Three words that can change everything

Before you start guessing, it’s not ‘I love you’.  No, the words I want to tell you about are far more powerful and I discovered them purely by accident.

I would class my six year old daughter as high maintenance.  That may be unwarranted. She may be just like every child but my only other example is autistic and believe it or not, his needs are pretty straight forward – keep everything exactly the same, only feed him crisps, let him be naked from the waist down and we’re onto a winner.

My daughter has the ability to take me from calm to rage in a very short space of time, usually when she’s being so bloody ungrateful.  I try to cater for all her quirks as much as possible in a way to ensure her life is nourished; full of adventures and experiences that will fill her brain with wonderful memories.  But no matter what I do, she seems to always find something to complain about, using those immortal words, “it’s not fair!”  (They’re not the three words, by the way.  I’m keeping you hanging on for those just a bit longer.)

The reason I want to fill my daughter’s life with happiness is to ensure she knows she’s loved.  I suffer with, as the wonderful Jack Monroe put it, a wonky head.  It’s on perfectly straight but my brain likes to make me feel very sad sometimes.  During these times, I’m not a great parent.  I have no patience.  I’m emotionally distant.  I tumble into a black hole and disappear from view from my children.  I know this because my usually happy to go to school girl finds it hard to get through the day without an emotional wobble about missing me.  These children are a lot more attuned to our feelings than we give them credit for.

‘Attuned’ is a word I’ve only recently become accustomed to.  It’s a word that has helped shift my wonky head into seeing there is a something more than love.

During my low periods (and I’m not talking about my menstruation), I try to tell my daughter as much as possible how much I love her.  The guilt I feel about not having the energy or inclination to bake cakes or ride bikes or just sit with her and listen to what she has to say overwhelms me, but I know that as long as she knows she’s loved, she’ll be okay.  So sometimes, when she’s irritating me, I’ll tell her, “I love you, but that thing you’re doing…please stop.”

It was when she was feeling a bit poorly, and my wonky head was starting to metaphorically straighten up.  She was desperately telling me all of her symptoms. She felt hot, her tummy ached, her head hurt and she couldn’t sleep.  I was giving her all my usual concerned patter, getting her medicine, giving her a cold flannel for her head, rubbing her tummy, but nothing was making her feel better.  She looked up at me, her eyes full of urgency and discomfort and something compelled me to softly say, “I believe you”.

I saw her exhausted, tensed up body visibly loosen and she finally laid her head on the pillow and was able to succumb to her tiredness.  As I laid with her and she fell asleep, I reflected on those three words.  Why had they made such a difference when all of my acts of love hadn’t?

I have surmised it was because of this.  In that moment, I had actually attuned to what she needed.  To just have me say, “I hear you”, “I get it”.  She had probably got so used to me ‘listening’ when I’m a million miles away in my head, that the confirmation I was actually present in the here and now and completely understood, helped her cope with her symptoms.  Or perhaps she just needed me to be in the here and now because that’s where she was.  Where all children are.  In the moment.

It’s made me realise that she’s not actually that ungrateful or high maintenance.  There’s me naively thinking I’m loving her unconditionally, but it’s entirely dependant on her being grateful for all these wonderful, exciting experiences I’m providing her – these things that aren’t happening till tomorrow, or three hours later. She’s not thinking about that.  She’s a child living in the moment and at that moment, something catastrophic may have rocked her world.  Like, I’ve given her the wrong temperature water to drink, or the swing didn’t swing enough.

I’ve used “I believe you” a number of times now, all with the same effect and all in different circumstances.  Not to fob her off  – she’s already proved she’s far too attuned for that.  But when I can see I haven’t really been present.  I get easily absorbed in looking at my phone, or needing to answer that email, or trying to tidy the shit tip that is my house and actually, she really needs to know I’m here. In the here and now, present in the moment and I totally get her.  No ‘I love you, but…’, just unconditional, ‘I hear you’.

I can’t always fix her feelings.  I can’t always fix mine.  I suppose sometimes, it’s just about letting them be.

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Sleeping with a peacock on her head. Because peacock.

 

 

 

 

 

Redefining Motherhood

As my four year old daughter laid sunning herself on the garden lounger, covering her nakedness with a sun-soaked fleece blanket and sporting a deliciously contented grin on her face, I peered over at my boy. He was silently playing with his cars, as he does, autistically driving them backwards and forwards across the same piece of surface obviously delighting in all the sensory pleasures it was giving him. We were all silent for some time. Content in our own little universe. Just feeling warm and loved.

“I am a good mum,” I said to myself. We may not have been making, creating, baking, crafting or talking, but we were all happy in our silent, collective moments.

As I relayed those words to the counsellor, I sobbed. Those unspoken words had acted like a dam; building up a pressurised tsunami of emotion, waiting to burst through it’s fragile wall. Not only had I never been able to say those words before, I hadn’t even allowed myself to think them. There was too much that occurred daily to prove on the contrary. Everything I read backed that up and paralysed me from even being able to give myself the smallest of thumbs up.

I occasionally put my children to bed without reading them a story. Some days, all they ate was crap because I couldn’t muster the energy to cook from scratch. I lied to them on occasion to manipulate their behaviour for my benefit. I couldn’t control my temper when I was really tired and would raise my voice. My pushchair was facing the wrong way so my children couldn’t see me when I pushed them. There was an endless list of failings.

