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I have to admit that I’ve thought long and hard about posting this blog, as I didn’t want it to impact negatively on my business. But I really believe that I should be able to openly state that I suffered from PND without fear of being labelled a “mad woman”! I wrote the remainder of this blog seven years ago (that’s how long I’ve sat on it!) – my children are now ten and twelve respectively and it’s been an incredible and very normal journey through parenthood, redundancies and building up a thriving and very enjoyable photography business. I photograph lots of newborn babies and hope that I’m helping new parents celebrate their arrival into their world.
This is a rather long blog, perhaps more of a novella (!) but I hope that it helps someone out there to realise that they re not alone and should seek help if they recognise any of the symptoms mentioned. I also hope that it gives an insight into PND for non sufferers and helps to remove the stigma surrounding it.
Sometime in 2006
Admitting to having experienced post natal depression has provoked a variety of negative emotions and reactions in almost everyone I have confided in. As a result I’ve tended to adopt a “sweep it under the carpet” / “hide it in the cupboard under the stairs” approach to it, and pretend it never happened. But then I remember the overwhelming feelings of isolation, fear and failure I felt for a long period after giving birth, when all the books, glossy magazines and commercials for nappies were telling me that I should be enveloped in waves of euphoria, contentment and motherly love. And I feel that I am somehow letting down all those new mums currently suffering silently because of the same wall of silence and taboo which surrounds post natal depression.
I’m sure there are many people who do not consider post natal depression to be a forbidden subject – after all it gets a mention in all the pregnancy literature and some well known public figures are known to have suffered from it. But just because there is a high awareness of the illness, it doesn’t mean that it’s any easier to talk about if you are suffering from it.
I suppose I have to admit to a particularly strong sense of the subject being something that can’t be discussed, because of my family history. My natural mother took her own life when I was 9 weeks old, because she was suffering from quite a rare condition called post puerperal psychosis. This, I’ve read, is an acute mental illness which occurs in around 1 in 1000 women after they have given birth. I can’t remember when I first discovered that “mum” wasn’t my real mother and that she had in fact died, but I think it was quite early on. I do clearly remember being about 16 and sitting in a pub after going to the swimming baths one evening, asking my father about the circumstances in which she’d died. I’m not sure but I think he had decided I was old enough to handle the truth (all I knew before that was that she had become very poorly and died). The conversation didn’t last for very long and I have only very sketchy details of her death and the circumstances which had led up to it. Almost as soon as we started talking, my tough as old boots dad started to cry. I felt incredibly guilty and responsible and so it became something that we just didn’t talk about again until over 20 years later when I was expecting my first baby. Not only did we not talk about her illness (which my father referred to as post natal depression) but we have also never really talked about her. I think it is all so painful for my father and he has carried so much guilt about how she died – why wasn’t he with her that day, could he have done anything differently to prevent her from taking her own life – that he has simply shut it away and pragmatically got on with life. I accepted that this was the way it would be as I didn’t want to cause any distress to my father – he’d already been through enough. I have a few very faded photographs of my “real mum”. They show a rather pretty and happy looking dark haired lady in 1960’s style clothes. I’ve pored over them to see if I can spot any ressemblence to my brother or myself, but beyond a tendency to have rather round faces we don’t really look alike.
I’d always been very matter of fact about the way in which my mother died – I didn’t harbor any feelings of blame, guilt or resentment, nor was I particularly upset – how could I be? I was nine weeks old when she died. The only emotion I’d ever felt was vaguely sad and curious about what might have been, had she lived. But this all changed when I became pregnant for the first time. Always having understood that my mother had died as a result of having post natal depression, I started to wonder for the first time if any hereditary factors might make me susceptible. I looked it up in the pregnancy books, magazines and leaflets and was left thinking that post natal depression didn’t seem all that serious – and it was even given a less sinister name of “baby blues” by many publications. I also realised that in all likelihood my mother had had post puerperal psychosis rather than post natal depression. I knew that she had been admitted to hospital for a period of time and that she had been given electric shock therapy (something which conjures up for me awful images of some barbaric treatment in a delapidated Victorian hospital). My knowledge of both post natal depression and post puerperal psychosis was still very sketchy. I’ve since come to the conclusion that the writers of generalist pregnancy publications either don’t consider post natal depression a common enough condition and therefore not worthy of more than a few paragraphs, or, want to avoid scaring expectant mums with too much negativity. (This doesn’t stop them dedicating pages to full colour, gory images of the actual birth – enough to make any woman start considering a c-section as an alternative).
