rather than support me – when asked how I was feeling I was fabulous! Any challenging thoughts? Don’t know what you’re on about lady.

When I finally went to my GP and told her what was going on, I was shocked by her response.

“It’s entirely normal, it’s bloody horrible, but it happens to 1 in 5 of us. You are not alone.”

She was right, technically I wasn’t alone but as a new mother with no mum friends to reach out to I felt the loneliest I ever have. How do you tell your friends who don’t have kids that you thought people were in your flat when they weren’t… or that you fully imagined yourself stabbing your newborn child. You don’t.

Over time I learnt that yes it’s completely normal to be experiencing what I was experiencing but that didn’t make it ok – suffering in silence doesn’t help anyone. Everyone will have different coping mechanisms, things that helped me were indeed talking to people… some won’t want to talk and that’s ok, often when it comes to mental illness we don’t know what to say. I remember being with a couple of friends last year and PPD/PPA topic bizarrely came up (they don’t gave kids). One of my friends quite readily said “my mum had postpartum depression with my brother actually”. My ears kind of pricked up as at this point my son was nearly three and I’d never really shared my situation. I responded with “oh she did? So did I with Fred”. Neither of my friends responded. As soon as the conversation started it ended… it was ok to bring up PPD/PPA that was nearly 30 years old and no ones responsibility to support – the comment was more anecdotal and gossipy than an invitation to let her know I might need her. After all her mum was now fine and all fixed, it was clear that mine was still very raw.

Initially I took it personally and was pretty upset. I felt like my friends didn’t want to know but the truth was they didn’t know how to know. They knew as much as I did about PPD/PPA as I did before having experienced it first hand and would just not have known what to say! Taking peoples reactions or non reactions personally when you share your mental health problems will only send you into a thought spiral that makes your anxiety worse. “Everyone hates me, no one wants to help me”.

It’s not the case, a lot of people just don’t know what to do or say when you bring up poor mental health. Maternal mental ill health is still such a taboo and secretive subject – after all who would know that women could be unhappy after having had a ‘bundle of joy’! It doesn’t make sense!

Thankfully one friend of mine helped explain to me why I might be experiencing these terrible and intrusive visions and thoughts, and it really helped me to rationalise and find answers. She told me that her perception of it was that anxiety grips onto what might happen, what could happen and therefore the mind behaves preemptively. When these images were flashing into my mind they were solely serving the purpose of protection. They were enabling me to stay on top of my game, detect every danger and put measures in place to protect both me and my baby. It wasn’t that I wanted to hurt him or myself – I was simply preparing for every eventuality. Including those that frightened me most. When you’re in charge of something so precious, fragile and dependent on you – you are likely to worry about what could happen to them and therefore put measures in place to keep them safe. This helped.

I also relied on writing, which I was why I started this blog and have started it back up again: I am six weeks postpartum with my second baby and have been experiencing anxiety and intrusive thoughts like I did before. I had to stop in a lay-by in the way home because she was starving hungry and screaming. My anxiety took hold of me and I had to wait until no cars were passing by just incase we were hit as I was bringing her into the front seat or even worse, I threw her into the road.

To be able to pen out my thoughts and feelings expels them from my heart and allows me to feel a little lighter. That and a load of medication…

The Wriggler.

Finding out I was pregnant was shocking to say the very least. I was given a three month (max) preparation period and was demanded to shake off my allergy to babies and fall in love with a stubborn little bean that despite any amount of gin, white water rafting, heavy lifting or violent dancing had clung on inside me and chosen me to be his keeper.

Was I to feel an instant connection to this little human? At the time of discovery he was way too big to even see the gender, everything was to be a surprise for us. Who was this person? Were they safe? Did I love them? Did I want them? Who knew. The only thing I did know was that beneath all the shock came shining through with a fire of passion a need to do everything within my power to ensure that from that day on they were not to be harmed, not to be alone, not to feel sadness if it were in my power or ability for them not to. From that day, that hour, that moment, I became a mother. 

And so I continued – and tried to do my best to get to know my unborn child. I started to speak to the baby, started to sing to it. I didn’t know what I was doing, I had gone from rejecting my physical appearance to embracing it, to touching and caressing my belly. To letting my other half see it, stroke it and kiss it for the first time since we had been together. It had gone from the worst part of my body to the best, in the space of a few hours. I went from ignoring every pain and discomfort that I had previously diagnosed as cysts, to enjoying the ebbs and flows that came with the baby’s movements. We created a character – and soon enough – the baby became ‘The Wriggler’.

The Wriggler fast became a pretty good friend of mine, it’s hard not to get to know someone well especially when you spend all your time with them. Wriggler slept mostly when I was awake, always in the car and often when out and about. Wriggler had its fun when I was trying to sleep – always. Partying until the AM. Wriggler was cheeky, and a fighter. Wriggler would push its feet and hands against my desk at work if I leaned too closely and would hiccup it’s way through important meetings and push on my bladder whilst on sales calls. Wriggler did whatever was inconvenient and I loved that – I loved that already my baby felt independent, my baby felt wilful. I was proud and I hadn’t even met them. 

My boyfriend and I would meet at the end of a working day and he wouldn’t just ask how my day had gone he’d also ask how Wriggler was – did Wriggler have a good day? I wasn’t sure if the guilt born from not being aware of our baby’s existence was the reason why, but we fast became obsessed. Every movement, every time my belly grew, each new sensation was spoken about at great length. At times I became too frightened to sleep, so wanting to make up for lost time that I felt I should always be ensuring that the baby was happy and okay. Monitoring our new prized possession. 

The personality we created was everything to us,  The Wriggler was not a morning person, was definitely cheeky, stubborn and had an insanely sweet tooth. The Wriggler also loved Ed Sheeran, I would sing ‘I’m in love with the shape of you’ at the top of my voice and my darling would jig along inside me in response. 

The creation of The Wriggler felt crucial to our success – The Wriggler had not chosen to exist and it was our job to ensure that we were the best parents we could possibly be, that our baby was loved and knew it. The fact that I felt that I had been neglectful meant I had so much making up to do and each day I promised this to Wriggler. I woke up each morning and would declare – ‘I love you my angel, Mummy will always take care of you’. My eyes would fill with tears and I would go about my day ensuring every move I made would prolong my fulfilling that promise.