You are not alone.
Somewhere, someone has felt exactly the same as you and recovered. Someone on the same planet, in the same city, on the same street may be feeling it as you read this sentence and maybe nobody knows how they feel too. Maybe you’re fine but have a mother, friend, partner or distant cousin somewhere who has or is experiencing post natal depression or one or more of the myriad of perinatal mental illnesses and it’s good to hear someone else’s story. To break the silence and talk or maybe just listen.
NHS statistics state that 1 in 10 mums suffer from some aspect of a postnatal illness, as well as partners also being affected. Perinatal mental illness conditions include post natal illness, antenatal anxiety, depression, post traumatic stress disorder and postpartum psychosis. They can occur from conception to the age of two. Yet mental health problems in and around the time of childbirth are still taboo. Parents still feel the need to remain in stoic silence or to appear to others as some kind of graceful parental swan (looking serene on the surface but going like the clappers under the water) – all in favour of just speaking out. In 2017. It’s a scandal, no?
Let me start by saying that you are not a failure for feeling overwhelmed or for feeling nothing. You are not a failure for finding parenthood hard and perhaps unexpected, in whatever form that takes.
When I was pregnant…
and then gave birth to my first daughter I felt both elation and exhaustion. There were heady highs and tearful lows (usually around 2am with bleeding nipples) but I didn’t feel like my world was caving in, drained perhaps, but generally it was quite the opposite. This was a huge relief for me as it was actually on my radar.
So imagine my surprise when my daughter was just nine months old and breastfed day and night, I became unexpectedly pregnant again. It was such a surprise I actually didn’t find out until I was late into my first trimester and the sickness and exhaustion could not be ignored any longer. After suffering terribly at the hands of Hyperemisis Gravarium (HG) during my first pregnancy, I knew what I was in for, but this time, I had a baby to look after as well.
So other than the impending hell of HG and my decision to leave my job I was also in the middle of buying and renovating a house. WTF was I going to do now!? I felt alone, isolated and overwhelmed. I knew I wanted my baby but how was I going to get through this? My mum reminded me that I was stronger than I felt, and I moved in with her during my last trimester to gain additional support and sleep, as by this stage I was plagued by insomnia as well as sickness. Deep joy.
I plucked up the courage to talk to my GP whilst in for a physical pregnancy related issue. I found those easy to talk about. He silenced me immediately and suggested I book another session if I was to bring “another problem” to the appointment. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough? I felt deflated but I tried again. I voiced my concerns with my midwife, who was incredibly helpful and referred me on, but after my initial referral, I didn’t return. I was just about to give birth and figured once the hell of pregnancy was over I’d feel myself again. I was wrong.
My second birth went well…
… just like my previous one. Three hours from start to finish, water, birthing centre, can’t complain. I was still breastfeeding my first, so knew what I was doing with my second and was only encountered minor issues that with the right support and information were quickly overcome. I started to tandem feed, which I found eased any feelings of difficult change for my eldest and enhanced their bond and well as my own. The sickness stopped and I could sleep again, well kind of. But despite this, I couldn’t shake the feelings of anxiety in the pit of my stomach. Of crippling fatigue which made my bones ache with tiredness. The feeling that someone had turned the dial from technicolour to a miserable single-toned grey. I was in the room, but I was far away. I wasn’t coping. Shit.
A quick note to my second daughter:
The guilty mother part of myself feels the need to type out a paragraph, in case my second daughter should ever read this, to say you are the most precious, precious gift. I love you with all of my heart, you complete my family and I cannot imagine our lives without you. You are LOVED. But, I know this isn’t the feeling many parents have at first and that is still ok. Feelings are transient. Feelings aren’t facts. But we must work from the very bottom of where we find ourselves, be it a big ball of steamy tears and sadness or a silent and numb nothingness.
If at first you don’t succeed…
It took me a further nine months to try again. I found support in my partner’s home town, which was 250 miles away, but in a way, I enjoyed the anonymity. I only told my partner where I was going every time we visited his folks, I didn’t want anyone else to know. Know what? That I needed support and understanding? It seems so silly now.
