This past week was Maternal Mental Health Week and it seemed like the perfect time for this guest post from my fellow twin mum, Ivanka Poko who writes over at Mum’s Journey. I received an email from Ivanka, explaining how she would like to raise awareness of postnatal depression and I really wanted to help.
Mental Health as a whole seems to be something which as a society, we’re embarrassed and ashamed to talk about and we really shouldn’t. Some longterm readers will know that a few unfortunate things happened in my past and I suffered from anxiety in my teens and twenties. In a sense I was lucky because of this, I was so aware of my mood after the girls and on the days I needed help, I told people and I talked to anyone who would listen about how I felt, which I think really helped.
However this isn’t my story, so I’m going to leave it here and save that for another post but if you take anything from mine and Ivanka’s words, please let it be… to talk.
There were times when I did not understand how a mother can feel depressed after giving birth to a healthy child. ‘How can she feel depressed when looking in those innocent eyes?’ I used to think.
Well, if only it was that simple.
Today I understand it too well. Because it happened to me too.
But let’s start at the beginning.
I am a mum of 21 month old twin boys, Henry and Mason. I always thought that when I’d first see my babies, I would feel the greatest love of all and that would immediately change all my priorities by a full 180 degrees. I thought I would cry my eyes out with pure happiness. The reality? I did cry, because I felt nothing like this.
Sure, I was happy that they were born. I was happy they were ok. But I did not feel that magnificent happiness I had known from motherhood stories and movies. This was the first sign that something was not quite right.
A couple of days later I was looking at my boys standing by their baby cots with tears falling down my cheeks. However, it wasn’t tears of joy. It was tears of regret. Regret that we had wanted to have them and regret about my future.
I was looking at them as they were asleep and an intense desire for them not to exist took possession of my mind. ‘Why did we want them…? Why did they have to be born? Why didn’t we wait…?’ Thoughts like this tortured me for hours.
Over time I realised I was crying nearly all the time. Even if I popped to the shop because I realised I’d no longer be able to pop out like this anytime I wanted to. I remember walking in the city with a blank expression, tears running down my face, people giving me curious looks and I didn’t even care. ‘My life is gone forever… Why were we so stupid? Why did they have to be born?’ I was asking myself over and over again.
I felt ashamed for what was going on in my head so I did not tell anyone about it. I felt like a horrible mother who was not worth any compassion. I was afraid people would judge me, so I suffered in silence.
You can read more about why we pretend happiness when feeling depressed here.
Today I know these were the clear symptoms of postnatal depression.
Now, what exactly is postnatal depression? To me postnatal depression is a synonym for hell. It is a demon that completely takes over your brain and you suddenly have no power over your thoughts or actions. It is something I don’t wish anyone would ever have to experience. It makes you feel totally hopeless, totally useless, you suddenly see no point in anything and all you want to do is cry. It is the darkest place on earth you can get to. But most importantly, it is a disease that can be extremely dangerous for you and for your children. That is why it is necessary to seek professional help.
Now, why does postnatal depression even happen? What is the trigger?
The most important thing to say here is that postnatal depression is a disease like any other, therefore cannot be explained by logic. Asking ‘how can someone suffer or have postnatal depression’ is like asking how someone can suffer from or have cancer. I understand that what I have just said is a very shocking statement but you would never hold it against someone to have a very serious illness such as cancer you must also believe that of postnatal depression. It’s out of the persons control and indiscriminate and merciless on how it attacks and leaves you so completely vulnerable.
In terms of reasons why it happens, every woman needs to realise that having a baby is a massive change that has a very huge impact on her life. When having a baby, your life as you know it is changed forever. The way I experienced motherhood was that suddenly, in front of you there is a crying child who is basically a stranger to you. And that baby cries and cries nearly all the time and you often don’t know how to help them. The continuous crying is like torture and soon feels like it is drilling into your brain and you think you will go insane. You feel like your whole being is like a soothing, feeding and changing machine. You feel hopeless and desperate. You try to do your best, but you feel like the worst mother in the world.
Please trust me when I say that this is definitely something you cannot pass or gloss over with a smile on your face and your feet up. Please do not feel that I am using scare tactics and trying to scare you, I am trying to honestly express how I felt. It is not the same for every mother this is from my personal view which I am trying to show you it is valid as much as what you may be feeling.
