*** Trigger warning, this story is a personal experience of postnatal depression ***
My experience of having my second baby was so very different to what it was like when I became a mother for the first time. I thought I knew what I was doing but this new baby taught me that really, I had to start again from scratch.
I remember day after day of our beautiful baby boy being sick, crying, in distress and not sleeping. It will get better we thought, this is just what it’s like with a newborn. But it didn’t, instead it just got worse, and more and more exhausting. He wouldn’t sleep in his moses basket, no matter what we tried. He only wanted to sleep upright on one of us. What was going on? We googled, we asked friends and family, sought advice from our health visitor. Was this really normal? It could be colic, try a dummy, he spat that out. Try Infacol; but that made no difference either. Try drinking fennel tea, it might help his indigestion through the breast milk? Nothing worked. I continued to breastfeed but this only seemed to cause him more pain and discomfort, an experience that felt so frustrating as feeding had always comforted my first baby.
The days were long, as I also had a three year old to look after. It felt relentless and so much harder than it should have been. Other mothers looked after two children, and seemed to do OK. Why couldn’t I? Why couldn’t I settle my own baby, why did he cry so much, why couldn’t I soothe him? So many questions, and so few answers. Life felt so difficult, and I didn’t feel like myself. I felt broken. I remember going to a friend’s daughter’s birthday party and I didn’t feel like myself at all. I felt like life was happening around me but I wasn’t part of it. Like I was on automatic, I just carried on, I had no other choice. The outside world probably had no idea what was going on. There is a photo of us as a family at a restaurant on Christmas eve and I’m smiling but I can see the truth in my eyes.
Then one day when my baby was about four months old I rang my GP to ask for an appointment to find out what was wrong with our baby and I broke down on the phone in tears. She told me to book a double appointment the next day so she could see both of us. She must have heard the desperation in my voice. Thankfully I saw the kindest most compassionate GP who listened. She thought the baby had reflux, and he was started on Ranitidine. She thought I had postnatal depression. We talked about medication, and she gently encouraged me to try antidepressants. I walked away with two prescriptions in the changing bag – one for him, and one for me. I remember feeling a little relieved - that someone professional had recognised something was wrong. But taking antidepressants, seemed like a big step, I had never had any mental health difficulties before. How would the medication affect me, how long would I need to take it for? Would I ever be able to come off them? I talked to my husband and thought it over for a few days. But I felt so terrible, I knew I had to do something so I decided to give them a try. I remember feeling worse for a while initially. My mood sunk lower, the tears just kept flowing, I struggled to get out of bed and function. Negative thoughts filled my head. I felt like a terrible mum, not being there for my two boys. I hated relying on others for help. Then after a few weeks, the fog seemed to lift a little, and it felt a little less like I was trudging through mud. I started counselling, and having space once a week to talk through how I was feeling was incredibly valuable.
The other thing I remember from this time was the loneliness. I was surrounded by people but felt so very alone. When my husband went to work, and my eldest was at nursery this was supposed to be the magical precious time with my newborn but it wasn’t. I struggled to go out, because I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t want to even be around my friends.
Looking back I realise I was attempting to be some kind of ‘supermum’. I remember once attempting
to do arts and crafts with my eldest, whilst my newborn was screaming, and I was utterly sleep
deprived. I insisted on cooking healthy home cooked meals, and on reading to my son while
breastfeeding the baby. I couldn’t put him down as he just wouldn't settle, so I couldn’t get anything
done. Why didn’t I just accept that wearing our PJs, watching endless Peppa Pig and having fish fingers for tea, just getting through the day, was more than enough? Why did I put such unnecessary pressure on myself? Why didn’t I ask for help, or even accept it when it was offered? I also attempted to do work projects in those moments when my son napped, I found it hard to let go of the successful professional identity I had held before the new baby arrived. I was trying to be some sort of warrior and prove to the world that I could do it all. But ultimately this was my downfall, there was only so much I could take. In the end I broke, and then it took me a while to be repaired.
I felt like I was a terrible Mum, that my baby would know I wasn’t there for him. That as I was crying and low this would have a detrimental effect on him, and our relationship would be damaged forever. The negative thoughts in my head constantly tormented me. I felt guilty for staying in bed during the day, for not playing with my children. But throughout it all I kept breastfeeding, it was one to one time with him that was precious, it was important to me and I am still proud that I maintained our bond in this way.
Slowly, as I healed I reached out for help. I had very good friends, the kind who dropped lasagne off on my doorstep, let me cry on them in the street, understood that I wasn’t able to go out and socialise, they waited for me. They sent messages, gifts and stood by me throughout it all. I also found mums that were willing to share their experiences of PND, and tips and advice on things that would help. I also used the PANDAS helpline, which really helped me feel like I wasn’t the only one going through this. As I felt more able to meet with other Mums I braved going to Baby Cafe (now part of Baby Umbrella), a place I had felt supported when seeking feeding advice when my eldest was a baby. The staff and volunteers were incredible and I felt well supported by Jennie, who just listened to me talk about my experience. I am thankful to her for her support.
There were days when things felt lighter, easier, getting out of bed and leaving the house felt more
achievable, but I still struggled to go places that meant talking to other mums, I knew I would
struggle to talk about how I felt, and couldn’t put on a false pretence. Getting through one day at a
time was an achievement. When there was a good day, maybe one when I hadn’t cried, there was a voice inside doubting that this was progress. I worried how long it would last, and whether the deep depression would return. But then I started to realise that the good days meant that if there was a bad day it would pass, and things could get better.
I began to adjust my expectations, be kinder to myself, accept help. Simple things really, but so
important. Slowly I began to feel like me again, or perhaps a new version of me. I trusted my
instincts, and accepted that there were days I just needed to take things slowly. When it became
time to return to work I realised I wasn’t quite ready, so extended my leave for a little longer. We got more medical advice for our baby who was finally diagnosed with cow’s milk and soya intolerances. We both excluded dairy and soya from our diets, and things improved. He slept better, and so did I and that really helped me to cope.
My son will celebrate his 4th birthday this year and we have both come a long way since that
challenging first year. Despite my worries at the time, we have a beautiful loving relationship, he
loves snuggles and our bond is unbreakable. Although I still have to remind myself occasionally, I try to make sure I rest when I need to, focus on the small achievements I make as a mum, and also
recognise when I need time to myself. I have let go of a lot of guilt, put aside the feelings that niggle at me ‘oh but I should be doing this’. I remember a mum friend said to me that being ‘good enough’ is plenty, and that is really excellent advice.
I am incredibly proud to be a Trustee for Baby Umbrella, and I hope that I can use my personal experience of postnatal depression to develop our mental wellbeing services, and support other parents on their journey. Although I have been fairly open about my experience of PND, writing this blog, and sharing my story more publicly still feels like a big step. But I hope for anyone reading this, who perhaps finds something that resonates with them, or sees something in someone they know, please know that you are not alone, and there is help and support available. Please just reach out, it’s a big step, but you are braver and stronger than you think, and things will get better.
Has this brought up difficult feelings for you? If you are struggling in pregnancy or early motherhood, you are not alone. Book a face to face or zoom appointment if you'd like to talk to one of our practitioners who can help you think through the various support available to you, or reach out to PANDAS. We have also put together a list of local sources of emotional support in the perinatal period.