I experienced postnatal anxiety and depression after all three of my births, but each time was different. I am now a healthy, content mother of four children; Andy who is 13 years old, Mark is 10, and twin four-year olds Tamsyn and Ashleigh. Although my anxiety and depressive periods were rough, I know that it encouraged my husband Ben and I to put thought and effort into our lives as a family. We are definitely in a better place now than we would’ve otherwise been. What doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.
At 17 years of age I met Ben. We married when I was 24, bought a home the following year and at age 25 I gave birth to our first baby. Andy was the first grandchild on both sides of our family and the only baby to born in our circle of friends for many years. We thought this would mean we’d have lots of help and support, but in truth, no one understood how having a newborn was impacting us. We felt pressure to fit in with family and social events, no one understood how difficult it was to take a baby out for evenings. They’d say, “Just bring the baby and it can sleep in the pram”, not great advice for a baby that rarely slept, even under ideal circumstances! I became petrified that Andy would die suddenly so I would wake him up after every 40 minutes to check he was conscious.
I never left him more than an arms-length away from myself, even when showering or toileting he was always wheeled in a cradle to be right next to me. I thought this meant I was a diligent mother. I was praised for being a loving mum, which spurred me on to be even more obsessive. Yet, no one realised that I actually wasn’t functioning very well. I was constantly on edge but I was genuinely happy and didn’t believe I had a problem. I thought it was only a problem if you felt sad. It wasn’t until three-and-a-half years later when I was diagnosed with postnatal depression after my second birth, that I could look back and see how unwell I was during this earlier period.
In 2008, Mark was born. I loved my four-night stay in hospital and treasured my 'rest' time. Yet, I didn’t sleep. Overnight he was sleeping OK, but I would stay up and read novels all night. I remember midwives coming in and telling me I must get some sleep. But I knew how busy I’d be when I returned home and wanted to make the most of my time to myself to enjoy reading. I read three novels during my stay. I now know that staying awake, even when baby is sleeping at night, was a sign that something wasn’t right. At the time, I felt totally happy; I had no concerns for my mental health. I know now that becoming overly absorbed in fiction is one of my coping mechanisms for depression and therefore a sign to check in with myself.
It wasn’t until Mark was 4 months old that I felt affected by depression. My husband was travelling frequently for work, my mother was sick and not around as often as usual and I felt like the lives of my children were all my responsibility. The fear engulfed me and I would lie in bed every night saying, 'Please, please let me die in my sleep and not wake up', I would wake in the morning and sob that I was still alive. After two months like this, I began to worry how my children would be looked after if I died, I didn’t want them to grow up without a mum, so I began fantasising about something terrible happening to all of us. I thought only truly evil people would think about these kinds of things. I know I am not evil, but these thoughts were going through my head. I am forever thankful that something clicked and I realised I might have depression.
There were still many beautiful moments where I enjoyed my family, but the depression was always lingering in me somewhere. People around me didn’t see the depression. They still saw me as a happy, high achieving mother. I didn’t deliberately hide it, I still can’t explain how I presented to be 'normal' and 'happy' while I was having these thoughts. I went to the doctor but I don’t think she really believed me. She prescribed me anti-depressants and told me to come back in a week. Instead I found a psychologist and began regular visits.
I realised how serious my depression was, but felt guilty for feeling depressed. My life was pretty good, I shouldn’t feel this way! This did give space for Ben and I to think about what was important in our lives. We made some big changes and we are so grateful for the improvements we made in that year that still bring positive rewards to this day.
I underwent fertility treatment for my third pregnancy and was blessed with perfectly healthy twin girls born in 2013. I cried a lot in the first two months, but I had four children and was so tired, of course I was going to cry. In the third-month I was still crying daily but was told that everyone with twins cries in the first year because it’s so hard. Then mother’s guilt overwhelmed me. I thought it was all my fault that our lives were so busy because I had forced more children onto us through fertility treatment. I started thinking this was punishment for me being greedy and wanting more children.
Getting the older children to and from school with the twins every day involved very precise planning of sleeping times and feeds of the babies. Life became a huge list of scheduled times and chores to do. I was fearful of every moment of every day. I couldn’t go to bed until I had completed absolutely every chore for that day as I was only just coping as it was, there was no way I would ever catch up if I got behind on chores. At some point any hope of happiness left me. One day I was sitting in the sunshine with my healthy baby girls rolling and smiling around me, yet I felt no joy at all. I was sobbing. I thought, 'This is a beautiful moment, why am I feeling so sad?' In that moment, I knew I needed help and I needed it NOW. I whisked my babies into the car and drove to my new doctor. I told the receptionist that I needed to see my doctor and I was not leaving until I did. Then I sat in a corner, cuddling my babies and crying.
This doctor was knowledgeable on mental health, I can’t even remember the words she said, but I remember feeling like someone understood me for the first time in my entire eight years of parenting. My journey to recovery involved medication and regular visits to a psychologist who specialised in postnatal mental health.
I cannot believe how the first eight years of parenting affected me. I now tell my story frequently and every mother I meet has been affected in some way by the birth of her children. This is meant to be such a joyous time in our lives, yet for so many, it is the most challenging of times. I am now on a passionate journey to make changes for the postnatal period. I am completing a Bachelor of Midwifery and hope to go on to do further research, trials and studies that will put in place actions to protect and nurture this precious, journey in family life.
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