Another important thing to mention is that in terms of motherhood, people usually speak in positive associations and a new mother is somewhat automatically expected to be happy. Well, there is no wonder. When you open the newspapers, turn on the TV, the Internet … from everywhere they are jumping out at you with only smiling faces of mothers who are experiencing the ‘most beautiful time of their lives’. From each direction we are fed with the illusion that a mother has to experience feelings of pure happiness. However, reality is often different, so if the feelings of happiness don’t arrive, a mum feels bad and guilty.
Finally, most mothers expect that the moment they see their child they won’t feel anything but unconditional love for their baby. Sometimes if they do not have these emotions and feelings of jubilations the harder they take the shock when it doesn’t always happen. Personally, it took several months until my love for children was fully formed and settled. Maternal instinct is a process that develops. It definitely doesn’t happen overnight.
These facts are in my opinion core reasons that are very likely to make a new mother feel like a failure. She does not necessarily have to suffer depression, although the ice she stands on is very thin. When experiencing feelings of failure, a mother often disappears into her shell, puts a on a happy face and does not let anyone to see what is happening underneath that mask. This is the beginning of the hell and that seclusion is the fastest way to the open arms of postnatal depression.
I spent too many months hiding behind the walls I built around me, trying so hard for no one to see my real emotions. I felt desperate and I believed I deserved to suffer because of the way I felt about my children. I was convinced my pain was my cross to bear and I would have to bear throughout my whole life. Today I know that everything I felt was absolutely normal and all I had to do to start the process of feeling better was so little.
What was it?
How can you free yourself from the symptoms of postnatal depression?
All you have to do is to talk.
Talking is the first and most important step on the way out. Talking to your friend, to your GP, to your family…. You can start with one person, but gradually make more people aware. If I could turn back time, I’d definitely have started to talk about my feelings much earlier. Practically, at the first signs. I made a huge mistake in suppressing and hiding my emotions. Apart from my husband, for a long time there was no one who knew about it. This way I just unnecessarily made myself more stressed. When I started to open up, a huge weight fell from my shoulders and I tell you it was much bigger than I’d realised.
If you are experiencing even the slightest sign of depression, seek a professional help and talk to your closest friends and family. Do not put it off, do it right now, today. Tomorrow can be too late.
I remember first time I started to talk to my close friend about it. I didn’t plan it, but she came to visit me just when I was experiencing one of the worst episodes of depression so I was not able to hide it. She did not have children herself at the time but to my surprise she did not judge me at all. On the contrary, she did everything to make me feel better. Even though she could not understand how I felt, she let me talk and listened to me for hours. At that moment I realised how much I needed and missed talking to someone about what was going on in my head.
After I let everything out, I could physically feel that massive load of fear and shame fall from each cell of my body. It was the greatest relief I have ever experienced. Gradually, I started to open up to more and more people and experienced more and more relief, support and help. Often from directions I would not expect it at all. I also went to GP who offered medical treatment. And over time, I realised that the symptoms of postnatal depression have significantly reduced.
Of course, even today I sometimes feel overwhelmed and anxious due to the fact I am alone with the boys most of the day, however, I cannot even compare it to how I felt at the beginning. Today I cannot even imagine my life without my boys and the love I have for them is the most magnificent experience in my life.
They say everything takes time and this case is no exception. As a new mother you cannot be hard on yourself and give yourself time to adapt to the new situation. You now experience a huge variety of emotions, but as time goes by, you’ll be getting to know your baby. You will be learning to recognise individual sounds the baby will make, learning how to feed them, putting them to sleep, soothing them and your love will grow stronger each day.
As a mother you do not lose your life, you just fill it. It will be very difficult for some time, but only temporarily while your babies are little. Each month they will make some new progress that will slowly lead to their independence. When they start to laugh, hug you, talk to you, show you their love – you will never understand how you could ever exist without them. That is when you’ll know that you’re a Mother. You’re a mum from the first moment but you also need to give yourself time to learn to be a mother.
Just remember, if you feel any kind of discomfort at the moment, talk about it. I say it all the time and I always will. Talking is the key. There is nothing you need to keep to yourself. Whatever you experience, you can be sure many other mothers experience or have experienced it too.
Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re having a bad day. That you don’t feel well. That you cry. That you’re overwhelmed. That sometimes (or often) you feel hopeless. There is nothing wrong about that, nor is it special. You don’t have to worry about people judging you. Do you really think that there is one perfect mum in the world that can allow herself to judge you and look at you from above? Mums like this exists only in our imagination. Real mums feel the same as we do and I know because I felt it and know deep in my heart you are a real mum too.
Talk and make other mums open up as well. Talk and free yourself. Talk and let yourself enjoy motherhood the way you deserve. Don’t think about it, just talk. Talk and never stop.