The big fat lie of motherhood by Dora Hurley
I didn’t really know I had postnatal depression until almost four years after it, when I started coming out of it or rather found a way back to myself. It hit me, how I was not okay, far from it.
You see, the thing is I wasn’t going to have postnatal depression. I was going to be a Pinterest MOM with the designer baby gear, a stylish nursery and organic baby food. Those moms don’t have post-natal depression. Or do they?
Let’s rewind back to July 2010. My first child was born, and the experience was nothing I imagined it was going to be. Prior to birth, pregnancy was difficult. Not conception or medically (for both of those incredible blessings I’m grateful, my heart breaks and aches seeing and knowing women who struggle to have this opportunity) but emotionally it was very hard. For someone like me, with life-long OCD tendencies and control issues, the unpredictability of pregnancy was hard to enjoy or relax into. Seemingly I was not in charge of my energy levels, appetite or even bowel movements anymore so it made it difficult to plan anything. And this girl needs a plan! I thrive on routine, planning and on knowing what’s next...
Those 9 months were the start of slipping into this crazy limbo of how I truly felt and how much of it I was willing to admit. To anyone else and to myself.
I feel it’s important to mention it was 2011 and websites, movies, IG pages and blogs with the real, raw side of motherhood weren’t around yet. What I gathered from the media was the big fat lie of motherhood. The sunset magazine covers with the smiling, full make up, super rested looking mom effortlessly breastfeeding a baby. Moms in funky aprons, making healthy muffins. Family shots where both parents are engaged with the designer outfitted offspring’s, no one is looking at their phone or hating life in general. My media consumption was mainly Pinterest, Facebook, ‘One Born Every Minute’ and “Jo-jo The Super Nanny” showing me how to parent children in scenarios which were NEVER going to happen to me. Let’s just laugh at this last sentence together shall we, because seven years and three boys later you could come and film a whole series of Super Nanny in my house in one afternoon.
Why I say this is because now I know how much the media I consumed (and consume today) affects my mental health and I’m now very aware of that.
So, there I was not enjoying pregnancy but I was not going to admit that, not the full scale of it anyway. I would go as far as to label it ‘prenatal depression’ but maybe it was just my ordinary depression growing back slowly along with my growing baby bump. I honestly don’t know. Prior to pregnancy I had been in counselling for over a year and I was feeling great.
Looking back the red-flags were all over the place, however, I did a very good job at ignoring them and hiding them. After all, I believed when I finally had my baby in my arms it was all going to fall into place. This feeling of emptiness, confusion and being not fit for the job will be automatically replaced by THE LOVE! The Mom and Baby magazine cover, Pinterest kind of love, with me as a Mom that instantly bounced back into a size small, holding a perfectly breastfed baby while baking an organic muffin in her spotlessly clean and stylish kitchen. Surely having the baby outside my body will be much much much easier than being pregnant?
We had our son on a Friday, a hot summer morning after a very long labor and a pretty traumatic birth. The time spent in the hospital is a complete blur to me. All I know is that two days later we were home with a newborn, I still looked pregnant, my nipples were bleeding and the thought of going to the toilet sent chills down my spine. The reality and my expectation were crashing already. Pinterest, you never told me about the mesh underwear!
Despite my very supportive and hands on husband I remember being extremely anxious about everything from day one. Only I could hold the baby right, only I could change his nappy gently enough and do the sticky closing tabs to the right pressure, only I could put him to sleep, only I could feed him from my body, only me… just me! I slowly became obsessed with caring for our son “the right way” and the more help I needed the less I was able to accept. Instead I made it look like I had it all together. Sure, if I post cute baby photos on Facebook it will show everyone, including myself, how well I’m doing.
