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

 

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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.

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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… ❤

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Second Trimester Blues

Hamlet was wrong. Bump or no bump? THAT is the question.

Everyone tells you: “Wait until you get to the second trimester, the symptoms disappear, you’ll feel so good – make the most of it!” What they don’t realise is that when you’ve had a missed miscarriage you don’t want the symptoms to disappear. Far from it. In fact, if you had them every day you’d be relieved. Because it would be a sign that things were still okay.

Today I am officially sixteen weeks’ pregnant, and whilst I am finally having to agree my stomach is more rounded, it’s not the classic ‘baby bump’ I’d been led to believe I would have by now. It’s soft and wobbly, for one thing (much like my belly was before, if I’m honest), and it changes in shape and size from one day to the next (making me think, when it’s bigger, that it’s just water retention and/or bloating).

I’m desperately looking for signs that all is progressing as it should, despite the fact I know the odds are stacked in my favour. All was fine at the 12.5 week ultrasound scan. At 14 weeks I saw the baby move at a follow up appointment. And yet, because I’m haunted by what happened last time, I can’t bring myself to believe it’s all okay in there. I don’t know if I will believe it until the day I hold my baby in my arms.

Since week 13 I’ve been going to pre-natal yoga classes. And whilst I’m loving them, being surrounded by other pregnant women with big bumps can be a little anxiety-inducing. I feel jealous of the obviousness of their pregnancies, despite them sharing woes of back pain and sleepless nights. I long to be at the stage they are at, even though I know that wishing this time away is foolish. But this is what miscarriage does to you, sadly. It makes you scared to believe.

My next scan is in two weeks – the day we head home for the Christmas break. Maybe if all is still okay then I’ll be able to relax a little more and enjoy the holiday season. I really hope so!

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I Had a Miscarriage / Why it’s never okay to ask a woman when she’s having kids

I wasn’t sure when, or even if I would share this very personal story with the world. But last week I felt suddenly courageous and submitted it to the Instagram page @ihadamiscarriage. The response has been phenomenal, and since it was published I’ve felt more sure than ever that sharing it is the right thing to do. Because too many women suffer in silence. And I want to do my small bit to break the taboo around miscarriage.

My Story

We recently announced our happy news – we’re having a baby! This is my fourteenth week, and getting here has felt like the most interminably long journey. Every day I have worried (and do worry) that something is wrong, that this little miracle will be taken away from us. Not because I am an over anxious mother, but because it happened before.

Because in March this year we were also doing a happy dance, staring at the positive test and dreaming of all that lay ahead of us. But it wasn’t to be. At my nine week scan we heard the words no new parent wants to hear: “Your baby has no heartbeat.” As it turned out, s/he hadn’t grown for the previous two weeks, so I had technically been carrying a dead embryo inside me all that time.

I’d had flashes of knowing something was wrong. One night during a barbecue we were hosting, a feeling of cold dread swept over me. It was so bad and so unexpected that I took myself straight off to the bedroom without so much as a good night to our friends. I ran a bath, sat in it and cried, feeling the loss somewhere deep inside without really understanding what it was.

After we found out I cried and cried. That first day was hell, but with each day that passed I felt stronger. I took a week off work to get my head together, booked a D&C operation for the following Friday (because, despite my doctor’s less than reassuring comment that it would happen naturally “at some point”, I didn’t fancy travelling all the way from Brussels to Nashville the following week for my friend’s bachelorette party and wedding, and having it happen in the middle of a packed dance floor. That would have kind of killed the party vibe, you know?).

One day, before the op, I walked to the local park, picked a beautiful old tree straight out of a fairy tale and held a little ceremony in my mind to gift the baby’s spirit to the tree for safe keeping. That ceremony kept me sane, and to this day that tree brings me a deep sense of comfort.

The operation was less traumatic than I had feared. I went alone, because my husband had to work, and had my first general anaesthetic, which to be honest scared me more than the procedure itself. By that point I was just relieved to have it out of me, this tiny nearly-human that was never destined to join us. Afterwards I felt relief; I was myself again. Except you are never really quite the same again after something like that. Not completely.

And so I went to America, had a wonderful time, told almost no one what had happened. Returned to ‘normal’ life. And the days and weeks went by, and at some point we felt strong enough to try again. And for the second time we were blessed to not have to wait too long, something for which I am truly grateful, because I know too many people who have struggled, who are struggling, for myriad reasons.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

When I told my colleagues the news of our second miracle, one said: “That’s weird, we thought you were pregnant a few months ago.” I stood there, silently screaming I was I was I was. “Really? No, I wasn’t.” I hated to deny it, but where could I begin?

Another colleague has been asking the childless women in the office why they don’t have kids yet, challenging us on how we can put our careers before our families, why we would want to.

No matter how well meaning the question, it is never okay to ask a woman why she doesn’t have kids. Behind the smiles and politely brushed off comments, for those who are struggling it hurts like hell. You never know what a woman has gone through, or is going through in order to have children. And unless you are that woman, or her partner, it’s frankly none of your damn business.

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Image credit: Kimothy Joy / #ihadamiscarriage

Doris

As the days go by he finds he mourns the passing of the time more than her. For this he bears such crushing guilt he is tormented through his every waking moment, sometimes even in his dreams. She was not, he recognises, an easy or a pleasant woman. Many a time he’d heard her referred to as formidable, cantankerous, nasty and mean.

But for all her numerous faults, she had been his mother; dark-skinned, curly-haired, thick-ankled Doris. No nonsense, take-dat-spoon-on-da-back-of-yar-legs-and-dat-be-a-lesson-to-ya Doris. He’d lived his life in a combination of fear and awe; fear of her anger at the world, which all too often manifested itself as anger towards him, and awe at her ability to cope after all she had been through.

It’s what she’d been through that made it hard for him to turn away. The people who gossiped in the street didn’t know, they took her at face value and never bothered to look beneath the surface. But he knew everything. Not that she knew he knew. He was only a small boy when he’d crawled under her bed, found the box with the photographs – and the letters.

In her native Jamaica, at the age of seventeen, Doris had been gang raped and beaten so badly that she miscarried her firstborn – his brother. Two years later, when she was heavily pregnant, her husband was murdered by the very same gang. It was all there in the letters, the heavy black scrawl of the condemned asking – no, begging – Doris for forgiveness. He never could bring himself to ask if she had granted her rapist – also her husband’s killer – the absolution he so desired.

He had simply allowed her to exert her grief on him.

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Thinking about a mother’s love for her son reminded me of my time living in a remote orphanage in Kisii, Kenya, in 2007. It was run by this lovely lady, Rebecca, and her husband Amos. They were the most wonderful hosts for the six weeks I spent there, and despite them speaking limited English we struck up a very warm relationship. Even though I sometimes found it so hard being there, I look back fondly on their family and the hospitality they showed me.