It’s been eleven months since my beautiful, sweet girl was born. It’s been twenty-one months since she made me her mama. Birth is an occasion of great, unspeakable joy. But for me it was also a traumatic transition and the start of a deep, unshakeable anxiety which progressed into postnatal depression. Every human is unique; therefore, every baby is unique, therefore every birth and motherhood are unique. My story is not your story. But there were many dark moments in those early weeks where I wish someone had told me that what I was feeling wasn’t right, that it didn’t have to be so hard. I am, and have always been, a curious person. I have a wild imagination, so research and facts are important to me. They ground me when my mind runs away with itself. I thought the best way to overcome my fear about giving birth was to read as many books as possible. But facts aren’t essentially that helpful with something as unique as learning to be a mother. They only take you so far. Motherhood is more about feeling than facts. The only surety in those first weeks is that you’ll be sitting down for most of the day, feeding. The rest of the time you’ll spend changing nappies and swaying with a baby in your arms. You don’t move far away from the tiny human you’re getting to know. This is great, this is as it should be. This is also hard. You go from being a carefree, albeit very large and ungainly, human to primary caregiver of a tiny, helpless, fragile human in a few brief hours. It’s ok if it feels like you’re having an out-of-body experience. You kind of are. Someone that’s been a part of you for nine months - a human you grew - and a very large organ that supported that human (a placenta), leave you suddenly, along with all the hormones that supported them. Turned off, like a tap. It’s no small wonder our brains go a bit crazy.
I expected baby blues, my community midwife had warned me about them. I felt overly emotional but that felt normal. I was struggling to establish feeding. It hurt like hell. There were endless evenings where I thought I couldn’t survive another feed but somehow I kept going. I thought every first-time mother must feel like this but as the weeks wore on, the feelings didn’t leave. I felt like I was abseiling without a rope. I was staring into the abyss. I knew I didn’t want to be down there, but it didn’t feel like I had a choice anymore. I was hurtling out of control. And yet simultaneously I was still in my previous reality. I was still in the same home, with the same partner, seeing the same friends, visiting the same places but it was as if a thick, soupy fog had drifted over everything.
Isla Mae at 1 week old. I wish I could go back there and give myself permission to be overwhelmed. Note for new mothers: being overwhelmed doesn’t mean you’re failing.
Telling people I had postnatal depression somehow made me feel accountable to the world. I couldn’t let go - not now that they knew. Feeding my daughter also helped me stay in the world. If I ceased to exist her main source of food and comfort would also be gone and I couldn’t bear that thought. Never mind the fact that my husband wouldn’t have a wife and my daughter wouldn’t have a mum. The suicidal mind doesn’t think of the future, or the loss or sadness death would bring. I needed a very short-term focus, something very here-and-now. There were a lot of days when it seemed like nothing would bring me back from the edge, that surrendering to this disease and it’s power over me was my only option. The sadness would gain in power without warning. It didn’t seem to have a trigger. It just came ashore like a raging tsunami of grief.
When pregnant, your body’s primary concern 24/7 for nine months is to keep this growing being alive. They are a work of art without any ego or interference. You made them and yet they are not yours. It is science but it is also magic. Scientists can create an embryo, but they cannot make it grow. An embryo needs the environment of a woman’s womb to become a foetus and eventually, a baby. After I gave birth my brain was buzzing with ideas. I had no idea feeding would be so relentless, I felt trapped. I couldn’t work out how to channel the buzz of creativity that was bouncing around in my brain.
I thought I should be doing more, I should be able to start working again, I should be making an income to support the seemingly never-ending expenses of new-born life. I spent endless hours on social media, watching everyone else’s experiences of the outside world. They were doing things I thought I’d never do again. I couldn’t focus on anything positive. I ruminated. I raged. I thought I’d made a terrible mistake. After a lifetime of dreaming about motherhood, I felt I’d failed at my most-longed-for role. I’d never be a good enough mother, not the mother my daughter deserved. I fluctuated constantly between wanting to run away and thinking that someone or something was going to take her away from me.
The darkest days are mostly just a blur of sadness and rage. Snapping at my husband then praying he wouldn’t leave us. Beating myself up for being a bad wife. A bad mother. A bad person. Praying that my life would end. Praying for change. Eating too much, beating myself up for eating too much. Holding on to Isla Mae like a limpet on a rock. Breathing her in. Listening to her breathe. Wishing the hours away. Just holding on until lunchtime, until dinner, until bedtime. Watching her sleep. Feeling like she wouldn’t be safe, wouldn’t stay alive, unless I was watching her. Falling asleep, beating myself up for falling asleep. Being woken by her cries, changing her nappy, feeding her back to sleep, moving her over to her little crib by our bed. Wishing she would wake back up so I could hold her close again. Feeling overwhelmed. Feeling a deep sense that everyone and everything was rooting against me. Feeling like no one could or should have to support me in this mess I’d wished upon myself.
My health visitor had been watching my situation closer than I realised and she finally approached me about it in September when Isla Mae was three months old. I couldn’t hide it anymore, my depression had become something bigger than I could handle alone. Someone had finally acknowledged that the way I was, wasn’t right. I was sick. She encouraged me to go to a new doctor straight away. She prescribed Sertraline. At first it felt like it wasn’t working. I felt worse. But slowly, as the months passed, the fog started to lift, and I realised it had been a while since I’d thought the world would be better off without me. My daughter’s cries didn’t make me feel like my chest was in a giant nutcracker anymore. I didn’t cry at the thought of the next day. There was room in my brain to consider doing a little more than just getting through the day. It seemed easier to believe that I was capable of being a good mother. Counselling began to reframe the thoughts that had been bouncing around in my brain. The challenges didn’t reduce in strength, I just felt myself rising to them in a new way. I figured out a way to outrun the darkness. I realised I could be the mother Isla Mae needed and I always had been.
Maggie Nelson writes about feeling like her son “held her” in her book The Argonauts and I am so aware that Isla Mae has held me on our journey through this darkness. I am thankful for her endless patience, strength and calmness. We experienced this together. She may not remember it, but I will. We owe each other our lives yet we don’t owe each other anything. This is how life works. This is what it means to be a wife, lover, daughter, sister, mother. We fall, we help each other rise up again, we regain strength, we fall again. We are in a life cycle. We are souls, tumbling together through this lifetime, maybe for the first time, maybe for the thousandth time. I’m glad for the souls I’m living this one with, souls that care and love and didn’t give up on me even when I’d given up on myself. It’s love that allows us to give everything we have and expect nothing in return. This love helps me feel whole again with a deep, innate, new capability to mother not only my daughter but also, myself. This love will never run out. This love fizzes with energy, is full of life. This love can, and will, change our world.
Words by Lorna Mills
Photos by Lorna Mills unless otherwise stated