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Postnatal Depression

I met my husband in February 2013, married in October 2014 and became pregnant in February 2015. My dreams had come true! It was such an exciting time. Planning, preparing, dreaming, imagining. My mind was as pregnant with expectations as my body was with our first child. 

The often shared stories of the joy of childbirth that practically every woman of a certain age shared with me made me even more certain of the joyful, almost glorious experience that lay ahead. It was going to be perfect. I was sure I was going to be a great mother. The perfect mother! This was what I was created to do. It was my purpose.

Fast forward to November 2015 as I nervously and excitedly awaited the arrival of my firstborn. I was anticipating the overwhelming sensation of love I had heard about as the baby is placed on your chest. My baby. I could hardly contain the love I already felt. Boy or girl…I didn’t know. He or she was mine, ours, already loved.

So where did it all go wrong? 

Here I was, after giving birth to a beautiful, perfectly formed little girl. And I felt nothing. Numb. I even pretended to cry with joy when I saw my husband’s tears of relief and genuine joy. What my tears were, I know now, were fear. 

What is wrong with me? I don’t feel anything. There must be something wrong with me. This is all I have ever wanted and I feel nothing

I had worked as a primary school teacher for close on 8 years and the realisation that I felt more for some of the children I had taught than I did right then and there for my own daughter, panicked me. 

There must be something hugely wrong with me

The shame that coursed through my body kept me from telling anybody what I was feeling. I wasn’t even willing to admit it to myself. So I began the pretence. I’ve got this. Everything is okay. I’m FINE.

I was not fine.

The first puncture to the pretence occurred with a simple, caring word several days later from my father-in-law: “you’re in shock loveen.” Oh! Is that what is going on? It shocked me into thought. My brain started to thaw; to move from numb to some semblance of sensation and presence.

This isn’t how I imagined motherhood would be, I allowed myself to think. This isn’t what I expected. Something is wrong.

Something was wrong. I was not allowing myself what I needed. I didn’t even know what I needed. 

I know now that I needed to feel. I needed to rest. I needed to be nurtured. I needed support. I needed help. I needed an understanding motherly figure to talk to about her experiences so that I didn’t feel crazy. So that I didn’t feel less than. So that I didn’t feel worthless. I needed to be on the receiving end of support. I needed to recuperate. I needed to be nurtured in order to nurture. I was making myself busy and trying to do it all, primarily in a bid to stop my thoughts and feelings having time to surface. 

I cried daily. Sometimes several times a day. One particularly low day I was staring out the front window onto the green of the estate we were living in at the time. Every house was yellow. I began to hate yellow. There was a red car, driving faster than normal around the estate green. If I just run out and hold on to the boot of the car, I thought, I could get away and my family would be better off. Better off without me. I wanted to run away. To get away. For my family’s sake. I am bringing them down, I thought.

Shame is awful. It keeps you isolated. Quiet. Alone…even if you are surrounded by people. Shame is dangerous.

It was only on the 8th day in telling my husband that I felt like I was drowning that my shame started to melt. What had felt like a noose around my neck, choking my breaths, was loosening. I could breathe again. I could look at my eyes in the mirror again. Even if only briefly.

I was still in intense pain breastfeeding and I still didn’t feel the waves of love I had been promised by what felt like everyone who had spoken to me about becoming a mother. I still felt alone, but at least not full of shame. Just half full.

Day 10 came and at around 4pm in the day I looked proudly at my husband, smiled cautiously and said “I didn’t cry today!” … And then I proceeded to cry! At least this time it was not tears of despair. I did not think this would ever happen to me again, to feel some semblance of okay. To feel anything even slightly positive.

Gradually over the weeks and months, I began to feel a deep love for my little girl, which has only grown. Deo Gratias! Each day I look at her, and she is now close to 8 years old as I write this; I am so proud of the little girl she is and I love every last piece of her.

My second and third children, two boys, I was very nervously anticipating, expecting even, to feel similarly. And it didn’t happen. I was ecstatically happy, though cautious to even allow that feeling in me for fear it was the uphill side of the rollercoaster I knew and did not want to ride on again. Looking back now, perhaps those low expectations and cautious slow pace I adopted were responsible for keeping it from happening? The realistic expectation I had around it all keeping me from taking on too much? I had braced myself and therefore taken care of myself a little better. If this was the case, I vowed to have more realistic, even low expectations, for any births I may have in the future.

In 2022 I gave birth to my fourth child, another little boy. Again, right after the birth, I felt fabulous. I felt a bond, I felt energised. I was relieved. I had very little healing to do. As far as births go, I wouldn’t have changed a thing. The skills and habits I had been practising in preparation for the birth paid off. I felt like I was even getting good at this birth and recovery thing. I had had a sense of looking forward to the break, the rest, this time too. To being in bed and reading and snoozing and just in general not having to do the normal run of the mill things a mum of 3 smallies does. For a short while at least.