It wasn’t that long ago that it seems parenting practices consisted of having your baby washed and dressed before being handed to you. Advancements in formula milk meant that mothers had a ‘choice’ about how they fed their children and infant deaths, previously due to failure to thrive, were given a lifeline. Women who breastfed were held in low esteem and were usually from a poor background. Bottle babies were kept at arms length when fed to avoid eye contact. Babies were left in push chairs at the bottom of the garden because the fresh air was good for them. Babies were swaddled and left to cry routinely. Children had nannies that cared for them so their parents could continue with their adult duties. Fathers were aloof, unemotional and disciplinarians. Mothers were equally as harsh in handing out the punishments but at least it was occasionally diluted with a comforting cuddle. It was important for children to be seen and not heard. To be passive and successful whilst not causing too much trouble. Parenting seemed to be parent-centred.

Along came John Bowlby et al who carried out some essential and ground-breaking research which showed the huge amount of detrimental effects on infant mental health that some of these practices had. He demonstrated the importance of early bonding on emotional well being for babies and infants. Breastfeeding was encouraged due to the relationship that was created from closeness. Babies were brought back from the bottom of the garden and back in the arms of their primary caregiver.

The attachment theory was born.

Jump to modern day and we now seem to have parenting practices that are the polar opposite; Babies are left coated in vernix and blood whilst they lay in skin to skin with their mothers for at least an hour. Breastfeeding is held in such high esteem that hospitals are judged on their abilities to create breastfeeding relationships. Feeding choice is vilified but not quite as much as formula feeding. Babies are carried as much as is humanly possible in fact face to face time with the mother is encouraged continually. Fathers are encouraged to be as nurturing as the mothers – when they’re allowed a look in. Mothers are to be emotionally available at all times. Parenting is now completely child-centred.

There is always a problem with polar opposites. Neither are ideal and to me are equally as damaging in their own right. To maintain such extremes, there always has to be a sacrifice. Pre-attachment theory, the sacrifice was infant mental health. Post AT, I think the sacrifice is parental mental health.

That sounds a bit dramatic, doesn’t it? What I mean is, maternal mental health is declining with postnatal depression increasing at an exponential rate. Fathers are being diagnosed too. Attachment theory is being taken out of context from it’s original form and intention and has somehow become a giant stick that parents (although mostly mothers) beat themselves with.  The sole responsibility of parenting outcome, ergo, whether or not your child turns into a murderous rapist, seems to have been planted firmly on the mother’s shoulders. The criteria for parenting failure or success is a very rigid set of rules that sees women berating other women if they step outside the perimeters outlined by prominent internet forums.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing and we could look through history to try and pinpoint why we’re at the stage we’re at now, but the fact of the matter is this: Some women work. Some women don’t. Some women have a workplace where pumping and storing breastmilk is an achievable option. Some women don’t. Some women have twelve months maternity leave. Some women don’t. Some governments are supportive of motherhood. Some governments aren’t. Some women want to breastfeed. Some women don’t. Some women have to use full time childcare. Some women don’t. The list is endless as is the myriad of circumstances that parents find themselves in post-babydom.

I sought help when I could feel myself becoming consumed by my thoughts on how I just wasn’t up to the standard of ‘mother’ that my children deserved. I couldn’t live up to the expectations laid down before me on my news feed every hour.

I’m so bloody glad I did.

Yes, some days we don’t get dressed and slob all day watching too many Disney films. Yes, some days I don’t engage with my children every second of the day because I’m doing a bit of house work. Yes, some days I’m not even home because I work. Yes, some days I let my children open up food in a supermarket before it’s been paid for. Yes, I occasionally lose my temper. Yes, not everything they eat is organic…in fact very little. Yes, they don’t always have a story before bed time. Yes, I have been known to tell a little white lie to get my own way. And despite all this, I AM A GOOD MUM and I totally believe it.

I want you all to believe it too. Not that I am, that YOU are. Because once you do, you can stop obsessing about all the ‘wrongs’ and can be free to enjoy the ‘rights’.  You can stop being obsessed with tiredness, frustration, resentment and anger. They lose their power when you know it doesn’t really matter anyway. Settling down to sleep at night is no longer reliving the guilt and regret of the day, but rejoicing in all the little things that made you smile. The self talk, the subtext, the analysis all disappears. It’s all a matter of finding the healthy balance and it’s so much easier than you might think…

 

Did you try hard enough?

It has always been a quandary of mine, why some women succeed in achieving their feeding goals and others don’t. At what point does it become ‘you didn’t try hard enough’ to ‘you did your best’?

Is it the amount of pain that was endured? Is it the amount of obstacles hurdled over? Is it the amount of time spent trying? Is it when it’s worse than an experience you had, or someone you know had? Why don’t we like giving women permission to stop?

There are a great deal of women who don’t encounter any breastfeeding issues, despite there being a tongue-tie, or less then perfect latch. There are also a very large proportion of women that do suffer pain whilst trying to get things established. There are some women that seem to endure huge difficulties setting the benchmark spectacularly high for everyone else and there are other women who simply cannot continue another second with, what some may view as, minor breastfeeding issues.

A preliminary study published in April 2014, suggests that pain threshold and our differing abilities to deal with pain is partly genetic. The study involving 2,700 participants demonstrated an increased prevalence of particular genes depending on whether they were classified as having a high pain threshold or a low pain tolerance.

These are apparently new findings and will obviously need to be studied in much more detail, but does it gives a possible answer to why some women are able to endure pain better that others?

There are also factors that affect pain threshold. I certainly notice in my patients, those that are tired, stressed or anxious have a much lower tolerance of pain than those that are calm and well-slept. I would hazard a guess that the vast majority of new mothers are tired, stressed and anxious. However, on top of this, some people pain catastrophize.

