I often think about all the mothers I have known who always seemed to be so calm and serene.
I wish I had known then what I know now – that many of those mums were probably struggling just as I was – but none of us felt able to speak up.
I wish I had known that becoming a new mum for many of us is likely to mean that we need more emotional support than at any other time in our lives.
I remember I really wanted to be like those mums, so calm and together, but instead I wondered about their inner world – why could I not see any evidence of the inner turmoil that was my constant companion since I became a mum?
I second guessed myself on everything, every decision was considered and re-considered before I tentatively followed through.
I never used to be like that, I had told myself I was going to be one of those mothers who seemed so self assured and solid in their decision making.
For me being pregnant was a time when I reflected on my life, as well as trying to learn and plan for many new things, and I worried about many more unknown things. I worried about what sort of mother I was going to be and what sort of father my partner was going to be. It dawned on me that neither of us was guaranteed to reach the lofty expectations that I had set. And then I worried about the harm this could cause our baby and how I would have to work even harder to avoid this. Mostly I thought I couldn’t let anyone know that I was full of self doubt, or worse still, failing to meet the expectations of myself or others to be a well adjusted mother.
I remember so clearly, for the first time in my life, the relentless conversations that happened in my head. I never saw any evidence of this going on for other mothers but my inner conversations were worse than any bad boy behaviour I had ever seen in the school yard. Thoughts mixed up with feelings, longings mixed up with dread and overall a terrible sense of failing. Self hatred and criticism emerged the longer it went on.
There was no room for pleasure, joy or peace, no way I could have felt any satisfaction or success in my baby’s growing body and settled, peaceful self. These conversations became so confusing and relentless that I began to slide into feelings of guilt, distress, shame, anxiety and depression.
I now know that one in seven mothers will develop these symptoms of postnatal depression, with many more not being identified or receiving help and support. For too long I was one of the latter group, unable to admit to this inner conversation that kept me silent and ashamed. There was no way I could tell my partner or my mum, let alone health professionals, about my terrible and shameful inner world and what an awful mother I was. It seemed to go on and on.
The one thing I have learned that still breaks my heart is that it is actually OK for pregnant and new mums to think and feel the things like this, it’s normal to be in turmoil for a while. I wish I had known that much earlier in my journey so that I wouldn’t have fought so hard to keep my inner world a secret and waited so long to seek help. By the time I did, I was lost to depression and anxiety and the journey back was so much longer and harder. Talking much earlier would have reassured me, let me know I was normal and that I was still a good person and a good mother.
I wish I had been told that:
- any change takes time to adapt to, especially one that is as massive as having a baby;
- the change will not always be smooth or easy – there will be times when you feel really terrible and fragile as a new mum;
- mums need space to adapt to the changes and to heal; time and permission to talk and restore her sense of herself now that she is a mum;
- all mums should be encouraged to seek help and support through counselling or groups with other mums; and
- self care, time away from baby, connecting with her own interests and supportive people help create space in the relentless care of a baby.
I want all mums to know these things as early as possible so they might have the courage to let others know how hard they are finding things, a courage I didn’t have.
This is the one way to have any chance of preventing postnatal depression, or at the very least making it feel so much less powerful.
And so a plea to all new mums – if you haven’t been thinking or feeling the way you expected to for two weeks or more, please talk to someone about your feelings, as early as possible. It’s the best chance of having a happy mother’s day.