Breastfeeding was not going well at all and again it’s 2012, formula was pushed on you regardless if you wanted it or not. Education around breastfeeding in Ireland was (is?) in it's infancy. Every time I asked for help feeding, I was offered the “just give formula and get over it” advice, especially when we still struggled to reach his birth weight. But I had to breastfeed because I said that’s what I was going to do and it was part of the plan, and I had to go with the plan. I had to go with the plan. I had to go with the plan, dammit! Finally, at week five we established exclusive breastfeeding and the formula top ups were gone, with the help of the La Leach League who were my life saver. I can’t thank those ladies enough. The LLL meetings were the first place I could admit I was feeling lost, empty and miserable. I was counting the hours in the days to bring on the night and then I was counting the hours in the night to bring on the days. Our baby never slept. As in never! I mean maybe he slept but it felt like never. Not in the cot or in his buggy anyway… (He is now almost 7 and an incredible little human; kind, smart, funny and perfectly healthy but hey, the kid still doesn’t sleep through every night.) I think I stopped waiting around age 4 and finally learned to go with the flow. His twin brothers are solid sleepers since age of 2 so you know… the ratio is not that bad, I guess?
When my husband went back to work after two weeks, I felt overwhelmed, exhausted but made up a plan to go somewhere every day to make the days pass quicker. It was honestly one of the loneliest parts of my entire life and even looking back on the photo albums from that year makes me sad. It makes me sad to think how desperate I was trying to be a good mother while not understanding basic principles of parenting and having zero idea of the importance of self-care. I remember giving out to my husband for not pushing the buggy right. For real! The scene is still clear in my mind. My anxiety was rising just with the idea of the buggy and the possible crying because our baby didn’t like the buggy. 5-10 minutes into the walk I could hardly take my eyes off him. I fussed over him constantly making sure he was not too hot, not too cold, and not too whatever. I just couldn’t watch my husband pushing it anymore. I had to take over. I genuinely felt it was only me who could serve my baby correctly. I became the woman who was impossible to help.
Meanwhile, I kept posting the happiest pictures on Facebook because you know, if it looked good on social media then it was good. Then I didn’t have to admit how I truly felt. How lost I was, how hopeless motherhood felt. How I wanted to go back to work, but at the same time it was unimaginable to leave him with anyone else. How I wanted to do other things rather than looking after a baby but couldn’t get engaged in any sort of activity. How I completely lost interest in talking to people unless they were also mothers with a similar aged baby. I had nothing else left to say and couldn’t process any other type of information coming my way. How I didn’t want to breastfeed but I didn’t want to not to breastfeeding either. How I wanted to sleep so bad, but the idea of sleep training and letting him cry sent me into a full-blown panic attack. How I begged my father in law once to take him away just for half an hour and I cried the whole time as he buckled him into his car and drove away, and when they left I went back to the house and could not settle. Pacing the sitting room, I lasted 20 minutes and rang my poor father in law demanding to bring him back immediately.
Yeah, I was great at accepting help.
Around the time he was 10-11 months the daily grind felt a tiny bit easier. My husband’s birthday was coming up, my mom was in town and offered to take him overnight, which I was able to accept (whoop whoop!) and we got to go to our friend’s house for dinner. I honestly don’t know what our friend’s memory is of my presence but I do remember feeling very uncomfortable in my still overweight body, out of my comfy mammy clothes. Also, I had the glamorous event of pump and dump, with my breasts already filling up, making me uncomfortable. A good few glasses of wine cheered me up though and the evening turned out to be very enjoyable. So fun in fact that my husband and I started toying with the idea of more kids since we were doing such a smashing good job with this kid. A few weeks later I found out I was pregnant again, this time with twins! Family planning on wine is not the best idea...
I believe some kind of survival instinct kicked in because this time around I had my shit together. My diet became exceptional and I started making peace with my stay at home situation. I mean, my old wages wouldn’t near cover childcare for 3. I even started a blog on kid’s interior design since I was working as an interior designer prior to kids, to prove to myself I am the Pinterest mom after all. I got this. Plans were made again, it’s going to be okay.
My twin pregnancy was challenging but I had it under control. What was happening in hindsight was my controlling tendencies coming back in force and since life with a toddler while being pregnant with twins was everything but under control I went back to coping with my old friend; food. This time around at least a super healthy version, but obsessive none-the-less. Everything was about nutrition and if you weren’t drinking organic raw milk, making homemade sourdough and fermenting your own kimchi you were dead to me. A far cry from my first pregnancy food obsession, double chocolate sauce sundaes from McDonalds.
My twin boys were born with a planned and very calm c section thanks to the Gentle Birth course. They were 38 weeks, almost 6 pounds each, fit and healthy boys. So blessed!
