Before becoming a mother I had a strong image in my mind of what pregnancy would be like. I would be healthy. I’d relish watching my body change and grow. I’d endure the side effects because the highs would far outweigh the lows. So when we were blessed with a positive pregnancy test, the excitement was palpable.
Three weeks in and I started experiencing excruciating cramps. A fortnight later the bleeding began. We were told that it was likely we’d lose the baby and I remember sobbing uncontrollably in the hospital waiting room. A week later I was diagnosed with a large cyst on my ovary and a subchorionic haemorrhage but GREAT NEWS, our little guy was hanging in there! A strong, fluttering heart beat that took my breath away.
Things started looking up when I hit the second trimester. The bleeding stopped and although I had visibly ballooned in weight (cue unnecessary/insensitive comments from strangers), I started to feel more human again. I won the ballot to become a birth centre mother. This was in line with our wishes to have a natural birth free from pain medication, and I was excited at the prospect of building a relationship with a small team of midwives.
Then at 24 weeks I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes. Before falling pregnant I had been fit, active and healthy so the diagnosis came as a complete shock. Overnight I went from low-risk to high-risk (insulin-dependent) and I had to say goodbye to my spot at the birth centre. My pregnancy journey became a whirlwind of check-ups, waiting rooms and ongoing diagnostics. What I thought was going to be a natural and holistic process became clinical and impersonal. I hated it.
I was relieved then to be induced at 38 weeks. Labour was intense and came on quickly. There was no time for pain medication but I was coping – I felt in control and empowered. Unfortunately our little one didn't have an easy entrance to this world. I pushed for over an hour but ultimately required an episiotomy. I suffered significant tearing and a haemorrhage. It was traumatic for myself and my partner but our son had arrived! A warm, slimy, vocal little thing and he was just perfect! The pregnancy, the labour, the excruciating stitches, it had all been worth it! Time to start a new chapter.
We left hospital with a healthy and beautifully alert son. We had visitors at the time, and I was so excited to take him home and show him off. What I wasn’t prepared for was the level of anxiety I’d feel settling into my new ‘role’ as Mum in front of an audience (albeit a well-meaning one). I found myself desperate to be alone as a new family, to make mistakes without people watching. Breastfeeding was especially challenging. My son had difficulty latching and I hated exposing myself in front of our visitors – it was embarrassing and awkward and I felt horribly self-conscious. At the same time I recognised that my partner needed the additional helping hands. He was back at work and sleep-deprived, so I hid a lot of my stress from him and the people around us. These first few days triggered a lengthy period of anxiety for me, and I believe they were a major contributing factor to the feeding issues that followed.
Four days after giving birth, our son was limp and lethargic. We visited a local lactation clinic and I was given tips on how to increase my milk production. Two days later things hadn’t improved and I was re-admitted to hospital with a dehydrated baby - this led to feelings of guilt and inadequacy. Then began an intense routine of breastfeeding, expressing and topping up with formula.After six weeks and no real gains we made the tough decision to feed 100% formula. It took me nine weeks to leave the house. I went from being a highly independent, busy and organised person to living unshowered in my pyjamas - I was physically and mentally drained.
The anxiety manifested itself in many ways. On some days it would take a hold of me at the kitchen sink. I'd stare into the water feeling utterly disappointed at what my life had become - a Groundhog day of feeding, washing, soothing, sleeping. On other days it would stare me down in the mirror. I'd look at my body and feel overwhelmed at the ugliness. But my main trigger was a loss of control of our routine. I would panic inwardly if there were sudden changes i.e. visitors, illness. I would feel resentment followed by guilt followed by a long period of self-analysis, all hidden internally. It was exhausting.
When our son was three months old I had a visit from a lovely Child Health nurse. She immediately recognised that I was stressed and invited me to register for an eight-week postnatal depression group. It was a relief to meet other mums experiencing similar feelings, to realise that we weren’t alone. We were taught to recognise what triggered our anxiety and were provided with resources and coping mechanisms. Most importantly we were able to build a local support network. One of my closest friendships was formed as a by-product of this group.
Looking back my postnatal anxiety was about trying to stay in control - for myself, for my partner, but mostly for our sweet baby - whilst wanting to scream from the rooftops.
I would encourage anyone experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety to seek help. Motherhood is often isolating and lonely and the smallest steps – to reach out and start talking – are the most daunting. But you won’t regret it. A year on and I still suffer anxiety from time to time, but it gets less and less as our beautiful son grows and my partner and I regain our identity and independence. Today the highs far outweigh the lows and I can honestly say I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
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"The anxiety manifested itself in many ways. On some days it would take hold of me at the kitchen sink. I'd stare at the water feeling utterly disappointed at what my life had become…On other days it would stare me down in the mirror."