“Holy S#@! That just came out of me?!!” This was the very first thought that entered my mind as soon as my daughter was born, along with an overwhelming sense of fear. Not the angelic fanfare most expect when their first child comes into the world.
When my daughter was placed on my chest for the first time I cried. Not happy tears. After an exhaustingly long labour and extremely traumatic birth experience for myself and my daughter, I was not in a good way. I felt this beautiful little baby that had shared my body for the last 9 months was a total stranger and the weight of responsibility I now had felt heavy. I felt so disconnected from her and felt we had made a mistake. I was so thankful when the midwife took her off my chest again.
My husband was literally left holding the baby while I was rushed off to theatre.
Now birth trauma is a whole seperate topic for another time but I firmly believe it was a contributing factor to the state of my poor mental health following my daughter’s birth.
I also had another major contributing factor. Rewind to the 23rd of December 2015. I was at work, gearing up to celebrate Christmas when my phone rang. It was my sister. My Mum had been to the doctor a couple of days prior for a check up and routine tests. What they found changed the course of our lives forever. Mum had just been diagnosed with bowel cancer and it was terminal.
So our Christmas Eve was spent in hospital with Mum and New Years Eve saw my sister and I sitting by Mum’s bedside while she started her first round of chemotherapy. 2 weeks after that I found out I was pregnant. When I told my Mum I was pregnant with her first and only grandchild she couldn’t stop crying. I had never, ever seen her like that before and to this day I do not know if they were happy or sad tears.
5 months after her diagnosis, my beautiful Mum passed away. My whole pregnancy up until that point had been spent ferrying Mum from Dr and chemo appointments and nursing her where I could. During some of her treatment where she had radiation, I was not allowed to be near her.
Anyone that has experienced losing a loved one through cancer can attest to how insidious the disease and treatment for it is and what a mental, physical and emotional rollercoaster it is for everyone.
Add to that being pregnant and hoping each day that somehow my Mum would make it just long enough to meet her unborn granddaughter and have that one cuddle she so wished for, started the cracks in my mental health to form.
2 weeks after my Mum passed away I threw myself back into my work, pretending I was “ok”. I thought if I focused too much on my grief it would somehow hurt the baby. A work colleague who could obviously see straight through my facade suggested I should see a psychologist, to talk to someone about my grief and try to work through it before baby arrived.
I asked my obstetrician for anyone they could recommend and was told in no uncertain terms, “Grief is something you never get over so you will just have to get on with it and deal with it!” After the lack of empathy there, I went to see my GP and was thankfully recommended a clinic that specialised in perinatal mental health. Looking back, I can see what an opportunity it was to attend this clinic but at the time (and still heeding the words of my obstetrician and clouded by my grief) I was not open to the advice or opinion of the psychologist I saw there.
They told me I was at a very high risk of developing post natal depression and they wanted me to see them regularly to help try and prevent that. I remember thinking, “How dare they tell me how I’m going to feel! I’m fine!” And I never went back. After all, “I was fine”, I kept telling myself, “I’m just grieving and it will pass”. How true that pride comes before a fall.
You see at that time I did not understand mental health. I thought it was a “bad” thing to have a mental health condition and did not want to be one of “those” people. Yes, totally wrong, stereotypical things to think, with a huge lack of understanding on my part for sure. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and gees, how I wished I had listened to that psychologist and taken the help when it was offered. It may have helped make my whole journey a very different one.
To be continued…
After returning to the ward and spending a short time with my husband and newborn daughter I was left on my own. It was 3am. I was still experiencing the effects of an epidural and had what felt like hundreds of IV’s and cables coming off me everywhere. My daughter was sleeping in a crib next to the end of the bed. I felt the worst I had ever felt in my life. What just happened? Trying to take a moment to regroup and take in the last 48 hours I just wanted my Mum. It didn’t matter I was a grown woman, I had just been through the biggest physical ordeal of my life and I wanted my Mum, someone to mother me and that was not going to happen. I felt shattered.
It wasn’t long before my daughter woke up and started crying. I could not reach her from where I was in the bed and I could hardly move. The call button for the nurses had fallen down on the floor and I couldn’t even reach the cable to pull it back up. I felt so helpless and that’s when it started. The more my daughter cried the more I could feel my mind breaking. It could not cope, trying to process death and birth at the same time. The best way I can explain it is, it was like my mind broke into a million pieces and joined back together again but in a different way, all in the space of a split second. Now it probably also had something to do with the cocktail of pain killers and other drugs coursing through my system at that time and not really understanding the enormity of the physical ordeal I had just been through but with each cry I grew more and more anxious and fearful and started having some very, very scary visions. I won’t go into the details of what those were but they involved my daughter coming to harm and they were terrifying. Here I was, an intelligent, educated woman…what the hell was happening to me?
I started calling out for help and after what seemed like an eternity, a very stern midwife came into the room. I tried explaining to her what was going on and she told me off for making so much noise! On my request she wheeled my daughter out of the room so I could get some sleep. I spent the next hours until sunrise wide awake and sobbing uncontrollably.
At sunrise the midwife that was present at my daughter’s birth came in to take my observations and check on me before she finished her shift. She took one look at me and with a simple question of “Are you ok?” I started crying again.
She sat with me and held my hand while I explained to her how I didn’t feel right, about the visions I was having and how I didn’t want to be left alone with my daughter as I was scared I was going to hurt her. I was shaking uncontrollably. Without judgement she listened to me and then helped me into a wheelchair and gave me a shower, in the hope it would make me feel a little better. I was so embarrassed at a stranger doing all this for me, seeing me so vulnerable. Her simple act of kindness and caring though still means so much to me to this day.
