“I have felt incredibly ashamed about PND especially as she is such a good baby – really I have no cause to be so low, but when the dark cloud descends there’s no rhyme or reason”
This poignant line appeared in a recent email to me and evoked a huge rush of emotions and memories.
My first child – a beautiful baby boy – was born into a very turbulent and unhappy stage of my life, which had to get worse before it got better. This path wasn’t fast or easy for me, but I’m eternally grateful to all who have helped me through it. I finally sought outside help when my baby son was only a few months old and I started blacking out in response to certain stress triggers. I feel lucky that I had such a clear physical sign to tell me that I couldn’t manage by myself; without that I, like many other sufferers, would probably have continued to struggle along alone and in guilt and shame.
Reaching out is always the first and the biggest step, and I’ll never forget the people who were there for me when I finally made that leap. These people (I hope you know who you are) include close family members and friends, my husband, both my children and the counsellor who I saw for a short time when my son was a few months old. And all of those others I came into contact with who were kind, patient and understanding when that’s all I needed. Thank you.
Special thanks also to the amazing woman who was brave enough to share what she’s currently experiencing and to give me the confidence to post what I shared with her in return.
Here’s my reply to her:
“There’s no need to feel ashamed – when you become a mum it’s not just that you’re going through the biggest learning curve ever, have all of these huge strong feelings towards your baby that you’re trying to understand and having to renegotiate how you see and feel about yourself both personally and within a new social world; it’s also so easy to underestimate how much all of the physical aspects of becoming a mother affect how you feel emotionally.
Even with a ‘good’ baby your body will be flooded with hormones it’s not used to, will be managing with reduced and randomly changing sleep patterns and will still be recovering from the changes caused by pregnancy and birth for up to 2 years. My moods became much more regular and predictable once my baby was consistently sleeping through the night until 6am (which did take a long time) and when my metabolism finally settled down a bit (after I finished breastfeeding and then again after about 2-3 years) and I stopped getting huge energy drops at random points during the day.
At least 10% of women experience some form of PND, but most struggle by without additional help and feeling unable to tell anyone how they feel. I was lucky enough to get professional counselling, which helped me to recognise those things that I felt were actually most important for me and my baby at the time, and to be realistic with myself about what was reasonable to expect myself to manage.
Even with my second baby when I was a lot better, I still had times where I had uncontrollable, unpredictable and very strong feelings, but at least I was a bit more prepared for it that time. Sometimes the feelings that I felt were very scarey (like being so terrified of dropping her that I’d have strong urges to throw my baby down the stairs which left me feeling unable to actually go down the stairs at all for fear of harming her), sometimes I just didn’t feel able to get out of bed at all and sometimes I’d hug my baby as close to me as possible and just cry because it all felt so overwhelmingly amazing and terrifying and incredible and loney and guilt-inducing. I had lots of conflicting feelings going on and I felt that if I told anyone they’d think I was an awful or unfit mother.
Sometimes the guilt I felt about what was happening inside my head was the worst bit – the ‘mother guilt’ about whether I’m good enough hasn’t gone away for me, but I’ve learned to live with it because I know it’s only as strong as (and because of) the love I feel for my children. In speaking to my sisters and husband I realised that it’s ok to feel how I was feeling, because regardless of how I was feeling I was still giving my babies all the love, milk and hugs that they needed, they weren’t going to come to any harm because of me and they were clearly happy and thriving.
It’s not your fault that you’re feeling how you are, and it doesn’t matter at all if you’re not managing to be the unatainably ‘perfect’ parent you thought you could be or that you might still sometimes expect yourself to be. You’re just doing your best and being ‘good enough’ is the best that anyone can do and needs to do. And the fact is that you’re by far the best mother for your baby because you’re hers. No-one else has the same connection emotionally, physically and practically to her that you do, even if you don’t feel like that’s the case all the time. The fact that she is a ‘good’ baby shows that she’s getting everything she needs and it’s her opinion on that that matters most And even ‘good’ babies have days when it’s all a bit too difficult or painful or tiresome for them – that’s not your fault either – that’s just part of her growing and having to learn so many things so quickly. So her crying or not eating sometimes isn’t the end of the world either.