Although perhaps PND was on my mind a little more than most expectant mothers, both my pregnancies were wonderful. I adored being pregnant, relished the changes which went on in my body and really ‘blossomed”. In retrospect perhaps the high I experienced made the subsequent low seem more pronounced. I thought I’d dealt with my fears about PND as much as I could – I’d read up about it and believed I knew what to expect, and I was reassured that I was extremely unlikely to suffer from the same severe pyschosis as my mum. I’d also made sure that my midwife, consultant and doctor all knew my history – this was to be of some benefit later.
I did have a rather difficult time giving birth to my daughter, Abigail – a long and fairly painful labour, despite an epidural, and eventually an emergency c-section, throughout which I had intense pain, as the epidural had failed to work in one area. It was natural, therefore, that I would feel exhausted and somewhat low afterwards. As a first time mum, I also realised that experiencing a rollercoaster of emotions – from heart-achingly intense feelings of protectiveness and love, to terrifying feelings of panic and resentment – were all completely natural. My husband was on the same rollercoaster, so I wasn’t initially concerned that my emotions were unusual or unnatural. Like many first time parents we “survived” the first few months, muddling our way through, often feeling as if we couldn’t have made a worse job of it. But interwoven with all these feelings of inadequacy was an overwhelming sense of awe and love for this creature which we had created together.
I am utterly convinced that every new parent experiences to some degree the same bewildering mix of emotions, but few publicly admit to the more negative ones. And this is from where some of the taboo surrounding PND stems. I was extremely relieved to hear anyone admitting that life with a new baby was less than rosy. Everyone bemoaned the lack of sleep, the endless dirty nappies, the mystery of breast feeding, but few actually confessed to feeling more fundamentally negative emotions. When Abigail was around six weeks old, we went along to an NCT reunion. For the first hour or so, the conversation predictably covered birth experiences and poo colour. Later, in the pub, after much of the group had drifted off home, one husband asked rather tongue in cheek, “has anyone felt like chucking the little b*****d out of the window yet?!” I could have cried with relief. In retrospect, PND had a firm grip on me and I was crying out for someone to confide in, someone who was in the same rather confusing and frightening place as me.
It still hadn’t dawned on me that I was depressed. So many new things were happening that I didn’t have time or energy to consider my state of health. I assumed that every mum felt the same but all were hiding it, maintaining a facade of new mum bliss, in order to just get through every day – like me. Even if, at some level, I knew I wasn’t feeling like I should have been, I was in denial. After all, I had a truly beautiful baby girl – really – everyone told us how perfect she was, and yet I was feeling resentful, anxious and more despairing than ever before in my life. How could that be right?
I’m not really sure when I actually admitted to myself that I was suffering from postnatal depression. It sort of creeps up on you, although to my healthcare providers, I think it was obvious early on. I look back and can see clearly that I was displaying the classic characteristics in neon lighting. I recall telling the health visitor that even at the end of the day, when Abigail was settled for the night, that I was already dreading the next day when it would start all over again. That emotion felt completely natural to me at the time, but in retrospect was indicative of the depressive state I was in. Other symptoms included high levels of anxiety about simple things, but it seemed to take me a while to realise that I was worrying more than the other new mums I was meeting. I fretted endlessly about how long Abigail fed for, how long she slept, when would she wake and what would I do when she did. I was relieved when she was asleep, praying that she would sleep for ages but then worried sick that she was sleeping too long. Rather than resting whilst she slept, or using the time to catch up on chores, I peered in the cot every few minutes, wondering how long I “had off” from motherhood. I longed for the days when my time was my own, I wanted to admit to someone that this had all been a horrendous mistake and I wanted to turn the clock back. But at the same time, I was overwhelmed by love and awe, and a huge sense of responsibility, to prove that I could be a fantastic mum.