Pain catastrophizing affects how individuals experience pain. People who catastrophize tend to do three things; they ruminate about their pain (“I can´t stop thinking about how much it hurts”), they magnify their pain (“I´m afraid that something serious might happen”), and they feel helpless to manage their pain (“There is nothing I can do to reduce the intensity of my pain”). This apparently can increase the experience of pain, both physically and emotionally.

Initially, research suggested that one could be desensitised to pain by continual exposure to a particular pain source, whereas it is now thought that the more a pain is experienced, the less tolerable it becomes. I can certainly vouch for the latter, preferring death over enduring another contraction.

I have often seen breastfeeding as being likened to ‘running a marathon’ suggesting it can seem like a long, hard task which will require endurance and some tolerance to pain.  I’m certainly not a marathon runner, in fact sports in general fill me with horror so I never really liked this analogy. But it also got me thinking about athletes and their ability to endure. Mental toughness is a term used in sports psychology to describe the ability to overcome difficulties mentally, physically and emotionally. Whereas pain tolerance and management has root in biology, mental toughness seems to be purely learnt and sports psychologists are often used to improve an athlete’s performance.

Despite being for sportspersons, I took this questionnaire to discover what I already knew – I’m not that mentally tough. I feel very demotivated if I am not succeeding, i.e, if the picture in my head doesn’t marry up with the reality. I once took about twenty five minutes to jump off a small ledge into the sea, holding my step-dad’s hand. I didn’t feel great when I finally did it, just self loathing that it took me so long. I get very despondent and almost depressed if I am criticised, especially if I’ve tried my hardest and certainly don’t take well to failing. I have the voice of Marlin from Finding Nemo in my head, “you think you can do these things but you just can’t <<inserts own name>>”

It seems this all boils down to self esteem. Something else there is an internet test for.

When I look at self esteem from a breastfeeding point of view, it feels like it has a great deal to do with the outcome. When it’s not going well, it is very easy to catastrophize in those dark, painful, tired moments – “I’m no good at this,” “I’ll never get it,” “I’m not a good mother.” Stress levels are increased thus decreasing the tolerance of pain especially when it’s sending every nipple nerve ending to hell and back. Not only will it obstruct any mental toughness previously thought to have been possessed but it will also diminish any positive self image one may have fantasised about when picturing motherhood.

One study examining postpartum depressive symptoms with 738 women showed that the mothers with low self esteem were 39 times more likely to have high depressive symptoms one to two months after birth. In fact there are a number of studies that agree low self esteem is a contributory factor to postnatal depression and it is cited as a risk factor on Mind’s website.

With all this in mind, it has made me think about my original quandary, my daughter and building her self esteem. Not to guarantee that she’ll be successful at breastfeeding, but to be successful at maintaining her integrity and positive self image, regardless of her feeding outcome. To enable her to endure any difficulties she may come against and hold her head high if it doesn’t work out. To not be flattened by the weight of postnatal depression that is the reality for so many women (including her mother). To know her value. To never have to justify herself. To love herself regardless and to say a big ‘fuck you’ to anyone who tries to tell her otherwise.

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The Wisdom Tooth Effect

I think Midwifery suffers with the same problem as dentistry: The Wisdom Tooth Effect.

Person A: Guess what? I’ve got to have a wisdom tooth taken out.
Person B: Really? I knew someone that died after having a wisdom tooth out.
Person A: What? How?
Person B: The dentist couldn’t get it out so he stood on the guy’s chest but used so much force that his ribcage exploded, his lungs collapsed and his still beating heart fired out of his mouth, hitting the dentist on the forehead.

Everyone knows someone with a horrendous birth story and they’re generally not backwards in coming forwards in sharing that story. Obviously a heavily pregnant audience is preferred. Midwives play the part of the evil villain, scuppering birth plans, ruining feeding journeys and forging the inevitable pathway into post-natal depression.

First time round for me, I had the pleasure of a midwife that took one look at my self-worth….I mean birth plan, and sneered with such contempt at my wishes, that my uterus shrunk back like a pair of testicles hitting minus centigrade. If I had been a wild animal, I would have picked up my heavy vagina and made off for a quiet cave to feel safe again. Unfortunately for me, I was hooked up to machines so my escape would have been quite conspicuous and cumbersome.

I could say that because of her clock-watching, tutting and rudeness when I seemed to be taking my time over pushing the 37cm circumference out of my chuff, that I ended up having intervention that I really hadn’t wanted. I could say because of her lack of support in anything post-natal, including help with breastfeeding, that my nipples almost fell off and my sense of overwhelming failure was heightened. I could say that combining both of these things together lead me down the rocky road of postnatal anxiety and depression. I could, but I can’t.

Yes, she was incredibly unsupportive, but she wasn’t to know all of my hopes, dreams and desires that I had poured into my birth plan. The words may have been copied from my active birthing classes, but their meaning was so much more.

I was THAT kid that always ran up to a hurdle in PE lessons, full of guts and determination, only to come screaming to a halt right at the pinnacle moment. I was THAT kid that would go guns ablazing through an obstacle course, only to get frozen with fear at the top of the climbing net and have to be rescued. I was THAT kid, stood for hours, building my self up to jump from a 2m diving board only to turn around with eyes blinded with tears. I was THAT lady that got her baby almost through the burning ring of fire but was too scared to really push all the way to the end. I’d failed again and THAT’s why I plummeted into PNA.

Perhaps the real evil villain is our own sky high expectations of what kind of mother we will make depending on the outcome of how the baby decides to burst into life – literally.

Perhaps it’s the myriad of articles that now circulate daily on how to be the best mother: home birth, delay cord clamping, uninterrupted skin to skin, eat the placenta, breastfeed, get straight back into your pre-pregnancy clothes within 12 hours, make the visiting family a Sunday roast with eyebrows plucked to perfection.

