Looking back, I’ve always had mental health issues and various struggles with that, since childhood. I was no stranger to anxiety and depression, even self harm and suicide attempts as a teenager and young adult. I had a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol too, which I now understand was my way of self medicating to deal with my unresolved traumas.
As I entered my 30s I began to feel a bit more in control of things, but I’d never really dealt with my issues. I felt confident that in my new married life and journey to motherhood I’d be ok, but that wasn’t to be the case.
Going into my first pregnancy I wasn’t in a particularly great place mentally anyway. At that time I did feel that it was at a managable level, but looking back it was less than ideal.
I didn’t enjoy my pregnancy the way I had hoped, I was anxious that something would go wrong and physically I felt horrible. The real trauma came however, from what I can only describe as my enforced cesarean. Despite voicing my concerns that baby was breech from mid pregnancy I wasn’t believed and was gas lighted into thinking I was crazy. Finally when it was too late to do anything about it was found that baby was in fact breech and the information I was presented with was that basically a caesarean was my only option. I didn’t want it. I avoided it. I phoned up the hospital and postponed it. I just didn’t face up to the fact that it was going to happen. I was absolutely terrified at the thought of surgery. A few days before it was scheduled I had a panic attack and withdrew into myself. I was no longer really present for what was going on around me.
Even now I still have very little memory of the birth. After several months I started getting flashbacks of how physically forceful the removal of the baby was. I don’t remember his first feed or much of the months that followed. The months that followed were in themselves also a traumatic experience.
My baby was very unsettled, he basically just screamed all the time, day and night. He was miserable. There was no sleep had by anyone. We had a difficult start with breastfeeding. He lost almost 10% of his birth weight and was very slow to gain it back. I was being told he wasn’t getting enough, when actually he was just vomiting and pooping it all straight back out. I was told to take all sorts of supplements, lie down skin to skin to feed him and I would just end up lying, sobbing in a pool of his vomit and quite often poo. His skin was raw and his nappy rash was blistered, bleeding and infected. It turned out that he had multiple food allergies and that was only the beginning of another very long and difficult journey.
I was totally overwhelmed, and exhausted.
It’s hard for me to explain, as I still don’t really understand it myself, but I was withdrawn from reality, I was somehow going through the motions but not really taking it in. I wasn’t forming memories or processing things. I was numb but at the same time constantly on edge. I think it was some sort of protective coping mechanism, but it seemed to have backfired or forgotten to stop. I was constantly in fight or flight mode. I was worrying about everything. I had heightened emotions. I was jumpy. I began to see things that weren’t there, a shadow that I would imagine moving and my brain would register it as a danger. I remember saying frequently that I felt like I was in a battle field, once the baby finally stopped crying I felt the exhaustion kick in as the adrenaline surges took a momentary dip.
I felt I couldn’t really tell anyone the whole truth in case they took my baby away or locked me up, but at the same time I was secretly wishing they would so I could get help the help that I needed. I kept saying that I would never hurt the baby, but I was absolutely terrified that one day it would all become too much and I would, or in an effort to avoid this I might harm myself, or worse.
I was anxious, I would pace and hyperventilate. My husband would ask why and I really didn’t know. It wasn’t any one thing. It was just everything.
I found it hard to leave the house and became more and more withdrawn. I then began to dread people coming to the house and would hide and pretend I wasn’t home. I was struggling and didn’t want people to see. I was ashamed that I was dirty as I couldn’t find it in me to shower, the house was a mess and I just a felt like the worst mum in the world.
I think I really wanted help, but I was too scared to ask. I began to mention fragments of how I was feeling to the Health visitor but not actually asking for help, playing it down but hoping someone would pick up on it. I was frightened to reveal the full extent, but that was actually stopping me from getting the help I needed.
When my baby was a few months old a couple with a baby a similar age moved in 2 doors away and that was to be really key in my recovery. Through this new found friend I was introduced to a breastfeeding support group, which was totally different to the negative experience I had had before. Everyone there was so lovely and they were similar sorts of parents to me. They were also up a million times in the night with their babies, they had no routine, and suddenly I felt less of a failure. We would walk there and back together and talk on the way. I still found it very difficult at times to make myself go out to the group, but these friends encouraged me.
I opened up to these friends, became very honest with what I was struggling with. I found some comfort in the fact that others were going through similar things and they shared what they had tried and found helpful. It was through these converstaions that I realised I really did need to ask for help. I began to realise that for the sake of my baby I really needed to put a stop to the downward spiral I was on.
I began by trying to speak to a doctor, but wasn’t really taken seriously. I’m not sure if perhaps I was still playing down the seriousness of the situation and how I was really feeling. It took me to speak to 3 different GPs, and it wasn’t until I saw that third doctor and finally broke down and admitted that I had been feeling suicidal that I was taken seriously and prescribed some medication.
Around this time I also found a new baby class, which has honestly changed my life. All other previous baby classes had filled me with anxiety, I felt judged, inadequate and unable to cope with my screaming baby. This one was Sling Swing and again the women at this class were very much my style of parents. It was here that I learnt about biologically normal feeding and sleeping. Again I felt like I wasn’t a failure, I just hadn’t found my tribe yet. My baby was just being a baby, and I was just responding as best I could.
I now had friends in the same position, our parenting styles aligned and I felt supported. I had my village!
It was a great source of support to check in on each other and know that I had someone outside of my own family to talk to, and most importantly someone who just got it. Accepted me where I was without judgement and who reassured me, that despite everything, I was doing a great job.