Arriving home with the babies and seeing my ‘big ‘18 month old boy for the first time after days was a shock. We had an au-pair and a cleaning lady, and I slowly learned how to ask and accept help. My mom was around a lot and so was my father in law, my husband was hands on as ever. I also had a lactation consultant for breastfeeding so yep, this mama had her shit together… yay! Until the boys were about 5 months and our au-pair’s time with us was coming to an end (we are still friends and I’m forever grateful to you Celina), my mom was going back to the USA where she lives and my husband took on a new job which involved a lot of travelling out of the country, sometimes for weeks at a time. It got impossible real quick. With my maternity money drying up we could no longer afford all the support and I lasted about 30 minutes with no one in the house to help keep all these children alive…and this was the start of an almost 8 month long, very dark period of panic attacks and anxiety.
A plan B was made really quick: we are moving in with my father in law. He is a widower, retired and surely had no other plans for his life other than looking after baby twins and a toddler? Bless him, he said yes and believe me I landed on top of him the next day, leaving my husband to pack up our entire house and get it ready to be rented.
The next year was a blur. I only remember segments. Breastfeeding the twins day and night, watching my toddler climbing and falling and not being able to help him as I was sitting under the babies, having 3 of them in the shower with me, 2 in a bouncy seat and my toddler bouncing them so hard they were both crying… and I’m crying in the shower because it seems impossible to get through the next hour never mind the next day.
I’m going to be real here and tell you I never once considered hurting my children in any way at all, but I often fantasised about getting sick and having to be hospitalised for a few days, or a week? A week of freedom from keeping this many kids alive, fed and healthy. It was all consuming and paired with my nutrition obsession, travelling husband, panic attacks and anxiety it’s safe to say I was a fun person to be around. But again, you would never have known any of this looking at my social media or even meeting me in real life. I got complimented for being a supermom often because I breastfed twins and cooked meals from scratch. However, I felt anything but.
Okay I’m going to fast forward to today or we will be here forever, and I can tell you with honesty it is all okay now. My boys are 5,5,6 and I'm biased of course but they are the best little feckers around.
How did I get here? Well I learned the hard way about the importance of self-care and how modern parenting is bullshit. They say it takes a village and they say it because it’s true.
If I could go back, I would tell myself to TAKE ALL THE HELP you can get and are offered. Get a cleaner once a month, once a week or every day if possible. Childminder? Bring it on! even if it’s only for a couple of hours a week. Anyone who wants to hold the baby should hold the baby or babies. And the neighbour who offered to walk the double buggy as her exercise so I can rest…and I said no? Oh man, I’m sorry I didn’t know any better! I can’t turn back time obviously but if you are reading this and its not too late for you, please take all the help woman and then take more help after it!
And my second ‘if I could go back’ thingy is fitness. I tell you, what actually saved me was fitness. Namely finding Kayla Itsines’s Instagram page during a late-night zombie scrolling in self-hate thinking “why does everyone else have it together, looking good and feeling happy but me?” type of social media consumption session. Her caption stopped me in my tracks. Something about a ‘bbgcommunity’ and ‘bbgmums’...I clicked on the bbgmoms hashtag and without exaggeration my perspective on life shifted in the next few hours. While clicking into about 30 different “bbmoms” profiles and seeing how fitness transformed their physical and even more importantly their mental health. This was almost 2 years ago. Fitness and exercise are now the foundation of my wellbeing and have spilled into all areas of my life. I have found myself again. Beyond losing the weight and toning up, my mental health is in ship-shape condition. Self-belief, self-confidence and positive self-talk are my jam! I train 3-4 days a week and power-walk the other days. Carving out time by getting up at 5.30am to make it to the gym before the day starts for the rest of my family. Time that is for me and only for me. To prove to myself every single day, that I got this, I am enough and to get my endorphin fix.
My whole entire life makes sense because of my three boys but I don’t live my whole entire life for them only.
So, this is the end of my story. I would love to hear from you mamas here or get in touch with me on any of my Insta pages. Cause girls...for sure..ain’t no hood like motherhood!
Words and images by Dora Hurley
Dora is a photography student from Hungary, and has been living in Ireland since 2007.