Perhaps I let complacency take over and lost focus on keeping realistic expectations around how much I could expect myself to take on…

By the time July 2022 rolled around and my newborn son was now 3 months old, I was feeling “off” but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I was feeling flat, low. I felt a heavy weight on me but I could not figure out what it was. I was seeing a wonderful therapist for close on a year, who was guiding me through the many lessons my emotions were throwing up in my life and I was doing great healing work. This didn’t make sense. I had been feeling great, what changed? Nothing was “wrong”. Logically, everything was well. My marriage was fine, my children were healthy and happy. The sun was shining, we had spent two weeks visiting family and I didn’t have housework to contend with. It was summer so I wasn’t homeschooling the kids. What is wrong with me? Oh, here we were again with this question. Shame was lurking once again.

Reflecting back to April, when my son was born, I did not take the rest I had needed. The rest I had craved. I proudly stated - “I was up putting a wash on the evening he was born”. As if that was some badge of honour. Look how much I can do…even after giving birth.

I struggle to rest. This was not new for me. I remember when my daughter was close on a year old, ‘letting’ my mother take her for a walk in the buggy for an hour while I sat with a book and a journal in a coffee shop. I felt guilty. It felt like I was panicking to relax. I had felt drained. I knew I needed rest. There I was getting rest, getting time away and I was panicking to try to relax.

Why can I not relax? I had known that I get my sense of worth through what I do for others, how much I do for others. I pour out of myself until I am utterly empty. I had not yet learned that that is not okay. That it is not sustainable. That I am not superhuman. That that is also not what God wants for me, for us, for mothers. But it is how I learned to be. 

In 2022 and my fourth postpartum phase, I was struggling with this yet again. And on top of my natural inclination to do things despite how depleted I feel, my husband’s health was very poor so he physically couldn’t do what I thought had to be done. I needed to lower my standards. But how does a perfectionist lower their standards? 

Also fuelling my desire to have everything done as I normally do was thinking when my husband is left to do all I do daily, he’ll see just how hard I work, just how much I do and he will be so proud of me. I was looking forward to him thanking me, praising me, validating me, affirming me. That is not what happened. And it made me feel so resentful.

Postnatal depression for me was, on both occasions, fuelled a little differently, though with similar elements. Nevertheless, I think both occurrences required the same solution. I’ve learned that the anxiety and resentments I feel translate into depression. My expectations of having the perfect birth, perfect experience and perfect family life were not realistic. My expectations of being seen and affirmed as the perfect wife and mother by my husband were not realistic. Trying to meet those standards left me feeling entirely drained. I was denying what I needed and I was depriving myself of the care and nurturance I needed in order to actually function as a person, as a wife and as a mother during a very sensitive season of life.

Wiping my own tears off my baby’s forehead as I sat nursing him, I felt like the world’s worst mother. With the benefit of hindsight I know that I was putting too much pressure on myself. I had unrealistic perfectionistic expectations and I didn’t allow myself to even acknowledge that I needed support, nevermind allow myself to accept it.

I expected myself to do all things and to do them perfectly. I expected myself to feel great all the time. I allowed visitors when I didn’t want them. I said yes when I wanted to say no. I kept too many irrelevant and unnecessary items on the to-do list when in fact it could have been wiped entirely. 

Although I am uncertain as to whether or not PND may hit me with future children we may have, I will do my utmost to remember the lessons I have learned from the previous two experiences. I will rest. I will care for myself rather than giving until I’m depleted. I will seek external support from safe and trusted family and friends. I will say no to visitors in those initial days, unless that visitor will benefit me. I will manage my expectations and not become complacent. I will return again and again to the basics of self care. I will go easy on myself.

I will give my husband the freedom to be the father he is while I rest after the birth. I will not expect him to be my replacement. What gets done will get done and what doesn’t will either be left undone, or I will outsource it.

When my husband returns to work I will arrange meals to be delivered or request meals from others who ask how they can help. I will not feel guilty if my other children are fed cereal and pizza with just a sprinkling of fruit or vegetables several days in a row. I will say no to the non-essential. I will mind myself. 

Please God, help me to remember to do this

If you are suffering with postnatal depression or anxiety, know that you are not alone. There are resources, there are options for easing the overwhelm of the darkness. Reach out. Ask for help. We all need help. Whether that is from a professional or from a trusted friend or family member.

You are not wrong. Your family would not be better off without you. You are the best mother for your children. For the darkness to pass, invite in the Light. Ask God for help and accept the help He puts in your path. Take care of you and Let Truth Bloom.

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