May 5th is International Day of the Midwife. Despite the horror stories that get circulated like head lice, there are hundreds of thousands of midwives working tirelessly through the day and night. Disappearing up their own backsides making sure all the paperwork is filled in correctly. Working to reach government targets to turn low-risk pregnancies around as quickly as possible whilst simultaneously increasing the breastfeeding rates single-handedly.

I never got round to thanking the midwife that delivered my second child. The midwife that helped me to not be THAT person any more. The midwife who helped me see something through to the very end, despite all my fears and anxieties. The midwife that despite probably knowing that getting in the birthing pool 40 seconds before the baby was about to make it’s entrance was completely pointless, still helped me to lift my heaving body (and the baby’s crowning head) into the water to deliver my boy exactly how I hoped. The midwife who still managed to validate me as a mother despite there being so many things that didn’t go to plan.

Whether you’re about to hand over a birth plan, or about to receive one; be aware of how much that might be sitting behind those words. It could be enough to turn The Wisdom Tooth Effect into a Positivity Virus.

Something makes me think it might be a while before dentistry gets infected with that one….

PND week – A mother’s letter to herself

It was entirely unexpected that when I embarked on researching and collecting stories for PND week, that I would come face to face with my own dark emotions, mirrored perfectly in the words that shone out from the computer screen. I wasn’t even aware of how deep into the murky waters I had submerged but reading these words, despite their desperation and heart ache, were what threw me the life jacket of acknowledgement and the realisation of how isolated in my own head I had become.  What have I done since? Talked. To my husband. To my family. To my friends. To strangers via my blog. But it has given me enough power to keep my enemy at bay.  Sometimes that is all it needs. To reinstate your voice and for that voice to be validated and I hope, like me, you find that validation here….

I tried to write about Post Natal Depression but I couldn’t do it. It was too hard. As I started to write I was pulled down, pulled back into those emotions and into that dark place as if it was happening to me right now. It was overwhelming. Maybe I’m still fighting my way out of the tail end of it or maybe I’m just hormonal and sleep deprived, or both! So instead I’ve written myself a letter…

“Dear Me

I know that right now you feel like you will be stuck in this black hole forever, I know that you can’t see a chink of light. But I am writing to you to tell you that the light will come. Slowly, with an ebb and flow that at times will make you feel worse than if it had never been, but it will come. In fact, although you can’t feel it, you are crawling towards it right now. You don’t have the energy to lift your head so all you can see is the dripping of your own silent tears and all you can hear are the barrage of hateful voices inside your head but soon, soon, you will have a moment when you think, ‘you know, I didn’t hate myself quite so much today’ and then you will have a small smile.

I know this because I am you. Today I still fight against those sad and angry voices, that paralysing black cloud of depression and the self loathing that feels all consuming but now I can see them coming. I can look at those thoughts, feel those emotions and see them for what they are. They are not you. They aren’t even a true reflection of reality. Yes, yes, you believe every negative thought and can’t accept that you’re doing anything right but I ask you, is that realistic? What you have is a dementor living in your head, sucking the colour and joy out of your world and leaving behind a fragile skeleton of despair. I need you to know that the black things the dementor tells you about your mind, your body, your house, your life, your parenting, your relationships, they aren’t true. Don’t believe them.

I know you look around at your messy, dirty house and hate yourself for it. I know you think you are judged on those cobwebs and that pile of washing up and maybe by some people you are. But you are surrounded by people who want to help you if only you’ll ask. You know who I mean. They’d be round in a shot with a cupcake, a kind word and their rubber gloves and never think any less of you. You don’t want to trouble them, in your mind you’re a burden on the world enough but here’s a newsflash, that’s what friends are for. You’d do the same for them, you know you would.

You think you are unlovable, I know. You say hateful things to yourself, replay conversations in your head and wish you’d never opened your mouth, you worry all the time, every day that your friends are angry with you and don’t know how to make it better. The truth though, is that some of them are doing the same. And the rest? They haven’t given that conversation another thought! Seriously, not one thought!

Ok, we have to talk about going out. You haven’t been doing that as much lately have you? And because I love you I’m telling you that you must. I know it’s hard, I know all three of you end up crying every time. I know it doesn’t feel worth it. But it is. So put your shoes on, tuck the baby in the sling and the boy in the buggy and leave the house. Go and see one of those friends we’ve been talking about, walk to the park, go to tesco, whatever. This one is non-negotiable because it WILL help.

I know you’ll go to the doctor and talk about all of this. You’ll put on the mask you show the world and talk professionally about your depression and anxiety as if you’re talking about someone else. He’ll tell you that you are heading towards agoraphobia just to add to the fun and you’ll calmly acknowledge that. You’ll discuss medication and how you don’t want to take it because some days you feel like breastfeeding is the only thing in your entire existence you can do right and you don’t want the drugs going to the baby. I’m here to tall you that the HOURS of agonising are not necessary. There are drugs you can take and still feed your boy if you want to or you don’t have to take them but please, PLEASE stop torturing yourself over the decision.

So what I want you to do now is cuddle your big boy next to you on the sofa, give your baby boy another dose of Mummy milk, watch reruns of Thomas on youtube and tell yourself, ‘this is ok’. I understand this isn’t what you want your life to look like forever, but it won’t, it really won’t.

Today things are better. Not perfect by any means, there’s still too much washing in the basket and yes, I cried yesterday but the dementor has gone so I can forgive myself for those things. The world is still often grey, sometimes dark but I am clinging on to the light and I WON’T let it go. It’s a hard road but we’re doing well and the most important thing I can say to you is this…

You are loved. And when you love in return, really, what else matters?”

