I brought home my bundle of joy and after one weekend, reality came crashing in. At 2:36 am on Sunday morning I told my husband, “I don’t know if I can do this.”, but what I really meant was, “I don’t want to do this.”
On the 29th June 2016 at 1:15 pm, a little before my 35th birthday, I gave birth to a five-week premature little girl who we named Isabelle. The build-up to that day was marked by a whole lot of excitement and anticipation – and five months of vomiting. After witnessing friend after friend fall mooning over their precious miracles, finally, I would get to experience it for myself. I would have my own beloved miracle, a creation that would elicit feelings so profound that they would overwhelm me.
Sadly, I did experience overwhelming feelings, only they were not of love and wonderment, they were the total opposite. In those first few weeks, I silently struggled with my feelings towards my daughter. I did not feel love, or even warmth, I felt strangely dispassionate, as time passed I became more and more convinced I didn’t even like her.
The first time I was struck by the feeling, that would all too soon become a permanent fixture, was the weekend we brought her home after she had already spent 8 nights in the Neo-Natal ICU. The feeling blended the hollowness of despair, the prickliness of dread and something I imagine to be quite similar to sheer grief. After 36 hours of intermittent screaming and no sleep, the feeling blossomed like a vine choking the life out of me. This marked the beginning of a war, where the collateral damage could have been my daughter, a war that raged inside of me and in truth still does. I have won many battles, but the war is not yet over.
The feeling reminds me of Voldemort from The Harry Potter books – no matter how hard I fight it, no matter how much I weaken it, it just will not die.
So, after just 11 days of a job I had contracted to for the rest of my life, I quietly and uneasily realized I did not want the position anymore. All I could think about was; “How do I get out of this?”.
My daughter had been an incredibly difficult baby – the picture of discontent for pretty much the first 16 weeks of her life. And while I am sure that her troubles contributed to my dark feelings and thoughts, they were not solely to blame. Add one unhappy premature baby, tortured by severe reflux and colic, to a woman with wild hormones and a history of depression and anxiety and you have the makings of the perfect natural disaster.
At this point I must make clear, that one does not need to have a history of depression or anxiety to suffer from postpartum depression – it can affect anyone. Neither does it only affect those who have experienced difficult births – it can emerge after any type of birth experience. Nor does it only affect first-time moms – you can have a perfectly wonderful first-time experience and suffer from postpartum with your second or third child.
There are different ways in which a mother can experience this and the illness can manifest in a few ways. Some suffer from postpartum depression, some suffer from extreme rage and some from postpartum anxiety and OCD. There are rarer cases of women even suffering from postpartum psychosis. This is not a “one-size-fits-all” illness – you may experience some or all of the symptoms.
It’s also important to get a professional diagnosis as being a mom with a new baby is hard by anyone’s measure and the hormones, lack of sleep and difficulty of the experience can mean you sometimes experience one or more of the symptoms.
But this is much more than just a few bad days.
Women suffering from PPD or anxiety have these symptoms most of the time for a period of at least two weeks or longer. Suffers feel that it is very hard, if not impossible, to live their life each day.
According to The World Health Organisation (WHO), “worldwide about 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. In developing countries, this percentage goes up to 19.8%.”. To put this another way, this is one in five moms, so, if you consider the moms you may know and count five of them, one of your mom friends will have suffered postpartum mental health issues.
I think that the feeling is best described as grief. A sadness and heartache so profound it seems to be emanating from the very depths of your soul. It feels like your heart has been broken and that the pieces are so thoroughly destroyed, there is not enough sticky tape in the world that could patch it back together.
You may feel all of this, or simply nothing at all. I sometimes felt nothing, a keen emptiness, numb. Some days you will just go through the motions on autopilot, getting through the day, just surviving.
You may feel like running away and leaving your family behind. They will probably be better off without you anyway. Maybe you even think about driving off the road or taking too many pills if not to end the torture but to escape to the relative safety and isolation of a hospital room. There were many a tree I drove part that almost tempted me to just turn the wheel slightly and find relief in the meeting of speeding car and solidly rooted trunk.
I definitely had almost all of these symptoms and some more that seem to fall more within the postpartum anxiety bucket. Like disturbing thoughts, thoughts that begin with “what if…”. You may be consumed by fear and dread. Afraid to be alone with your baby.
You may feel like a captive animal, always on edge. You can’t eat, you have no appetite.
Additional symptoms that I didn’t experience, include obsessive cleaning, obsessive checking on the baby, that the door is locked, that the oven is off, that the baby is still breathing.
According to my psychiatrist, it is widely believed that your chances of suffering from post-partum depression increase with every pregnancy. Meaning if you have had post-partum with your first child, your likelihood of experiencing it again with your second child is almost guaranteed. Likewise, if you have had one child and suffered no signs of depression, you may suffer symptoms after the second or only the third birth.
Some women struggle with it for years after the birth of their child, never realising it is a medical condition that requires medical intervention.
There is no hard and fast rule, however, it is completely dependent on the person and how their brain and chemical make-up reacts to the disturbance of having a child. Sorry, I know a clear cut way to predict this would be nice but it just doesn’t work that way.
