Warrior mum touches on the theme of post natal depression and anxiety. If you are worried or concerned about yourself or someone else then please get help. Visit your GP and if you are in a crisis please speak to someone www.findgetgive.com/crisis. You can find resources and materials to support yourself and your child around mental health on our parent/carer page: www.findgetgive.com/parents-carers
As my anxiety spiraled out of control, food became something I could control…
Big flashing warning signs
When I was pregnant, I had heard of PND but really not given it any thought at all. Like most people I knew the typical associations: mother not bonding with baby, not being able to cope with sudden change in lifestyle etc. etc. But that would never be me, because I SO desperately wanted to be a mummy, I’d never suffered from depression before and having a baby would make me happier than anything in the world. Having struggled through PCOS, a miscarriage, acupuncture, fertility boosting diet plans and peeing on many, many sticks (I could write a whole other blog on trying for a baby) my husband and I were ecstatic to be bringing our little person into the world, and I was determined to be the best mum ever. My point being, I could never have anticipated that I would suffer from PND; and neither did anybody else.
At 8 months pregnant, hubby and I sat together filling out the questionnaire at the Health visitors office; at the time we joked at the bizarre intimacy of the questions – it felt like we were being screened for our suitability as parents:
Do you own your home? Yes
Financially stable? Yes
Close relationship with family? Yes
Do you smoke / do drugs? No
Does anyone in your family? No
Position baby was conceived in? (Ok – I made that one up!)
…but we sat there smugly knowing that we were perfectly prepared to create and support a little family. “Any concerns about caring for baby?” The health visitor asked me, “none” I smiled. “Any anxiety?” I paused, hubby glanced at me, “yes” I admitted. I had been anxious throughout my pregnancy. I’d had a sibling stillborn when I was young, and we were devastated by miscarriage the first time I fell pregnant, so anxiety in the beginning seemed somewhat understandable. We did the classic ‘not telling anyone until after the first trimester scan’. I spent those first 3 months googling everything that could go wrong, utterly convinced I was going to lose this one too. Each day felt like a year; we paid privately for blood tests and 2 reassurance scans during the first trimester but I told myself once we got the all clear at the 12 weeks scan I would feel less anxious. Instead I grew more anxious with each passing milestone. I became obsessed with researching the causes of miscarriage, stillbirth, premature birth so that I could mitigate the risks as much as possible.
Working as a Teaching assistant with primary children I became terrified of all the weird and wonderful illnesses that kids frequent that could do harm to my unborn baby; I paid for private blood tests in London to check my immunity to various diseases. I felt like I was working in a petri-dish, and on more than one occasion I’d get into my car at the end of my working day and burst into tears – a sudden release of the pent up anxiety I’d carried all day. I told myself it was the pregnancy hormones.
As my anxiety spiralled out of control, food became something I could control. Pregnant women are advised not to eat certain ‘high risk’ foods but I took it to the extreme, to the point where I couldn’t eat out at a restaurant, rejected all dinner invitations and eventually could only eat foods that I had prepared myself; and I prepared it meticulously. These obsessive behaviours should have been great big, flashing warning signs, but despite the limiting affect on my social and culinary lifestyle, to the outside world I blossomed like any other excited pregnant lady. I convinced myself and my husband that I would feel better once I reached the 20 week scan … once the baby was considered ‘viable’… once I reached the third trimester; and I kept moving the goal posts like this.
“I’ll feel fine once the baby is born” I assured the health visitor. I truly believed this.
Though I was not yet suffering depression, I’m talking about this backstory for several reasons:
- If I had taken better care of my mental health during my pregnancy and sought help for my anxiety before my son was born, perhaps things wouldn’t have been so bad – perhaps I could have even avoided PND altogether. If you are reading this as a pregnant lady and relate to anything I’ve written, have a little think about that …
- To re-iterate that PND can strike anyone. You don’t have to have a history of mental illness or external pressures. Based on the assessment criteria, I was very low risk.
- Without getting too ‘science-y’ about it, there are two forms of depression, clinical and circumstantial. They can be interlinked but not always; circumstantial is the more understood – i.e grief or extreme shock can lead to depression. It’s more understood because we can sympathise with the cause – there is a tangible reason for why this person feels and behaves this way. Clinical depression is less understood – it is a chemical or hormonal imbalance that affects a persons perception of the world around them and their behaviour. This is what I suffered, and the reason it is so common postnatally is actually not the big change in lifestyle (though this can be a contributing factor) it is because nothing on earth throws your hormones and chemical balance out of whack quite like growing and producing another human. It is an invisible illness that causes great suffering and confusion, we end up mistaking illness for weakness, particularly when circumstances are in fact ‘perfect’; this leads to the particularly unhelpful feeling ‘guilt’ – more on that later.
An overdue baby, borderline gestational diabetes and contradictory wellbeing scans saw my anxiety reach fever pitch in the final week of my pregnancy. The onset of labour came as a welcome relief – I had no fear and no reservations about the pain, I felt the most relaxed I had felt in 9 months, each contraction brought me one step closer to meeting my little boy and I could put all the fear and anxiety behind me. Cradled by my husband, I held our beautiful, healthy son in my arms. The rush of unconditional love, the sense of empowerment was genuine; and in that perfect, blissful moment I couldn’t have been further from depressed. For my post-labour breakfast I demolished a delicious Costa bacon butty and chocolate creamy cooler – the first food not prepared by myself in about 7 months.
I rode that light fluffy cloud of love and perfection for a few days, introduced our baby to his immediate family and relished every little newborn coo and gurgle. But it didn’t take long for the anxiety to start creeping back in. I had found it stressful enough to protect my baby when he was inside me – now he was out, in the big wide world – how on earth was I going to protect him now? Food was no longer an issue – I delighted in the fact that any of the food-borne nasties I was terrified of in my pregnancy couldn’t pass through my breastmilk to baby. Instead, my anxiety found a new crux, hygiene and cleanliness. Being brand new to the world, a newborn has a very fragile immune system, so a heightened level of cleanliness and frequent hand washing is highly recommended by professionals, but like in pregnancy – I took this advice to the extreme. I practically carried soap, antibacterial wipes, Dettol and hand sanitizer on a utility belt. My new ‘goal post’ was – ‘when baby is 6 weeks old’; according to my compulsive research this was when he was less likely to die from common infections and viruses.
Anything that came into contact with my baby in those first few weeks was subject to my militant sterilisation standards, but ‘things’ we’re not the problem, I could control ‘things’; the problem was people. People love a baby – from family to strangers everyone wanted a poke and a squidge of my perfect little bundle. I’m sure they all had the best of intentions but to me they were like zombies, bacteria spreading, virus harbouring zombies clamouring on the periphery of my safe maternal bubble. And I was like a tigress, constantly coiled and sprung ready to savage anyone who posed a threat to my cub.
To be continued…
Warrior mum is part of a longer format series written by a first time mum about her experience during pregnancy and as a young mum.
For more information about Postnatal depression, Find Get Give recommends visititing the NHS Choices website and visiting your GP.