Maternal mental health and me.
It’s World Mental Health Day today, something that before having a baby would have been but the minutest blip on my radar.
Sometimes I feel like I have made my anxiety up. That I am undeserving of acknowledging it at all. I brush it off as an “off day”, and push on until sometimes I break and sometimes I don’t. And then it perpetuates.
I was, and can still be, a person of laissez-faire attitude. Life goes on and I tended to be of the ‘it will all turn out alright in the end camp’, because usually it did. But then I gave birth, and it was pretty bad. My birth is something I speak of because I feel what happened to me mattered and was, of course, the most pivotal moment for me in ways both good and bad. I feel it is a testament to the power that I found in arming yourself in pregnancy. It was terrifying and surreal, but in those moments I was strong and fearless. What I don’t speak of often is the days and weeks that followed.
In hospital for three days, separated from my daughter by the SCBU for the first night. I had to take myself off the painkillers because of the eventual panic attacks that set in as they wore off every four hours on the dot. Sleepless nights alone in a cubicle with a baby who wouldn’t leave my breast for more than a moment. My incredible, incredible community midwife happened to be doing an extra shift on labour ward on night three, the worst of it all, I had been standing up rocking Eilish while she wailed for over three hours. I cried on her shoulder, and then she wheeled Eilish off to the nurses station where she cuddled her until she fell asleep so I could rest. She was a beacon in my darkest moments.
And then we came home and, due to the general disarray of the UK rental market, I entered hospital living at one address, and left living at another. The house was in disarray, all my precious nesting in the old house long gone and obliterated. For around a week I did not sleep, afraid that if I closed my eyes I wouldn’t wake up again. I kept imagining internal bleeds and would spend the evening with my hand resting on my pulse, convinced that it was slowing down. If I would drift off my back would spasm - an aftermath of the emergency c-section - and I would come to again, my heart pounding.
My worst imaginings were of the terrible things that could happen to my daughter, things that I had no desire to do but would enter my mind unbidden and unwelcome. “What if I dropped her over the banister?”. “What if I smashed her head on the coffee table?”, “What if, what if, what if”. In some of these moments I would want nothing more than to undo all that had happened, put her back inside me, safe and warm, just wait a little longer until I was ready to do it again. And in others I would wish for nothing more than to place her into my husband’s arms and run away, I was not good enough and she deserved better.
I knew that my daughter was ok. I knew that she was fine because the consultants had reassured and updated us constantly on her progress, she had so many tests, antibiotics just in case. The amazing NHS, understaffed and at their busiest time of year, sent me on my way with a “don’t drive for six weeks” and a Bounty pack. Yes, my daughter was ok and of course the most important, but what about me? Was I going to be ok?
My scar was a constant source of worry, and it was a relief to make it to the six week mark, to believe that I was past the worst of it. That I was “recovered”. Told I could access the Birth Afterthoughts service as soon as I was mentally ready, I turned up for a postnatal check, and walked past the labour ward, the recovery ward with my head held high and my bonny baby is the pram. And then I crumbled when the consultant assumed I was here for a birth debrief and opened with “you were so lucky”. I should have said something, but quite honestly, I only had it in me to keep the tears in and nod as she spouted off statistics, cord gases, fetal heart rate. Still bleeding from the birth, the very details of my most traumatic moments were being laid out in the most matter-of-fact fashion. I rang my husband the second I came out and all that could come out was, “she nearly died, she nearly died”.
Time and talking were my turning points. The story used to pour out of me so often, to anyone and everyone who would listen. Sometimes I felt like I was ruining it. Having a baby should be a happy event, and I was like a huge rain cloud bursting open over the parade. Responses would vary between “but she’s here now” and exclamations of horror at the severity of my story. Until eventually I stopped speaking about it, I felt my story was annoying everyone. I felt like an imposter in a happy story for a long time until I began to accept that it had become a part of my tapestry, it had happened and there was no chance to start again. At three months postpartum it was affirming when I attended a therapist consultation and was told that I deserved to feel how I did. When she told me we got the birth that we needed on that day it felt like a revelation, it was truly like I could breathe again.
And over 13 months on I sometimes mourn for those lost newborn days, days that I will never have back. It will be an entirely different experience if I ever have another, there will be another child to think of, days spent in bed and long feeding sessions with Netflix will be unlikely. I sometimes feel overwhelmed with anxiety that seems unfounded and out of the blue. If Eilish is ill I do not sleep and wonder whether everyone else feels this deep-rooted sickness, or whether it is a by-product of my experience. On the eve of her first birthday I had my first panic attack in months. I can spend days with that sickening feeling in my stomach with no clue as to how it got there. And then it clears, and we continue.
All of this I share with you today as it has defined me. It is why I feel so passionately about mothers, about them getting the start they deserve, the self-care they need, and the support they require from conception. When we let mothers feel isolated and alone at their most vulnerable time, we are allowing the tired beating down of those who maybe need us most. And it continues. Postnatal depression and post-traumatic stress and anxiety and depression and worse. I absolutely don’t have all the answers, but I truly believe its time to stand up and then lean upon each other. I’m beginning now, by pledging to share here, to share others stories, in creating a village where before there was none.
I’ve had enough of flashbacks and fear and panic. I want a better start for all.