PND Week – The stigma of a mother with depression

There’s nothing quite like parenting that divides conversation.  It can even test the strongest of friendships when different parenting styles are employed. You have the Gina Ford Mums, the Career Mums, the Stay-at-home Mums, the Stay-at-home Dads, Co-parenting, Attachment Parenting and that’s before you disappear to the next level of infant feeding. Formula feeders, breastfeeders, mixed feeders, donor milkers and donor milkees.  Everyone will have an opinion on it and the internet is the perfect place for anonymous vitriolic opinion or unsolicited advice, as well as amazing forums and brilliant support groups.

So this got me thinking, is there such a hierarchy amongst PND sufferers? Surely, it is just a band of mothers supporting one another through their darkest, most challenging periods of their life?  Well, it appears not.  This excerpt was taken from an article written in 2011.  Not only does it touch on the stigma of depression but also highlights that the condition can afflict antenatally as well as, more commonly known, postnatally…

I’m sympathetic to all depressed mothers’ plights, not simply because of how it affected me in my childhood development, but because I too, have struggled with a mood disorder that surfaced during pregnancy.

Somewhere in between discovering I was “in the family way” and the time I shared the news with my own family, I had a bad day. I was cranky, moody, difficult. Then came another bad day. I cried for no reason; I let the answering machine pick up calls from well-wishers – calls I never felt like returning. I stopped going out with friends, only leaving the house when it was totally necessary and then not at all. One bad week turned into two, then three. I didn’t feel like watching TV or reading or cooking or even taking a shower. I slept. Yes, sleeping was my new hobby. “Get all the sleep you can now,” people said to me, “because when the baby comes you won’t get any!” I told myself I was just tired because it was my first trimester. But I was lying.

Even though I was conscious that the human body makes certain biological and hormonal accommodations for pregnancy that can seriously tweak brain chemistry – and knowing what my mother went through – I was reluctant to admit to myself, or to my husband, that I was trapped in the rising waters of depression and anxiety, unable to pull myself to shore. I needed help.

But how to seek help when you’re supposed to be a rosy-cheeked Earth mother basking in the joy and magic of your “with child-ness”? Who do you call when you’re stuck in a bottomless sadness, torturing yourself with the million-dollar question: “Does this make me a bad mother?”

In this modern world of immediate connectivity and infinite information, many sufferers of maternal depression will reach out online in search of scientific answers or a sisterhood of support. Of course, many of the ante-partum depression “facts” you will find have not been vetted, tested or proven, which sadly doesn’t keep them from appearing and reappearing on various “medical” sites, creating more misconceptions and narrow-minded fears about mental health, further boosting your fears that you’re a social pariah.

And as for the supportive sisterhood? I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, but one certainly shouldn’t expect to roll right from their Google search to the entry of the Red Tent. You laugh but, before I got pregnant, in my incredibly fertile imagination, I had woven a lovely fantasy of Motherhood. I imagined that news of my fertility would reach the high priestesses and I would be led to the Tent. One of the elders, gorgeous and wise, wrists stacked with bangles, would fold back the entryway flap and offer me a cup of homeopathic herbal tea as she guided me into the mystical teepee of maternal wonder to share the secrets of those who birthed before me. But you know what I found when I Googled “pregnancy, depression, treatment with antidepressants”? An angry posse of she-witches, winding up to stone any depressed, drug-addled, baby-poisoning, interloper who wandered into the Province of All-Knowing Supermomdom.

After my depressing trip around the World Wide Web, I came clean with my husband and my doctor. Together we decided that the one-two punch of talk therapy and Prozac would be the best way to knock my depression out. And it was the right call. Within weeks it was like I had been pulled out of the dark and the future seemed bright once again.

Even though I was hopeful and feeling better, I was reticent to share the secret of my chemical savior. I feared the judgment, even from friends, that would follow my admission. After all, I know several mothers who won’t let their kids eat sugar or wheat. Some even pump and dump after a gargle of Listerine, just in case! And here I was deliberately introducing Prozac into the placenta. And, as I had learned online, everyone has an opinion about expecting mothers taking antidepressants and how “selfish” it is to willingly endanger their children.

Those who judge so harshly and force the conversation to be about “mother’s health vs. baby’s health” have never been depressed, I’d wager. They lack the understanding that depressed mothers who go untreated can endanger their unborn children in entirely different ways: not getting to regular appointments, neglecting self-care, eating poorly, sometimes even drinking or smoking during pregnancy, in some cases suicide.

And therefore the myth of guaranteed maternal magic is detrimental. When a newly pregnant woman finds herself in the crosshairs of her desire to be the brimming icon of beauty and fertility seen on magazine covers and the reality of the consuming, terrifying, pounding storm of antenatal depression, she must believe that that she can safely reach out for assistance without fear of rejection or admonishment.

Today I am good – better than good. I am the mother of a happy, hilarious, intelligent, extroverted three-year-old. When I remember the darkness, the struggle, I pull my son onto my lap and breathe in his delicious smell. I make monkey noises that send him into peals of laughter, and soon I am laughing too.

Depression and I may be destined to meet again, but now I know my enemy and if I must return to battle, I am ready and I am well-armed.

You can read the full article, where the writer also describes her own mother’s battle with prenatal depression in the 70’s when it was practically unheard of. Brilliantly written and I hope wherever she is, she’s doing ok.

PND Week – You’re never alone

I truly believe that some women suffer with a form of PTSD following the birth of their children, especially if it wasn’t at all how they had hoped or that it was traumatic and totally out of their control.  Here are just a couple of symptoms of PTSD that mirror those of PND:

“Some people attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all. This is known as emotional numbing. This can lead to the person becoming isolated and withdrawn, and they may also give up pursuing the activities that they used to enjoy.