A few hours later the doctor in charge, a mental health crisis team and my husband were sitting around my bedside. Having to explain to them about my visions and how I was feeling so fearful of hurting my daughter was one of the lowest points in my life. I felt like an absolute monster and that I was letting everyone down, especially my husband and newborn baby girl.
It was decided that I would stay in hospital until I had physically recovered enough to go home and I would be referred onto a Mother and baby unit as soon as a place was available. For those who may not know, a Mother and Baby unit is a specialised residential unit usually attached to the psychiatric ward of a hospital, where mothers can stay with their babies whilst being treated for post natal mental health conditions.
All up I spent 6 days in hospital. During the days I slowly started to gain confidence being around my daughter. I was able to breastfeed as long as I had someone else in the room with me. At night the nurses would take her to begin with but the little sleep I did get was disturbed by continuing visions and nightmares. l would wake fretting for my daughter and frantically need to know she was ok.
I was discharged from hospital and spent the next 2 weeks at home with visits in the first week from the mental health team, midwives and maternal health nurse. I was not happy to be home. I was on edge, in a constant state of “fight or flight”. My daughter would wake to feed every hour during the night. I was exhausted and in pain all the time. My visions did not stop and the thoughts of harming my daughter started turning into thoughts of harming myself instead. Those were very hard days.
The day I got the call to say a place was available for us at a Mother and Baby unit I could hardly speak through the tears on the phone. I felt so relieved. Our little girl was thriving thankfully...but I was not.
To be continued...
Upon arriving at the Mother and Baby Unit I felt hopeful that I was going to feel better and start making sense of what was going on with me. Unfortunately it wasn’t so simple. After my husband left once I had settled into my room with our daughter I felt more alone than ever. The room was sterile and basically a modern, stripped back version of a padded cell. I obviously has some misconceptions that it was going to be a homely, nurturing environment and I was going to receive the mothering that I was so craving.
My first afternoon there I had to take part in an intake assessment. A routine thing that was essential to be done so at first it didn’t worry me. Upon walking into the room though I was greeted by eight very official looking doctors and psychologists, all with clipboards and pens at the ready, making notes as I answered each of their very intense questions. I was holding my daughter and every little glance I took at her, every little interaction, was observed and noted down.
Days at the Mother and Baby unit were spent tending to my daughters needs and attending classes of various topics (infant massage, mindfulness techniques etc). I was pretty much left to myself during the day but still being constantly observed from the nurses station. I was in the unit with 5 other mothers with their babies. We were all on our own journeys through this often misunderstood illness. As different as we were from each other there was a sense of camaraderie there.
Night times were the real blessing of being in the unit. The night nurses would take my daughter at around 9pm so I could get some rest. They would settle her and then bring her into me through the night when she woke for a feed. With the help of a lactation consultant I got the hang of expressing milk so the night nurses could bottle feed my daughter without waking me for at least one of the night feeds. I remember going to sleep at 10pm one night and being woken up by a nurse at 6am the next morning. 8 hours of unbroken sleep for the first time in weeks and I felt a little like my old self again. I started to feel like that maybe, just maybe I could see the light glimmering at the end of the tunnel for me.
Slowly each day my confidence caring for my daughter began to grow. It was not smooth sailing by any means though. I was still wracked with anxiety and most days ended up in tears at some point. My visions had lessened but I was in a constant hyper-vigilant state, always needing to know where my daughter was and not wanting to be separated from her. I had gone from one extreme to the other yet I still didn’t feel connected to her.
On one of the days my husband was able to visit, we were allowed to go out and leave the hospital grounds for a few hours. We went to a local shopping centre to buy some more clothes for our quickly growing little girl. I was looking through some potential outfits when I came across a very simple white jumpsuit that had a cute teddy bear printed on it with the words “My Mummy loves me”. Four simple words that totally spoke to me and struck a chord in an instant. I bought that jumpsuit and I have to say my daughter wore it for more than a few days in a row. Seeing her in that jumpsuit and reading those words, “My Mummy loves me” over and over was such a positive affirmation for me. It reminded me that of course I loved my daughter. Under all the internal struggle there was still love. It was a lightbulb switching on in the dark of my mind and one that enabled my connection with her to grow.
Without knowing it at the time, here was something life changing for me that would sow the seed for the idea that has now grown into Mother Deer.
My daughter and I spent a month at the Mother and Baby Unit. Once discharged I made a conscious effort to connect with support “on the outside”. I went back to the perinatal mental health clinic I first went to when I was pregnant and started working with two different psychologists.
I was also very thankful to be able to access support from Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA) who run a national helpline. Being able to speak with a counsellor during some of my low points and having them ring to check in on me really aided my recovery. This is why I feel passionate to support this well needed charity and their services and why a portion of sales from every Mother Deer product will be donated to them.
It has been a constant roller coaster ride and I still suffer from occasional moments of anxiety today. I am happy to say though my daughter is now 4 years old and our bond is strong. We have a very close relationship. Something I am very proud to have achieved considering where we started. I now feel some of what I lost when my own Mum passed away I have found again within my relationship with my daughter. She brings so much light and love into our lives and I feel so blessed to have her.
As hard as it’s been I wouldn’t go back and change my journey into motherhood as it’s what has enabled me to bring Mother Deer to life today and help others.
Thank you for reading my story. Xx