Okay, Mama?

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.

mama

 

Advertisements

The Waiting Game

Today I’m 39 weeks and 4 days pregnant. I’ve been on maternity leave for 3 weeks already and whilst it’s been great, I am now more than ready to meet this little person who has been kicking me relentlessly for the past few months, testing out his motor skills and preparing to make his debut on the world stage.

It wasn’t an easy journey to get here. But neither was it a desperately hard one. We suffered one miscarriage before this pregnancy, something I have since learned is painfully common, despite being so often brushed under the carpet. That was a very sad time, but it also made us stronger, and more grateful than ever when the second pregnancy came around and was viable.

As the end of this pregnancy draws near it feels, ironically, less real than ever. We have all the ‘stuff’ that one is told one needs in order to prepare for the arrival of a baby, and in theory are equipped with at least a rudimentary knowledge of how to keep a baby alive for the first few months of its life. But the enormity of how different things will be any day now is still somehow eluding us.

The waiting is so strange. I know I have to go through the pain of labour in order to get him out, but until you’ve done it there’s no point of reference as to how it will be or how you will feel. Similarly, we know our sleep – something we prize above most other things in this version of our lives – is about to be decimated, but can’t truly imagine how it will be to carry on regardless, in the new version of reality we will be crossing into.

Most of all, until he’s here it’s so hard to imagine having a little person around us all the time, entirely dependent on us to find his way in the world, at least in the early years. The weight of responsibility to be good parents is huge, and to say we aren’t nervous about that would be an untruth.

And so we wait, excitement in our bellies and hearts in our mouths, every night settling into our normal routine – chat, dinner, TV, read – knowing that soon, so very soon, things will never be the same again. Hoping we can hack it. Hoping we can thrive.

Come on little one. Let’s see how we do.

40-weeks-maternity-tee1.png

Week 32: Amazon Warehouses and Hands-free Breast Pumps

Preparing for the birth of a baby feels a bit like preparing to jump off a really high ledge into choppy waters below. You’ve done your calculations and think you’ll be okay, but you know there’s a chance you’ll land on rocks or be sucked under by the current. Either way, you know you’re going to jump, so you may as well do it with the right attitude…

Our house is fast becoming an Amazon warehouse. My husband, bemused by the rapidly growing pile of (entirely alien) miscellaneous baby-related items by the front door, has become both adept at stepping around them and wise enough not to question their necessity. Quite frankly, I’ve no idea if we need it all or not, but at this stage that’s somewhat of a moot point. No matter how strong my willpower was in the early stages of pregnancy (“I shall only buy the absolute essentials”), it seems the third trimester urge to ‘nest’ is an impossibly persuasive force. Fortunately, thus far, I am still rational enough  of mind to avoid any really outlandish purchases (double ‘hands free’ breast pump bra anyone? Because nothing says ‘welcome home, honey’ like a lactating woman doubled over the sink furiously doing the washing up whilst a machine deposits her milk supply into plastic bottles attached to her breasts). But given how much I’ve been forgetting in the past few days (loath as I am to ever use the phrase ‘baby brain’, I have to admit something is afoot) it may only be a matter of time.

Having successfully completed a 15 hour pre-natal preparatory course, we now at least have a rudimentary understanding of the process of labour, which is nothing short of terrifying. As the day approaches I feel the panic rising up inside me. Whilst a natural, drug-free birth would obviously be the ideal scenario, my pain threshold is so low I’ll probably be screaming for an epidural before we’ve even reached the hospital. The stories in the pregnancy books of women who had ‘perfect’ natural births in the comfort of their own homes are all well and good, but forgive me if I prefer not to watch my husband giving himself a coronary trying to blow up the birthing pool as I writhe in agony on the floor, calling him every swear word under the sun. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll go as long as I can without pain relief. But the moment it becomes too much, get the gas and air on the go, hook up the TENS machine and fill that spinal syringe, because the role of stoic earth mother just isn’t me.

The thought of being solely responsible for a tiny, helpless human is even more frightening than childbirth. Even more so the idea this is for EVER. If we don’t immediately bond with the little rascal there’s no money back guarantee. We can’t return him. He’s ours. For life. It’s only now, as I stand on the precipice of parenthood, that I realise just what a big deal becoming a parent is, and have a genuine appreciation of all my parents went through to get me to where I am today.