Some people will have constant negative thoughts about their experience, repeatedly asking themselves questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the event. For example, they may wonder why the event happened to them and if they could have done anything to stop it, which can lead to feelings of guilt or shame.”

These feelings can lead to depression, anxiety, anger and physical pain – sound familiar?

The paradox of PND is that you do things to try and feel in control but the more it sucks you in, the less control you feel and thus a vicious cycle occurs.

PANDAS offers great help and advice should you feel that something is not quite right.  Remember, don’t think that what you’re feeling is nothing compared to those poor mothers that lead to taking their own lives.  You are still worthy of a voice and to be listened to.

You can also contact your local health team/midwife to discuss the finer details of your childbirth.  Sometimes finding out the reasons why it happened that way can bring closure to a birthplan that went spectacularly out the window.  Or why breastfeeding went completely tits up. Your local children’s centre will also be able to offer support for you and your whole family.  Support is out there, just like today’s story describes….

I have suffered with depression on and off for years…since I was about 14 so my chances of getting PND was quite high and this terrified me. Depression is hard enough to deal with let alone with a baby to look after.

My labour was very stressful and lasted 38 hours and ended in a c section. The minute my beautiful baby girl was born that’s when the PND started to set in. I was in recovery for 5 days and those 5 days being alone with my girl were very strange. I felt like I was outside my body looking on to my life around me. I could not get my head around the fact I had had a baby. When the day came to take her home (which at that time was my partner’s mum’s house, because we had to move out of ours just before I gave birth due to very bad damp and mould) I was terrified. – whilst in hospital I had nurses at my every need – I already started to wonder how I would cope.

Having a baby was such a huge responsibility and I was determined to make sure I never let her down. Weeks passed of me being almost bed bound and not being able to completely look after my daughter. My partner was great with both of us and was very supportive. Then the feeling of not being able to cope gradually got worse…I felt trapped, scared and alone. This little girl needed me and I was stuck in my own mind feeling completely out of control. I remember getting ready to take my girl out for a walk and couldn’t get the pram or something to work and I just blew…I became an emotional wreck, I couldn’t breathe, and all I could think about was “what was happening to me??” I called my health visitor at the time crying my eyes out feeling completely helpless and worthless. The hardest thing was dealing with the overwhelming guilt I had for feeling I was letting my girl down by allowing myself to get to this state.

I was put on 100mg of sertraline, an anti depressant to see if that made a difference. And I am pleased to say it did… I still have my moments but I dread to think how bad things could have got if I had not of got the help when I did. You should not be ashamed if you have PND – your body goes through so much both physically and mentally when having a child that sometimes it gets the better of you. But it’s important to remember you’re not on your own and you can beat it.

PND is horrible and scary but that is mainly because it is not spoken of a lot in today’s society. I was ashamed at first but I am no longer that and I can stand up tall and say that I’m on the road to beating it and now I can enjoy seeing my daughter grow.

So many women experience PND without knowing, do not suffer alone…there are many people out there that share the same story; there are medics that can help. Therefore as long as those people carry on helping PND sufferers, you’re never alone.

PND Week – Disappointment and hypocrisy

I still don’t consider myself as an actual sufferer or have ever suffered from PND.  I was always stood on the edge of the volcano; fully aware of the threat of something all consuming that could be unleashed at any moment but never thinking it would be me that would get hit.  This could be because I am either a) in denial or b) hate being labelled.  

However, when I read through this list of possible symptoms, I can say “yup, that’s me,” “yup, defo thought that before,” “yup, sounds like something I’d do,” to probably 70% of the list.  So I suppose I am a) and b).

It’s the self talk that gives it away.  It’s uncompromising and unforgiving. Someone once said to me, “the things you say to yourself, would you ever say them to a friend?” I would have absolutely no friends if I said the same hurtful, soul-destroying and downright rude words I often chide myself with.  

I came across this a little while back.  It’s from a mum that posted a Happy Medium Monday story and so many of it resonated with me. The disappointment in myself for being back at the edge of the volcano and the hypocrisy in being able to say reassuring words of wisdom to others in need, but never kind enough to say them to myself. You can read more posts from this Mum and her battle with PND on her blog Mummykindness.  It’s well worth a visit but in the meantime….

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Be Gone Black Dog

Looking back I could feel it coming.
Starting with a familiar sinking stomach feeling and slight panic for no apparent reason. Anxious.
Feeling like I want to be on my own. Like I need to escape. Like I just need some quiet. Like I just want to sleep for days until hopefully it passes.
Feeling like crying. But there’s nothing to cry about.
Feeling trapped in my head.
Such disappointment. So very disappointed with myself for finding myself here again.
I’d been doing so well.
Grateful for P keeping the kids busy so I can be by myself, but feeling incredibly guilty that he has to do this.
Feeling like I’m spoiling everyone’s weekend.
Thinking that surely he can’t wait to get to work to get away from me.
Bringing everyone down.
Trying to remind myself that this is an illness. That I can’t help it. That it’s chemical.
Makes no difference whatsoever.
Going to bed. P says the wrong thing.
Crying. So much crying. Can’t stop crying and can’t cry enough.
Can’t breathe.
Want to scream in to a pillow.
Can’t.
Considering going downstairs and literally screaming into a cushion.
Too exhausted to move.
Feeling like a total fraud.
Writing about kindness to ourselves and recovery from depression?
Sharing tips on how to be grateful and overcome negativity?
Bullshit. Hypocrisy.
I don’t want to be here again. I can’t be this person again. This burden.
Can’t stop crying. Trying to calm my breathing. Closing my eyes but the tears keep coming. Trying to sleep but the tears keep streaming.
So very disappointed.
Can’t turn these thoughts off. Where’s the off switch?
Will this ever go away?
Trying to remember: It’s always darkest before dawn.
It’s the cracks that let the light in.
Tomorrow is another day.
This too shall pass.
Sleep.