I was met with a hot cup of coffee, support, recognition and a safe and non judgmental space. They followed up my visits with emails and lists of local support to me. They were utterly brilliant and such a light during a dark and lonely time.
The good support I received spurred me on to speak to my doctor again and to begin cognitive behavioural therapy. A short-term therapy which I was skeptical about but I thought “fuck it, what I’m doing now obviously isn’t working. What have I got to lose?”. Apparently quite a lot. I gradually lost the anxiety and depression and feelings of isolation. I slowly lost the inability to organise my home and my life. I lost the fear I would have to stop breastfeeding and found support to continue. I began to lose the fear of reaching out and making new friends and being honest with some of the longstanding ones who came (and still come) to my rescue today.
Is life perfect now six months on?
Nope. But part of recovering from this illness means accepting that perfection isn’t a goal any parent ever achieves. Progress, growth, moments of life affirming happiness and bliss followed by the crushing blow of your new carpet receiving a direct hit from a turd during potty training? Yes. But not perfection. And phew, what a relief? YOU don’t have to be perfect today either. So, if you relate to any part of my story I urge you to please seek help and support. It starts with one conversation. It starts with letting one person in, a stranger or a friend, your mum or your midwife.
And very lastly, it gets better. It honestly, truly does.
By Liv Betts
List of support services:
Established by @PNDandme, #PNDHour is a twitter chat every Wednesday at 8pm for anyone who is affected by perinatal mental illness. Tweeters can also use the #pndchat at any time to connect virtually with others.
Can I breastfeed and take antidepressants?
Dependent on the type and dosage of your medication, it may well be possible. Some healthcare professionals suggest a blanket “no” with antidepressants but if you are prepared to ask and do a little more research, this may not actually be the case. Discuss further with Wendy at the Breastfeeding Drugs Network and use their factsheets for evidence based analysis on each individual drug. These fact sheets are printable and can be taken to any appointments or presented to loved ones, if required.
Can I breastfeed and my partner/family member/friend help, without them feeding too?”
Absolutely. In cases where baby is still particularly young and breastfeeding hasn’t been fully established yet, for example (bottle preference and nipple confusion being a particular danger) it may be wise to consider if additional support can be given without another person feeding too. If you can work on the basis that your partner, family or friends as well as trained professionals can help with everything but feeding (if possible) it may be a good place to start your plan of action. Bringing baby in for a feed and away again for a nap whilst mum is able to practice self care. Perhaps just being there during breastfeeding – offering food, refreshments, foot rubs, a listening ear. Extra help with cooking, washing, cleaning, school runs, shopping etc can help mum focus on getting better whilst continuing the breastfeeding relationship. Researching local sling libraries or joining baby wearing communities online can give others an opportunity to bond and give mum a break. There are many options, but if you still want to breastfeed your baby, you deserve the correct support and information to do so, and it may not require another to feed your baby.
Can I breastfeed and bottle feed if I have (or want) to?
Of course. Research paced bottle feeding to ensure the optimum way in which to bottle feed a breastfed baby. Depending on circumstances an SNS (supplementary nursing system) may also be appropriate. Expressing can often be time consuming and stressful on an already emotionally fragile mother, but many find this outweighs the difficulty feeding baby themselves or there isn’t any viable alternative. Donor milk via a local source or via organisations such as HM4HB (Human Milk for Human Babies) may be able to help as a temporary solution whilst mum recovers or a permanent one if mother’s own breastmilk is not an option. If formula milk is used with the intention of returning to breastfeeding exclusively or even partially, a lactation consultant may be available to guide mum and baby through that process, or through any of the processes mentioned above. Other organisations such as La Leche League or ABM (Association of Breastfeeding Mothers) may also be able to offer support and guidance.
Can I breastfeed even if my family and friends want me to stop?
This must be a decision that you feel comfortable with and have all the information and support around you to make. Stopping the breastfeeding relationship completely can make a mother feel even more low in mood as a result of the sudden reduction in oxytocin (released during breastfeeding). Thinking about a strategy of support around breastfeeding is crucial to ensure your individual wishes, whatever they may be, are respected.