It’s hard to explain how you feel when you suffering from PND – and I believe you can only really do it retrospectively , when there is some distance between you and it. I think most new mums feel low at some stage in the first year – this is only natural when you consider the huge life change they are experiencing, along with sleep deprivation, the physical changes within their bodies, and of course the impact of hormonal changes. This period of feeling low is what many know as “baby blues”. But how do you know that you’re not just suffering from the baby blues? The truth is that you don’t really diagnose the real nature of the illness, because the illness itself affects your ability to rationally assess your symptoms and take appropriate action. And the fact that it’s so difficult to confide in anyone, for fear of their reaction and fear of admitting failure, makes diagnosis so much harder.
I perhaps had a heightened awareness that I was feeling depressed, as I had suffered once a few years before, when a long term relationship ended at the same time that I was made redundant. I recognised some of the symptoms – feeling very low and flat at times when I should have been enjoying myself, feeling like I wasn’t coping, crying a lot, not sleeping very well. But for me, one of the worst symptoms was indecisiveness. I couldn’t make the simplest decision – should I go to the shops or stay at home, feed Abigail in the car or in a cafe? Although this doesn’t sound particularly distressing, it was for me. I was used to being an assertive, outgoing woman with a career in marketing. I had managed projects, presented confidently to large audiences, and now I couldn’t decide whether to take the baby for a walk or put her in the car and go to the shops. I’d pack the car, unpack it and then pack it again.
I was also incredibly lonely, having moved fairly recently to the area and only ever known a busy office job. To compound that my dad and his wife lived almost three hundred miles away in Cornwall. This isolation would have been tough on any new mum, but even worse given that I desperately needed some support. I went along to mum and toddler groups, baby massage, rhythm time, swimming (you name it I tried it), but even in the midst of other mums I still felt alone and down. I put on a facade of being OK – exhausting in itself to maintain a mask and hide your feelings. The only person who knew how I was feeling was my husband, Nic, and he was doing everything he could to help but was completely at a loss as to what was really going on with me. He felt frustrated, powerless and even scared.
Eventually when Abigail was five months old I reached out for help and was prescribed antidepressants and counselling. Within ten days I was a different person, almost back to my old self and finally enjoying motherhood. I went to Madrid on a business trip with my husband – something I would have dreaded before – and had an absolutely magical time with Abigail during the day whilst Nic was with clients. We shopped, walked in parks, sat in the shade at cafes and had long siestas. I fell head over heels in love with her, unburdened of any depression. Antidepressants aren’t for everyone and it did mean I had to stop breastfeeding, but I wished with all my heart I’d taken action months before and not spent all that time unhappy and missing out on such a special period of time with my new baby.
PND struck again when I had Sam two years later, kicking in when he was about 6 weeks old. I stuck it out for a few weeks, as I was reluctant to stop feeding him myself so soon, but realised that I had to go back on medication for the family’s sake – I now had a two year old Abigail to think about and of course Nic wasn’t finding it easy either. I returned to work when Sam was just five months old, a decision I really regret now, but at the time I convinced myself I needed routine and to get out the house.
We decided not to have a third child and I’d like to think that it had little to do with PND and more to do with realising that we had the perfect family – a healthy boy and girl. My only regret, and I still feel it nowadays, is that I suffered for so long without seeking help, just surviving and getting through each day, rather than treasuring those early fleeting months.