I was ecstatic to be pregnant, even through nine months of constant nausea. Then things took an unexpected turn a week before my due date. By chance it was discovered that I had a rare, serious medical condition that was highly dangerous for me and potentially the baby. I had to be induced the next day, so that surgery could take place after the baby was born. This is where the anxiety first really kicked in. Throughout the labour, I had a fear that something was going to go wrong with my heart, as I was told the condition I had, if untreated, could lead to cardiac arrest. I also had the added worry about my baby’s health and my impending surgery. Luckily, my daughter was healthy and with some simple medical treatment, she avoided any complications. A couple of days later I was sent off to another hospital for my surgery. This all was very rushed to avoid being separated from my baby for too long.
Adding to the trauma of my medical issues, I had problems breastfeeding and felt completely bewildered, overwhelmed and out of control. I had several medical appointments after my surgery, but didn’t really have time to take it all in as I was exhausted caring for a new baby. I couldn’t relax and felt constant dread. I read several books on baby routines and then felt a failure that I couldn’t seem to implement them. I was frightened of the unpredictability of my new baby and had chronic insomnia, heart palpitations, breathlessness, bouts of crying and anger, and extreme nervousness and diarrhea. I was even scared to go into her room in the mornings to pick her up when she woke, as I didn’t know what to do and I didn’t want to be her mother. It was like having an alien in the house. I just wanted my old life back. I truly hated the monotony of mothering and longed to return to work.
I ended up having panic attacks at the shops, flashbacks (post-traumatic stress disorder), nightmares and dark, morbid thoughts about my baby. I seriously considered putting her in foster care or letting my parents raise her. I didn’t feel love for her, yet I was obsessed with her ‘routine’ and her health, constantly worrying that something bad was going to happen to her. I wanted to run away from my life, I couldn’t stand the weight of responsibility of caring for her. I thought I was losing my mind or having a breakdown. I felt numb and miserable. I was in denial that anything was wrong though; being a health and welfare professional, I thought PND couldn’t happen to me. I tried to keep up a pretence that all was well but finally I broke down in tears one day to my mum, and then to my child health nurse. (My PND questionnaire results were off the charts!)
There was no mother-and-baby unit in my state ten years ago, nor was postnatal anxiety largely recognised, so when I was finally diagnosed, my GP suggested medication or admittance to a general psychiatric ward. I was so ashamed and worried what others would think if they found out. So I tried medication briefly. It took a while to find the right one and it did help to level my moods, while I slowly took steps to recovery. Due to side effects, I weaned off them, and found that doing walks on my own in the early evening when my husband got home really helped. It was ‘me’ time and also the exercise helped my mental state. As I still found it hard to be alone with my baby when my husband was at work, my family and friends set up a roster to keep me company. My cousin who had been through PND years earlier wrote on a big piece of paper “THIS IS TEMPORARY” – I used to look at this daily as a reminder that I would get through this, like she had. I took one day at a time and gradually I started to recover, with the added help of a psychologist and eventually returning to part-time work.
Looking back now, I can see I had an unrealistic and glamorised view of motherhood. I also was a perfectionist control-freak who liked to know what was coming next and treated my baby’s (normal) behaviour almost as a problem to be solved. I thought I’d be a ‘natural’ earth-mother who breastfed easily and had my child in a regimented routine that they would follow obediently. The reality didn’t match up to this and I felt out of my depth. It took me a long time to realise parenting is not black and white and can’t be learnt from a book; each child is an individual and none of us are perfect parents – it’s the hardest job in the world. I started to be kinder and gentler to myself.
I only wish I had reached out for help sooner. I wish someone had raised the possibility of perinatal anxiety and depression during pregnancy and after the birth, given my high-risk status following my medical complications. I wish someone had given me a hug in those early days and assured me that what I was feeling was ‘normal’ for someone with postnatal anxiety; that it was temporary and treatable. The anguish and mental suffering of myself and my family during the weeks it took to be properly diagnosed and treated, could have been avoided or at least reduced. I thought I was the only one going through it, and was too scared to mention my feelings at mothers’ group or with friends. Now I know that there were probably others in my group who were also struggling but due to the often competitive nature of mothers and the stigma of being perceived as ‘not coping’, we sometimes wear a mask to hide our true feelings. I think social media also adds to this – motherhood as it appears on Facebook and Insta is a whole lot different to the reality!
Now I have two beautiful children aged 10 and 6, and life has never been better! I have so much empathy now for other parents and am grateful for my experience as it has only made me stronger and more resilient.
“Never lose hope. Storms make people stronger and never last forever.” - Roy T. Bennett
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"I couldn't relax and felt a constant dread…I wanted to run away from my life. I couldn’t stand the weight of responsibility of caring for my baby. I thought I was losing my mind or having a breakdown. I felt numb and miserable."