As the days passed my mood disintegrated. I became completely disinterested in everything, food, bathing, talking, even The Walking Dead. But saddest of all, the primary object of my disinterest was the miracle baby that for so long had been my wish. I felt empty, a shell, a husk. I barely engaged, except to beg through tears to not be left alone with the baby. To question my ability to do this baby-thing – when inside my head I was desperately screaming for someone, anyone, to get me out of this.
Since there’s no “take backsies” when it comes to having a child, I retreated into myself and my phone – Candy Crush became an addiction. Looking back it is incredible how I managed to remove myself emotionally and mentally – even my newborn’s inconsolable crying didn’t penetrate the force field. A lot of the time I silently relinquished my responsibility to everyone else, anybody else really, knowing if I didn’t react, sooner or later, someone would attend to her.
As I was still breastfeeding, I was forced to interact with her regularly, but I wasn’t present, I would sit and stare out the window while she fed (wishing to be anywhere but in that rocking chair, with her) or I would stare at her as if she were an alien being that I would never understand or connect with. Once she was finished, I would hand her over to my mom, sister, sister-in-law or husband and either go back to bed or to my phone.
I had been told that breastfeeding offered the most special moments a mom could experience. Countless times I had heard that these moments, just the two of you, quietly bonding, were priceless. But for me, the price seemed too dear. Being alone with her was my worst nightmare. And at 3 ‘o clock in the morning, in the darkness, in the quiet, in the rocking chair, I couldn’t be more alone. Alone with her and my thoughts. These were not moments I would come to treasure.
Daytime was a little better because there was almost always someone with me, but whenever it looked like that person was getting ready to leave, I could not help the tears from streaming, the voice from cracking, nausea from rising and the sweat from prickling.
My poor mother literally gave up three months of her life to caring for two children – her’s and mine.
Every day was the same, living feed to feed, every three hours. Change, feed, vomit, cry, rock, sleep, hold. Repeat. I had nothing but time, but no time at all. And it passed achingly slowly. I wished it away, I wished her life away, desperate for her to reach these milestones that were promised to make things easier. “Just wait for 6 weeks, 12 weeks, 6 months, you’ll see the difference. Oh, but she was prem, so, you need to adjust, it will be more like 10 weeks, 16 weeks. Hang in there it will get better.” The goal posts kept moving away from me.
At the risk of sounding heartless, I think her helplessness disturbed me most, her neediness, her reliance on me. I couldn’t bear it. It was too much pressure. I was struggling to keep myself going, how could she expect me to keep her going too. She had trapped me, like a shackle, I was no longer free to go and do as I pleased (try peeing while you hold a newborn, good luck if you need a number 2).
I was anchored to a rocking chair and the anchor was my baby, the weight of her expectation made it hard to breathe.
The long term permanence of this shackle amplified the feelings of claustrophobia, “Would I ever be free again?”, and of course, these types of thoughts and feelings are always coupled with the weight of the guilt from feeling and thinking this way.
My friends and family were amazing during this time, regularly visiting and putting up with their ghost of a loved one. In that time, my mom-friends all confessed to how dark their thoughts had been in those first weeks, and they were dark indeed. Morbidly, I relished their stories as they made me feel better about my own thoughts and the feeling.
I often fantasised about getting in the car and not coming back, finding her a new family that could love her better than me, I even considered hurting myself just to escape, but worst of all were the times I wished I could turn back time and leave things the way they were – before Izzy existed. And ultimately, that is what I wanted. I wanted my life back the way it was, the life I knew, the life where I was in control.
The shock of how permanent and devastating the change this baby brought was overwhelming, I couldn’t see a way through it. And the more everyone and I mean everyone, told me it would get better, the more I didn’t believe them. Because as each milestone passed nothing changed, in some ways it got harder.
I was obviously not coping to anyone who took one look at me, between my seriously unwashed hair and pyjama uniform.
My first visit to the paediatric nurse, Izzy screamed from arrival to payment. The moms in the waiting room stared in simultaneous horror and relief that this was not their baby. The receptionist took pity on me and whisked Izzy away and ordered me to go into their kitchenette and make tea. After about 10 minutes of “making tea” (i.e. crying and wishing for a different life), I retrieved my still crying baby and exited with a stream of pitying looks and words of encouragement.
Every time I take Izzy for a check-up they tell me that some of the moms who were there that day still ask after me. Izzy and I are now the stuff of legend, the mom that others measure their experience against, and the baby, the barometer for which other babies are judged upon.
One morning, when Izzy was about six weeks, I was hiding out in Facebook and I happened upon an article about a woman in America, Allison Goldstein, an award-winning elementary school teacher, a normal everyday first-time mom, just like me. A mom who dropped her 4-month-old off at day-care drove home and took her own life. No one had a clue anything was wrong – not her husband, not her mom, not her sister whom she spoke with every single day post giving birth.
The puzzle pieces clicked and I realized I needed help, and I needed help right now.
I called my psychiatrist that day and made an appointment and I told my husband and my mom – if they hadn’t figured it out already – that I was not ok and that I couldn’t just power through it.