But as big a responsibility as it undoubtedly is, it’s also an honour. When you’ve suffered miscarriage, as I have, you have a deep sense of the fragility of life, and perhaps an even greater sense of wonderment as a life successfully grows inside you. As hard as the next few months and years are bound to be (there are not words sufficient to articulate how much I will miss Sleep), I will try not to forget how much we wanted this baby, how lucky we are to have him and how much joy he had already brought us before he even entered the world. The countdown to meeting our baby boy is on, and we are ready for the challenge… ❤

27023383_10159854002290057_9025687944497782234_o

Third Trimester: Entering Warp Speed..

Today I’m 27 weeks’ pregnant, officially at the beginning of my third trimester. I can hardly believe how fast the last few weeks have gone, it feels like only yesterday I was staring at the digital test in disbelief, and now we’re 13 weeks (or less!) away from meeting our little man. Crazy. Despite the sleepless nights, leg cramps, mood swings and anxiety, I’m so excited about entering into this next phase of our lives. I know it’s not going to be easy – far from it – but I’ve needed a new challenge for a long time and this will certainly be that!

Talking of challenges, this week I’ve finally put to bed the first (long!) year of my Master’s course (or at least I hope I have – results of the assignment are still pending..) which is a huge relief. Now I can finally turn my attention to the list of ever-more-pressing baby-related tasks that need doing. We’ve managed to sort the basics (so he will at least have somewhere to sleep and something to be moved around in) and have this week managed to confirm a creche place starting in January (this has been really worrying me as in Belgium creche places are few and far between, with women urged to start the application process when they are only three months’ pregnant – what?!!!!!), but we have yet to fill out all the complicated paperwork (in French – which complicates things more, given that neither of us have much of a grasp of the language) which will confirm our maternity/paternity leave and baby-related benefits. And as for all the other stuff we’ll need, I’m not sure where to start!

Something else I have confirmed, after thinking about it for a while, is the presence of two doulas at the birth. In case you don’t know what a doula is (as I didn’t a few weeks ago), they are basically non-medically trained birth support partners. Apparently, evidence suggests that women who have additional support beyond their partner and medical team have shorter, easier labours. For us, there is also the additional concern of our limited language skills, so I see our team of doulas as being critical in ensuring that our wishes are actioned by the medical team. I also figure that the more support we have the better – living abroad is great, but at times like this you miss your friends and family more than ever.

So things are moving along, which is just as well, because if his recent Tyson-esque bouts of stomach boxing are anything to go by, this baby is keen to get out and make his mark on the world….

27972706_10159951368930057_1017488497431544130_n

 

Week 23 woes

I knew January would be hard, but this is something else. Navigating the rollercoaster of a stressful job all week, then spending every weekend trying to pull off my end of year master’s assignment would be brutal if I wasn’t pregnant. But it is what it is. The only way out is through. So on I go.

Last night I went to see the doctor. When I stepped on the scales she raised an eyebrow and told me I had put on 3kg in a month. Apparently rather more than the 1.5kg she would have expected. She put it down to ‘Christmas eating’ (fair) and told me to cut down my sugar intake (cue immediate guilt about the double sized portion of egg custard tart I had consumed not two hours before my appointment). She told me my blood pressure was low. I told her I was stressed, so she wrote me a prescription for a magnesium supplement, asked if I needed a doctor’s note for some time off work. I’d love that, frankly, but right now it’s not the solution.

I’m trying to manage my stress better. It’s strange knowing that now I’m not just responsible for myself but another tiny human. Whereas before I would have pushed through the pain barrier, stayed late every night in the office, deprived myself of sleep and food and whatever else stood in the way of hitting deadlines, now I just can’t do it. I’ve set myself boundaries – not working past 7pm being one of them. I’m also trying to adopt a ‘one day at a time’ mentality, focusing only on the things I can realistically achieve in each day, instead of the mountain of things I can’t. If it means deadlines sometimes can’t be achieved, then so be it. I’m human, not a machine.

Prenatal yoga three times a week is helping, but it’s not enough. So when it feels the walls are closing in – like last night – I’m just allowing myself to stop, talk to a friend, have a bath, do whatever I need to get my heart rate back down, my blood pressure back up. This baby is more important than work, than course, than anything. I have to prioritise him.

iStock_000039776770Large