One of these friends spoke to me about Birth Afterthoughts as she herself had used the service and found it very helpful. I asked my Health Visitor to refer me and before long I was meeting with Anne Marie. Together we talked through what had happened and she helped me to make sense of the things I had been feeling. It was through this process that I finally started to get some memories back about my baby being born. Finally we did some Rewind therapy which helped me to feel more settled about my birth experience and how things had been in the following months.
After the Rewind Therapy and once my medication was beginning to take effect I did start to feel better, but I was now able to see how important it was to deal with my other issues that had been causing my ongoing anxiety and depression which I had had since childhood. I was still deeply unhappy, and that was not the mum I wanted for my baby.
I made an appointment with New Life Counselling, but their waiting list was very long. Thankfully we had private medical insurance so I was able to search for a private therapist who specialised in dealing with past trauma as well as how I was currently feeling. As we delved deeper into how I was feeling and realised the many things I was holding onto from the past. It became apparent that there were some unhealthy relationships, behaviours and patterns which needed to change. I had dysfunctional thought processes that I would repeat in many different situations, which would cause me to process them in a way which was unhealthy and was affecting my ability to move on. I started to change how I processed these and build healthier ways to deal with difficult situations in a way that was better for me and would in turn be better for my baby.
When I started getting better I had a set back with feeling guilt over how I had been may have had an impact on my son’s development and his early experience. This is still difficult for me at times, but I remind myself, almost daily, that I did (and am still doing) the best I could with what I had at the time.
I put in place small things to help me feel better each day. Small achievable tasks. They were as simple as:
Get a shower in the morning
Do hair, make up and get dressed
Leave the house for at least 20 minutes a day
One achievable housework task a day
Read a book and have a cup of tea during nap time
Do a planned art or sensory activity with the baby for 20 minutes once a week
Plan the following day’s tasks before going to bed
Get to bed by 10pm at the latest
I found that doing these simple things made a huge impact to my life and made things seem much more achievable and less overwhelming.
Considering another baby and staying well
After having such a difficult time after my first baby, I had almost (but perhaps not quite) resigned myself to never having anymore. That’s when fate stepped in again. My lovely friend, who had moved in 2 doors away and saved me from myself, won some tickets to the first ever Positive Birth Conference and kindly gifted them to me as she was unable to attend. I went along with 2 other friends for moral support. It was really emotional and brought up some emotions for me. However I also realised that birth could be positive and that left me yearning for a natural healing birth experience.
I came accross the new local charity, BirthWise, and got in touch. I became more informed and empowered about my decisions surrounding pregnancy and birth. I educated myself, I took control in this pregnancy, as the loss of control and feeling that decisions were not mine was were my trauma came from in my previous pregnancy and birth.
One of the most empowering things I did during this pregnancy was hiring a doula. This gave me the emotional support I needed and she was also a great advocate for me when I needed it and a great source of information regarding what my options were and how I could achieve them. With all the information and support I now had I planned for a homebirth as I felt that this would be the most relaxed and least trauma inducing experience for me and my baby.
I also returned for follow up session with Anne Marie at Birth Afterthoughts, to ensure that I had fully dealt with my previous birth trauma and wasn’t allowing that to carry over and impact this new birth experience.
I hoped my second birth would be healing. I hoped for the polar opposite to my first son’s theatre birth. I wanted it to be natural, calm and beautiful. That wasn’t to be however and my second son was born by emergency c-section. The difference this time was that I felt totally in control. It was my call. I was supported in MY decision.
This emergency section was healing in a way, but I still grieved for my ideal birth. I had made so many birth plans to make sure I was in control and supported no matter what turn things took. I grieved for plans A, B and C. I was overall much better mentally than I had imagined I would be given the scenario, but there was no denying I took a bit of a dip, especially when I was surrounded by all the homebirth kit when I returned from hospital.
Damage Limitation (Healing again)
Because I was concerned that this might happen I had things in place and acted quickly to limit the effects on me and in turn my baby.
◦ I returned again to Birth Afterthoughts and rewind therapy for the second birth and a mop up of hangover from first birth.
◦ I once again spoke with Seána McCoy Talbot as a BirthWise representative to discuss things and how I felt about what had happened.
◦ I find writing therapeutic, so I wrote a lot about how I was feeling and that’s helped me a lot.
◦ I had a postnatal doula to help with household chores when they felt too much, but also to talk things over with. We also did an amazing “Reclaiming Birth Ritual” at home with me and baby in the pool.
◦ I have been super honest (some might say too honest, but I don’t care as I’m doing what I have to to make sure I’m ok for my 2 children!) with everyone about how I am feeling, my doula, my GP, my health visitor, my husband, my friends.
◦ I read my birth affirmations daily and practice self care as much as I can. I check in with myself and others when I’m having a down day.
Where am I now?
I’d say I am very much still on a healing journey, but I am in a much better place. I am enjoying my 2 boys and my relationship with my husband so much more. Yes, I still get days where things are overwhelming, but more in a ‘normal’ way if there is such a thing!
I am even finding the time to do other things which give me joy. I have been doing lots of volunteering, with BirthWise, The Sling and Nappy Library, and We Are Pangs. We are Pangs is a local mental health charity for parents, and I have recently completed training which allows me to become a peer supporter. I am actually running weekly peer support sessions and using my experience to help others. What a turn around!
I’m still on my journey of personal development, but I am now excited for what the future holds. I’m looking forward to my future!