PND Week – My depression gave me some of the best friendships I have.

This week is postnatal depression week.  You have already had the pleasure of viewing a small amount of my crazy (I’m doing much better now, thank you for asking). Postnatal depression is a complex disease and I use that word in it’s literal form…dis-ease because when you’re in it, nothing feels right.  

Mine can probably be blamed on my personality traits of perfectionism and need for control.  A control freak trying to allow a baby to lead the way is no easy task – responsive feeding was kept in control by a white board with times fed, duration and how many boobs (there are phone apps that do that now…I probably would have been sent over the edge with pie charts and statistics).  

Sleeping (or lack of it) was a huge anxiety inducer.  Perhaps if I had spent more time reading my baby instead of reading books on how to control my baby’s behaviour, my anxiety would have decreased (slightly).  It certainly did with baby #2 when I had already learned the lesson the hard way – baby knows best and regularly changes the goal posts.  Everything is a phase and everything passes. All baby knows is how it feels, not how to rationalise their thoughts or control yours.  They’re actually fairly innocent despite being given bad press by the likes of GF.

Anyway, I digress.  This week is not about me.  It’s about you.  You have sent me some heartwrenching and beautiful stories of struggles with PND and have been brave enough to share them with the world.  Because PND needs to be normalised too, in order for mother’s struggling with their inner demons to feel safe enough to seek the help that is available to them. 

When my son was about 6 months old I ran away, not many people know that.

As it turned out I wasn’t even gone long enough for him to miss a feed. I left because I had an overwhelming feeling that he didn’t need me, that he would be better off without me and that I was messing everything up. I wasn’t brave enough to ‘end it all’ so I got in my car and drove away.

My son was at home with his dad and quite safe. I don’t think I even said goodbye, just left sobbing.

To rewind a bit he was my first child, born by emergency section, taken away before I touched him, kept in a different room for me for the first five days of his life, taken away from me again for a week when I was too ill to look after him, formula fed whilst I was in hospital even though I didn’t want him to be. I had no sleep, 3 bouts of mastitis, endless antibiotics and a breast abscess. All in four months.

I think lots of mums get at least a touch of postnatal depression with their first babies; I ended up with a ton of it on my head. It wasn’t dramatic, it crept up on me, most of my friends and family didn’t even know there was anything wrong. I felt really, really out of control and overwhelmed, I cried quite a lot and stared at the wall a lot. I wasn’t unhappy – I loved my son and I loved being with him but the more overwhelmed I felt, the less I thought he needed me, that I couldn’t do anything that anyone else couldn’t do just as well.

I lined things up because it made me feel better. I hung all my washing on my line the right way round and in ‘the right’ order because it made me feel better. I home cooked enough puree to fed all the babies in Exmouth – organically, and sugar free, because it made me feel better. Those were just some of the habits I got into.

I lost my car in car parks, I lost my trolley in Tesco’s, I often left my front door unlocked, sometimes even open. I had less and less to say to people and felt like I was in a complete bubble, separate from the world. I had everything I ever wanted but I wasn’t happy and that made me feel really, really guilty. Actually everything made me feel guilty. I also couldn’t understand why I couldn’t get it ‘right’ why it was so easy for everyone else.

I couldn’t go back to work and that was what forced my hand with seeing the doctor. He was lovely, really supportive, referred me for counselling and talked to me about medication. I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t because I wanted to keep breast feeding and I didn’t want to share the medication with my son.

I had talking therapy, it definitely helped. I was given self-help strategies, and they also helped. I had the most amazing tolerance from my husband – I have no idea how he got through that time either, he must have dreaded coming home and never knowing what he was coming home to. He was a rock, for me and for my son. I talked to my friends, and my family, that helped to.

I was lucky it did shift and pass. Life got much brighter. When I got pregnant with my second son I had already had two missed miscarriages and wasn’t in a great mental place, in fact, I did my pregnancy test because if I wasn’t pregnant I wanted to take the anti-depressants I had been prescribed. But I was, and I stayed pregnant, that helped me feel better.

I had the VBAC I desperately wanted and that helped me feel better. I was terrified of getting PND for a second time but I was prepared, I had a plan, my family were monitoring me for ‘the signs’. As it turned out it was ok. I am certain that one of my main saving graces was the group of lovely friends I met at a breastfeeding support group.

I kept putting myself outside of my comfort zone because I was so scared of what could happen if I stayed in it. I made myself go out most days, I made myself go to groups, I made myself ask for phone numbers. I knew I couldn’t do it alone.

Get out of the house, get out of my head and talk to people became my daily mission. I was lucky enough to meet a group of honest, supportive mums who shared their experiences with me, took the piss out of me in right amounts and some days just stared at walls with me. They helped me save me from myself. Having a baby can be amazing, it really can, but it can also be isolating and really, really scary. If you need help, ask for it – child rearing is NOT a one person job. I think I have pretty much recovered from my baby shock now my youngest is three, my marriage is also recovering. I still have ‘stuff going on’ in my head; I just can’t put it down to the boys anymore! Share your head with the people around you, my depression has given some of the best friendships I have.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours

*Filling out antenatal hospital form, reads* “History of mental illness?”

