This week marks Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week. I didn’t know it was a thing either until today. But it is a thing. An important thing. A thing we need to talk about more.
Mental health holds enough stigma to stun and disable the strongest of characters. Mix in the expectations placed on mums and mums-to be and what you’re left with is a load of otherwise kick-ass, influential and powerful women that are cowering in the shadows of disbelief and shame, suffering in deafening silence. It’s the shoulds that do this…
Everything should run smoothly through pregnancy and beyond.
You should breastfeed your baby.
You should not get into bad habits.
You should feel nothing but gratitude and joy every waking moment.
The birth should be a positive experience.
But what if things don’t run smoothly? What if your worst nightmares become a reality and you’re left to pick up the pieces of shattered dreams and piece them back together in some way that the world can make sense again? Or what if you can’t shake that dark feeling that you’re just not good enough for your baby? Or what if you hate yourself for wishing you could just hand your baby over to someone else so you don’t have to listen to the sound of their cries for a while?
In a bid to raise awareness and empower even just one person to start talking, I’m going to do something I don’t really want to do. I’m going to talk. About me and my maternal mental health and how I got to be where I am at the moment. This is my story.
Back to those shoulds. What if your birth wasn’t a positive experience at all?
What if you spent months preparing and empowering yourself for an idyllic homebirth, to be tucked up in your own bed just moments after your little baby arrives, only to be swept completely out of control, not really understanding what was happening to you or your baby? What if your plan went horribly wrong and you end up bluelighted to hospital an hour and a half away? What if you’re, months on, still plagued with the words; that was not how it was meant to happen’?
And what if everything didn’t run smoothly afterwards?
What if your baby stops breathing and he’s whisked away from you, from the room, from that very hospital?
What if you’re left aching to do it all over, every wave of agonising pain that coursed through your body, just so that you could look back on it without confusion? Without disappointment. Without guilt. Without that feeling of utter terror as your baby, that was inside your tummy just minutes before, is torn away from you and you don’t know if he’s even going to make it.
At this very moment, as my fingers move across this keyboard, every fibre of my being is grateful for the little boy sleeping in his cot upstairs. For a start, I’m grateful that he’s sleeping, because he aint so keen on the whole sleep scene. But I’m more grateful that despite a traumatic birth and and even more traumatic stint on a ventilator in NICU, he’s still with us.
But here’s the thing. Although we have not had to face the horror of bereavement (something for which we will never take for granted because we came so close to losing our son), it was nonetheless still a traumatic birth. It was still a living nightmare when I thought surely the worst was over, being told by midwives, consultants and specialists that they were doing the best they could to stabilise our baby and transfer him to a bigger NICU as fast as they could.
This post is not so much about what happened (you can read about Theo’s story at the top of the page) but rather how I have dealt with what happened. Or maybe that should be, how I’ve not dealt with what happened.
We were one of the lucky ones. But that doesn’t cancel out the trauma. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do for the past nine months. I figured that the outcome should neutralise the experience. He is doing great now so I should be doing great too.
I shouldn’t still, nine months on, get flashbacks that leave a knot in my stomach and a lump in my throat. I shouldn’t still get tearful when someone asks how my baby is doing. I should have just ‘dealt with it’ by now. I should just be damn grateful and move on.
But I do still get flashbacks. I do still cry about it. A lot. I am damn grateful but I definitely haven’t dealt with it.
Not yet anyhow. But I’m further on than I was a few weeks ago.
During a baby clinic I was chatting with another mum about how our boys were doing when I found my own voice telling her ”I’m not over what happened, I know I’m not’. I hadn’t even known that to be true until I heard the words come out of my mouth. The truth overwhelmed me and I all but hurdled the sofas in the children’s centre to get out of there before I burst into hot messy tears. I arranged to meet up with my health visitor soon after that (in which I did not manage to avoid the hot messy tears – there were lots of them) and there began the process of me coming to terms with what happened.
I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t want to write about this now. I wanted to hold off, document it and share this painfully personal stuff when I could say everything was all better. It’s neater that way, right? More comfortable. I wasn’t ok but I am just fine now, thank you very much.
The raw truth is I’m not ‘just fine’ about the whole thing, nearly ten months on. And if we only talk about all this when it’s all sorted then it gives power to the stigma. It gives the illusion that there is something to be ashamed about when there isn’t. The relief within me that it hasn’t triggered post natal depression, which is so often the case after a traumatic birth, is tangible. It hasn’t robbed my of my joy or my ability to function on a day-to-day basis. I’m not a crumbling wreck and for that I’m so grateful. But the tears continue to flow. I still check he’s breathing in the night. I avoid social situations where conversation about births might pop up. I am frightened to look to the future because I’m not convinced it’s all over. The flashbacks still haunt me and knock me sideways when they hit.
Last week, after a painful and difficult consultation, I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD. Something that I thought was reserved for soldiers but apparently not. I’ll be getting help to come to terms with and process what happened and to make peace with an experience I had no control over. To let go of the guilt that consumes me, no matter how much I or anyone else tries to rationalise it away.
It’s okay not to be okay sometimes. It’s not weak. There is strength in standing up against this stigma. There is strength in fighting to live life to the absolute full. There is strength in asking for help.
If you’re not okay, please talk to someone. Anyone. But above all, know this; you are not alone.
Mrs C x