I can honestly say pregnancy was more difficult than labour for me. Pelvic girdle pain, hyper emesis, weight loss, anxiety and not once feeling that ‘pregnancy glow’ kind of made the whole thing suck. I was 22 when I was pregnant with Ells, young, naïve and utterly unprepared for motherhood. The end of the relationship with her bio dad a few weeks before birth made things all the more emotionally exhausting. I was terrified and on my own. It’s little wonder I ended up with postnatal depression.
My Mum was my birthing partner, and at that point in my life she was the best person to be there with me. Nearly 48 hours of labour, the wonders of an epidural, 30 minutes pushing and out my girl popped. She was blue when she was born, the kind of blue that sets a midwife into a frenzy of rubbing and oxygen masks. Thankfully my strong girl soon let them know how big her lungs were, but it was a tense time while we waited for her to draw her first breath.
I wasn’t traumatised by the labour at all. If anything the damage that occurred from Ells coming so fast was more traumatising after I got home and the midwife realised the state I had been left in. She nearly cried when she saw the state of me, and gave me such a hug. The other midwives had only been interested in how well Ells latched on, never noticing the grimace on my face because I was in agony and exhausted. No one factored in that I had just spent the best part of nine months with my head in a toilet, surviving on bowls of cheerios and the odd chip. I was undernourished, weak and exhausted from growing this little bundle on next to nothing. But so long as she was latching on that didn’t seem to matter. On reflection I looked emaciated at times, a scrawny size 8-10 which was a dramatic change from my previous curvy size 12.
I cried often when it was feeding time, under so much pressure to ‘do it right’ because ‘breast is best’, not knowing how to tell these women who insisted I breast fed that I just couldn’t cope with my baby even touching me. They just weren’t interested. They had their agenda and as long as I told them I was fine they were happy.
I wasn’t fine.
I remember saying to my Mum that I felt like I was waiting for someone to turn up at the door and tell me they were taking Ells. She asked me how I felt about that and at that moment I honestly didn’t feel anything. I felt numb.
I knew she was mine, but I felt nothing towards her. I would look at her sleeping and catch myself wondering why I felt no connection with her. I did all the Mum things of keeping her clean and well fed, which by about 3-4 months old meant she was on bottles as my milk just stopped. I even did terry nappies diligently because I believed that’s what I had to do to be a ‘good Mum’. But I still felt no connection to my own child. Even now the idea of feeling like that brings up emotions of sadness and bereavement. I often looked at other mothers with their new babies, trying to figure out why they were so different to me, why they were genuinely happy and I wasn’t.
It wasn’t until someone was talking to me about something random when they stopped the conversation to ask if I was ok, really ok. I remember looking at her and I must have had a vacant look on my face because the next words out of her mouth felt like a knife cutting into my heart, ‘I think you may have postnatal depression.’
I broke there and then. I cried uncontrollably because someone had put words to how I was feeling and they made sense.
I tried to talk to my own Mum about it, but she wasn’t sure. As it turns out her own experience of motherhood began in a similar way, only back then you had to get on with it and so many women went through the ordeal of just getting through depression because that’s what women did.
I could not reconcile taking medications to help deal with depression. I remember telling the doctor that medication wasn’t an option because I didn’t want to become a zombie on Prozac. I never waited for him to educate me, I wasn’t in the right space to listen.
I muddled through as a single Mum, doing the best I could aware there was this thing lingering over me the entire time, preventing me from being the kind of Mum I wanted to be. My neighbour and friend was also a single Mum, she asked me to go to a course with her at our local children’s centre. Women Feeling Fine it was called, I vaguely remember mocking it slightly, but went with her anyway. The first few sessions were about self-care, we made bath bombs and experimented with essential oils. It was quite fun although the free crèche was the thing I loved most. Then we got half way through and were asked to do a little homework.
Write down one significant moment that has made you feel unloved, unwanted or abandoned.
I sat over the first piece of paper a good couple of hours the one evening. I didn’t know how to begin, or even where to begin. Four nights in a row I sat staring at the paper, pen in hand, stuck. Then on the fifth night I wrote down all the hurt of being left literally holding the baby. I wrote page after page about how my heart really felt, about betrayal, hurt, loss and the total lack of joy of bringing my baby girl into the world. I wrote about how I felt I had failed her and myself. About how I grieved the lost days where I wasn’t the best Mum for her, days I could never get back. The process was painful yet more freeing than I could have anticipated.
We sat in group, with about twelve other women and listened as we all poured our broken hearts out to each other. There were tears, there was healing, there was a sense of relief and the revelation that we were not alone in how we felt. In that moment fourteen broken women shared their pain and began healing together. I began healing, in the knowledge I was not alone and that my voice was being heard.
Of all my certificates of achievement, the one I got from that small group course still means the most to me. It helped me start a journey of recovery from postnatal depression, and helped me become the Mum I needed to be for my beautiful little girl.
Those early days with my first born I will never get back, and I still ache a little for them. I look back to my naïve 23 year old self and am thankful for the people placed around me at that time, they helped me become a better version of me, one that took courage in being Mama Bear to her precious cub. Ells turns 14 this week, and looking at her now I have the privilege of seeing that I no longer need to hold on to the guilt of those early days. She is an intelligent, well-adjusted, contributing member of society. The world is her oyster and she knows it. She has drive, passion and a plan; I admire the person she is becoming and look forward to seeing where her journey takes her.
I hope every day that I am the mother she needs, making peace with the fact that that may not always be the mother she wants, but one that she will hopefully reflect on when she is in my shoes and be grateful of the path we walked together.
I once described postnatal depression as the silent scream, because that’s how I felt. It is all consuming, overwhelming and at times unbearable when living in a world driven by appearance and comparison – always looking like you have it all together. When we open ourselves up to talk about where we really are, we break the power depression has over us and people are respond with love and help.
It takes a moment of bravery to say to someone else ‘I am not ok.’