Hmmmm…well I suffered with an eating disorder for ten years.  Suffered with depression in my 20’s and occasional crippling anxiety.  Have extreme perfectionist issues, massively controlling and contingent self esteem.  But mental?  I think I’ll tick no, just in case ticking yes means I get put on some kind of danger register and my baby is taken away the moment it plops from my vagina.

So taking the above into consideration, some might say I was at risk of postnatal depression.  There was absolutely NO WAY I was going to get it though.  Postnatal depression was that really tragic condition that lead women to take their own lives.  I’m way too chicken to do that.

Looking back, after my little girl was born, I did go a bit crazy.  I can see that now.  It was all because of two things: I didn’t push her out – I needed assistance.  I stopped breastfeeding for four days – I needed assistance.  Big deal I hear you cry.  But for a slightly unhinged perfectionist, that just wouldn’t do.

So for two years I battled with inner voices.  A black cloud that loomed menacingly behind me – not above me – I wasn’t postnatally depressed remember? Just clearly not really cut out for this mothering lark.  I was never really fully present. Just going through the motions. Doing everything as perfectly as I could. Not ever letting my daughter cry – I must telepathically pre-empt her every need.  Stimulating her to ensure she reached all her milestones – the book says she must be batting things with her hands by 9 weeks. Walking.  Lot’s of walking.  Newborns get bored, don’t they? Let’s go walking again. She needs a sleep for 30 minutes precisely every three hours preferably in the sling, she’s just not happy otherwise. Must keep her HAPPY!

 I used to dread questions like, “do you love being a mum?” “Isn’t being a Mum the best thing in the world?”

I would attempt to muster some semblance of a grin and nod benignly but inwardly be thinking, “what is wrong with me? Why can’t I just say yes?”

I would cry after leaving children’s parties because another mum wore nail polish and someone made cupcakes.  Why don’t you ever make cupcakes? Real mums bake cakes. When was the last time you washed your hair? You disgust me. You should take a long hard look at yourself.  You’re not a proper mother, you’re shit. And you’re looking fat. Go home and bake a cake.

I was so focussed obsessed with keeping The girl happy, I knew what every facial gesture meant. I knew exactly the moment she needed a poo. I knew when she was too hot. I knew when she was too cold.  I knew that she didn’t like having her arm like that when she slept. I knew that noise meant she needed to swap sides she was sleeping on – she liked sleeping on her side. Mostly the left, but occasionally changing her onto her right to stop pressure sores, and then changing her back again. Always making sure she was breathing. None of this made me feel like a good mother. In fact, it made me feel worse. She cried today. You could have prevented that. You weren’t listening to her. Why weren’t you listening, you cretin?

I fell pregnant when my daughter was 14 months old.  I was devastated.  You can’t even look after one child properly, how are you going to cope with two? You’re going to ruin her life. You’ll have to share yourself between two children and how do you expect to be able to do that exactly?

But then the boy was born. Naturally. Like it should could have been the first time round. The cloud instantly disappeared. It was amazing.  I could finally say I LOVED being a mum.  Had that gloomy shadow really been following me around just because I didn’t have an entirely natural birth last time? I wondered how many other mums had a malevolent figure following them because things hadn’t gone the way they planned? You’re pathetic. You’ve ruined the first two years of your daughter’s life just because you didn’t push her out all by yourself.

I hadn’t realised the insidious voice was still there.  Just quietly whispering in the background so I didn’t really notice it.  I felt great and loved being able to relax about decisions regarding The Boy. Not sleeping in a routine? No problem, I can cope. Not sleeping at all? I can deal with that. Feeds completely differently to The Girl? I’m on it like a car bonnet.

16 months passed and The Boy was doing brilliantly.  He seemed to be hitting all his milestones… apart from when I compared him to one or two of his peers – he wasn’t using words as much. In fact not at all. But I was fine with that. Babies all develop differently and I knew he wasn’t going to be as quick at talking as his sister because girls are quicker than boys… aren’t they?

17 months. 18 months. Still the same. Whilst his peers developed speech and signing skills enabling them to communicate their wants and needs, The Boy didn’t and became increasingly frustrated and angry. I’ve been waiting for you to fuck up. You’re so busy being ‘relaxed and so-good-at-this-mothering that you’ve not been paying enough attention to him and now he can’t speak. Shhhhhhhhhhh. I wasn’t going to let the voice win.

I looked in The Girl’s red book – I had written down all the things she could do at 18 months – I’ll compare it. “Singing 20-30 songs in sign” What??? Really??? “Saying 20-30 words” “Counting 1-10” That’s ridiculous… The boy couldn’t even properly pronounce one word. See I told you. You’ve fucked up. 

Over the following months leading up to today, the voice has slowly been winning. Wearing me down till I feel like I’m not me anymore. I’m back to just existing and going through the motions.  It has sucked the joy out of everything.

Perhaps if that question had been “do you think you could be at risk of postnatal depression?” I might have been tempted to tick the ‘yes’ box….. Naahhh. I won’t get postnatal depression.

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Postnatal depression week is November 17th to 23rd.  For this week I will be posting one story a day and have already received some amazing posts from brilliant mums battling with their inner voices.  The difference is, like me, they’re not ‘a risk’.  Stories in the press about mothers driven to suicide are horrific to read and are very real.  But like with everything, it is just the extreme and fortunately the minority. Many mothers don’t speak out about how they’re feeling because of fear of others judging them as the extreme, when in fact, just feeling safe and able to talk about it gives The Dark Cloud far less power. 

I’m taking the power back so if motherhood is not turning out how you’d hoped, don’t be afraid to regain your power and say it, because they’ll be thousands just like you.  You can write to evidencebasedtitsandteeth@gmail.com.