The lack of sleep exacerbated my depression, so my psychiatrist recommended that along with a change in medication, and regular visits with a psychologist, we employed a night nurse. The irony of pre-motherhood beliefs and attitudes is that I was one of those who judged mothers who employed night nurses, I judged them hard – why on earth can someone who is on maternity leave, not manage, surely its pure laziness?
But without this help, I don’t know if I would have survived the first 12 weeks. Instead, I only had to survive 12 hours each day. The nurse arrived at 6 pm and would take over until 6 am the next morning. I began counting the hours from about 9 am in the morning to her arrival, and glorious relief. Adversely, as dawn drew closer my anxiety skyrocketed. As soon as I heard the birds start their morning song, my stomach became a pit of dread and the tears welled at the thought that I would soon have to take over caring for the baby, my baby.
After seeing a therapist several times, she managed to get me to realise that what I was feeling was not great, but it was OK, that I needed to reframe my language. I didn’t like Izzy, now. I didn’t enjoy being a mom, today. These feeling were time sensitive. She gave me permission to not like my baby over this time, “What’s to like at the moment? She is not very likeable or enjoyable at the moment but that’s OK, she won’t be like this forever.”. She was completely right, no one in their right mind would enjoy those first 16 weeks of Izzy’s life, but 16 weeks in the great grand scheme of things is a drop in the ocean. It’s just almost impossible to see that when you are drowning in that drop.
As the weeks, and months past, slowly but surely the feeling retreated.
As much as I kept saying, “I can’t do this!”, I was doing it. And even if what I really meant was, “I don’t want to do this!”, I had no choice, I had to do it, I was her mother. I began to realise that actions speak louder than thoughts or feelings, I was caring for Izzy, maybe not in the way I hoped, maybe not with the joy people expect, but regardless she was thriving. A prem baby with severe reflux and colic – she was gaining weight week by week, catching up to the 50th percentile and reaching her age-appropriate milestones.
I was actually doing a really good job – and my paediatrician, nurse, friends and family all praised me for it. And that felt good, knowing despite her mom being a bit of disaster, Izzy was getting all the right things from me. She didn’t care that I had these negative feelings. I can’t say for sure why it didn’t affect her, but I think that for a newborn perhaps the best sign of love is care – food when she was hungry, warmth when she was cold, changing when she was uncomfortable and a gentle touch when she needed comfort. She didn’t know that the feeling left me wanting, because as far as she was concerned, she was getting all that she needed. I was speaking her love language, even if I wasn’t being particularly poetic.
I am embarrassed to say that my daughter, with only a few weeks on earth under her belt loved me right from the beginning. And I was too disconnected to recognise it. I was the person her blurry squint little eyes sought out, the person who she wanted as her comforter, the first person she smiled for and the person she shrieks most loudly for.
The first 16 weeks of being a mom were devastating and then slowly, so inchingly slowly I barely even noticed it was happening, things began to change. The feeling began to retreat inch by inch, the dread at the thought of being left alone with her receded, the length of time I could tolerate in her presence grew minute by minute and the mental and emotional isolation booth was pulled down brick by brick.
After five months, I realized one day that I was coping, I was doing this mom-thing by myself and I wasn’t hating it completely. When I heard her scream I didn’t want to curl up and disappear, I knew what to do, or at least I knew what to try. Her attachment to me was no longer nauseating, it had quietly transformed into something that was – on most days – kind of sweet and endearing.
Only after 16 months did I begin to see Izzy clearly, as a little person who was struggling as much as I was. I have learnt to take the wins, big and small. Most days, I see and appreciate her for who she is and, I began to feel that deep love that was promised.
And now that she is almost 3 years old that love grows every day. This love is not perfect, the feeling lurks in the dark places when I am tired or stressed, when Izzy feels overwhelming, when work feels overwhelming or when my life as I knew it seems a distant memory never to be relived.
I still have moments where the feeling tries to drag me back under, but these moments are few and far between.
The good feelings are far more dominant than the bad, and now Izzy more often than not takes my breath away in a most wonderful way – those are the feelings I cling to when the other feeling tries to snake its way back into my life.
I will carry on fighting because, now, I know the feeling lies, it cheats and it steals. The feeling blocked me from the joy that should have been mine, the joy of unconditional love, of creating a new life with the love of your life. It stole my husband’s partner, the one he knew and needed. It stole some of his confidence in me and my commitment to our family. The feeling lied to me about Izzy and her role in all of this and it cheated her out of a present and emotionally engaged mom when she was at her most vulnerable. The feeling stole all this from me, from Izzy and from my husband.
The feeling will take nothing more from me, nothing more from my baby girl and nothing more from my family. I hope that if you are reading this and know the feeling you can see you are not alone, that help is out there and that the feeling needn’t steal anything else from you and your family.
Talk to someone, anyone, even a stranger. Make an appointment with a doctor, a priest, a healer, a counsellor, whatever works for you. Join a support group, create a support group. Trust me when I say, there are lots of us who know what you are going through and we know the feeling doesn’t have to own you forever, you do not need to fight on your own, help is out there.