I’ve been wanting to write a post about maternal mental health for quite some time, and as it’s world mental health day there seemed no better time than today. So (deep breath), here goes…
It started with the miscarriage. Nine weeks, although the baby technically didn’t make it past six. Nothing can prepare you for how it feels to see no heartbeat on the screen. Your throat dry, the air so still you could choke on it. A sympathetic touch from the doctor, then back out into the world. Except suddenly it’s different, all of it. And you’ll never be entirely who you were before that day.
After my miscarriage I wrote a blog post about it, and was inundated with responses from women who’d been through the same thing. Private responses, mostly, because they didn’t want the world to know it happened to them too. Of course I understood, because miscarriage is by its very nature a deeply personal thing. And yet. When nobody talks about an issue it becomes the proverbial elephant in the room. And the worst part of that is, if it happens to you, you’ve no idea you’re not alone.
Almost exactly a year after my miscarriage I delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy. The delivery was traumatic, and afterwards I had to stay in hospital for five long days, hobbling around the room I was sharing with my husband and son dragging a catheter bag in my wake, and being poked and prodded (and, on one particularly mortifying occasion even photographed – yes, down there) by a steady stream of medical students who assured me that my case was very rare (hence the photos). It was, in short, nothing like how I had imagined giving birth to be.
A few days post-delivery a friend blithely commented in an email that “if women knew what childbirth was really like they’d never do it in the first place. That’s why they don’t tell other women.” I have to admit I take umbrage at this position. Granted, if you’re pregnant you probably don’t need to hear the detail of someone else’s traumatic birth (I learned my lesson sharing my experience with one pregnant friend who I’m afraid I may have scarred for life – if you’re reading this, sorry again), but surely it’s good to have at least a low level awareness that things don’t always go without a hitch. Because if you do go on to have a bad experience you know you’re not alone, and you’re not expected to deal with it alone.
Since having my son I’m not afraid to admit there have been some dark, dark days. I’d read about postnatal depression, but never thought anything of the sort would happen to me. And whilst I’m fortunate that I haven’t had clinical depression since giving birth, nonetheless there have been times when things have felt pretty goddamn hopeless.
I thought the first few weeks would be the worst, when we got home from the hospital and were trying to figure out what to do with this little person in our midst who would need feeding every two hours. And whilst the sleep deprivation was unimaginably hard, I look back on that time now with fondness because in some ways it was a hell of a lot easier than the last few weeks have been. I didn’t know about the four month regression until it hit, and my God did it hit, like a tsunami. One minute we were starting to get more sleep and thinking we had things figured out, the next: BAM! Everything we thought we knew was turned on its head.
Fortunately now (I write this touching wood) we’re coming out the other side, and working with a sleep consultant in the UK has contributed hugely to this improvement. But God, the guilt I’ve felt about it, the weight of people’s judgement when you say you’re trying the crying out method because you’ve reached the end of your tether and you’ll do anything to make things better. And the anguish when your baby is crying and you aren’t able to scoop him up in your arms and comfort him (before you judge I must point out the method involves going in every ten minutes to verbally comfort the baby, not just leaving them alone until they stop crying).
[As an aside, it feels horrible when you’re doing the crying out method but it works. My son now goes to sleep without a murmur, wakes only once or twice a night, and in the morning he still greets me with an enormous smile, so whilst that’s not conclusive evidence he won’t be mentally scarred in the long term, speaking as someone who’s started to get some semblance of her life and sanity back, it’s enough for me].
The point I’m trying (in my own rambling way) to make, is that motherhood is hard. Bloody hard. From conception onwards things often don’t run smoothly. It can be a lonely and emotional rollercoaster, and yet women are expected to deal with it and keep all the plates spinning: work, relationships, family. And the fact a lot of women are too traumatised and scared to share their experiences makes it all the more isolating when you’re going through it yourself. You don’t feel like you can ask for help because you don’t see others asking for help. You feel a failure because everyone around you seems to be coping so much better than you. Well my experience has shown me this is not the case. And it seems that finally the tide is starting to turn. Women are beginning to open up about the challenges of pregnancy, birth and beyond, and receive the emotional support they need. Long may it continue.