Being a mother 24-7 is one of the hardest jobs you can do, even if sometimes you feel like you’re not doing much – even the fact of being constantly aware of her possible needs and what she’s doing when you’re not with her can be mentally exhausting, let alone when you’re together all the time too.
Nothing can fully prepare you for how you’re going to experience it and I’m still learning how to be a mum (and getting some things right, some things ok and some things wrong) every day. I don’t think that’ll ever stop really and it’s different for each person and for each child – what works for one of us won’t always work for all of us, but together we try to do what we can each day and to be honest about and understand our own and each other’s limitations.
Try to be kind to yourself – eat regularly and sleep when you can, have realistic expectations and recognise all of the little things you achieve each day, however small or mundane you think they are. I’d mentally tick off things completely basic things like ‘I kept my baby’s nappy clean today’, ‘my baby ate something today’, ‘my baby smiled today’, ‘we got out of the house today’. And now if I’ve had a bad day I still do; (for my 2 year old) ‘I might have lost my temper with her, but at least she didn’t fall down the stairs today’, (for my 6 year old) ‘we didn’t practise reading, but we did talk about why volcanoes erupt so that counts as learning’.
The physical bits of being a mum do get easier as they get older (which helps with mood swings a lot), and for the emotional bits I’ve found that I’m gradually learning to know myself as a mother and get better at managing the feelings and focussing that energy into something positive.
Before children I felt strong and independent and that was shattered when I first had a baby and I felt lost and out of control. Now I’ve come out the other side I know I’m not independent (I’ve accepted that I couldn’t survive without my children or without others to support me), have accepted that there’s many things I can’t control and I know that I’m an awful lot stronger and happier than I was before.
I cherish the new ways that having children has both allowed and forced me to see the world and myself in it. The fact that I get to have this wonderful and special (though sometimes agonising and overwhelming) relationship with my children and can just be part of their lives is the best bit really, even if I do really need to have a few hours break occasionally! Though it’s been (and still is at times) very challenging, the good bits definitely outweigh the not-so-good bits and I feel very lucky to have had the chance to experience all of this
Gosh sorry, I hadn’t intended to ramble on quite so much! I don’t often talk about it, but even writing little bits down can help to put it in perspective and remind me how in awe I am of what my children manage to be in spite of me!
All the best and lots of hugs,
The above is almost entirely un-edited (other than to remove names).
The response I recieved (which brought tears to my eyes) described this as an “intimate part of your ‘rite of passage’ to motherhood”. I hadn’t thought of it that way at the time, or even when I wrote what’s above, but I think she’s right. I’ve always felt that it was my baby son that allowed me to better understand myself and my needs. Far from taking my pre-motherhood life away (though I’ve subsequently needed to mourn the loss of that part of my life in order to leave it behind), my new baby gave me a door into the only life that mattered; one that was out of my own head and in the real world with him.
Without experiencing this ‘rite of passage’, I don’t think I could have faced myself and my life with the raw honesty that I needed to in order to become both the person and mother that I can now trust and am comfortable with; to recognise who I actually am and to allow myself to be no more than I realistically can be in my current circumstances. I now feel that, though I’ve by no means sorted everything in my head out yet (and probably never will), a least I have the emotional tools to face the rest of my parenting life without fear and with the ability to love and be happy. Sharing this part of my journey with the world is just another step along that same long path for me, and (I hope) a little helping light for those that need it.
Thanks so much once again to all of those who have got me to where I am now
There are lots of sources online to help give you information about Post Natal Depression and to help support you through the time after birth. I don’t know many, so I’ll add a few links here now and please do let me know if there are any that would be useful to include:
This new factsheet from the Royal College of Psychiatrists is very clear and has lots of useful links to support organisations:
Mind (a mental health charity): http://www.mind.org.uk/help/diagnoses_and_conditions/post-natal_depression
Association for Post-Natal Illness: http://apni.org/
Perinatal Illness UK: www.pni-uk.com