My name is Emma, I am first and foremost mum to Harry, three years and Imogen, eight months. I am on maternity leave, but soon after Imogen turns one I will return to work part time as an occupational therapist in neurological rehabilitation. I think that being a parent is the best but hardest job in the world. We will all at one time or another experience different challenges in parenthood, and for some, these may include mental or emotional difficulties. I’m hoping that my story will help you to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, that you can get through the unthinkable, and that good can even come out of it.
My journey into motherhood didn’t exactly start off smoothly. I unexpectedly fell pregnant with Harry about four months after getting married to my husband, James. Although being a mum was what I had always wanted to do, the surprise took me a while to adjust to, especially as I like to feel in control! As my pregnancy progressed, although I was excited and felt extremely maternal, my emotions and behaviour became more unpredictable. I had experienced depression and anxiety during my teens and at university, largely related to unresolved experiences and emotions from my past. However, my behaviour and emotions were becoming far more extreme. I would feel desperately low, anxious and over-react to things. In particular, I became paranoid that others were thinking that I looked too young to be pregnant, shouldn’t be pregnant and looked ridiculous. I was aware that my thoughts, feelings and behaviours weren’t ‘normal’, but did not want anyone else to know, and unfairly used emotional manipulation to convince my husband to keep quiet. It wasn’t until near the end of my pregnancy that he persuaded me to talk to my midwife, who referred me to the perinatal team. However, despite all efforts, I went on to have Harry without the professional support that I needed.
I think that this was a factor in me becoming unwell with puerperal psychosis about two weeks after Harry was born. I started questioning whether Harry was really my baby, saying things like, ‘we were both small baby’s and Harry was quite a big baby, can he really be my baby?’ Looking back now this sounds daft, but at the time thoughts like this escalated until I reached the point where I really believed that Harry wasn’t my baby. I even rang out of hours social services asking them to come and take away this baby that was in my house but wasn’t mine, at which point the poor person on the other end of the phone said, ‘is there anyone else there that we can speak to?!’ Speaking with my husband triggered the intervention that I required. It was a battle for the professionals to engage me as my reality was simple and logical, ‘this baby isn’t my baby, so take him away and find my baby then everything will be ok’. It was the consultant psychiatrist from the perinatal team who demonstrated a genuine interest in my reality, listened to me and then got me to a place where we could agree to disagree. I narrowly avoided being sectioned and over the next two weeks was visited daily by a nurse from the crisis team who gave me a strong dose of an anti-psychotic which, although made me feel like a zombie, gradually lifted me from the psychosis. I started questioning my wrong beliefs and finally got to a point where I realised that in fact Harry was my baby. Although out of the psychosis, I was left struggling with depression and anxiety and lost all confidence as a mum. Over the course of a year, a nurse from the perinatal team worked with me on my mental and emotional health, which involved looking into my past and coming to terms with events and emotions, some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) interventions, anxiety management and mindfulness techniques. A nursery nurse also worked with me on building my confidence as a mum and ensuring that my bond with Harry would not suffer through practical advice and tips, baby massage, and videos of play to look at our interaction, showing me just how bonded we were when I doubted myself as a good mum. Although I didn’t understand why all of this happened at the time, as the following year progressed, I was able to come to terms with it and see some benefits. I had the opportunity to sort through my past experiences and emotions, developed greater insight and learnt techniques and coping strategies that would continue to help me in the future when facing difficulties, as we all do in life. I also feel that my relationship with Harry became stronger as a result.
About a year and a half later my husband and I felt ready to add to our family, and ensuring that all of the professional support was in place I became pregnant with Imogen. Throughout my pregnancy I received input from the perinatal team, and met with the mental health midwife to complete a clear birth plan. Apart from the initial morning (or should I say all day sickness), my pregnancy went smoothly. My birth surprisingly went to plan and I had skin-to-skin contact and breastfed Imogen straight after birth, just as I had wanted. The next two and a half weeks were amazing and I was on cloud nine, but thinking about it now, there was a potential sign that things could deteriorate. I have always been pro breastfeeding but also understand that it may not always be best for mum and baby. I know that you are just as good a mum, and can have just as close a bond if breastfeeding doesn’t work. However, after I had Harry I became very obsessive about it. By some miracle I continued feeding Harry even when I was in the midst of the psychosis, as I believed that a baby should be fed and even if he wasn’t my baby I should feed him. I therefore did so begrudgingly, not looking at him and handing him to someone else once finished. I continued to feed harry for about six months until dietary complications forced me to stop. Feeding Harry was largely difficult due to severe reflux, later diagnosed dietary problems and recurrent mastitis. Looking back, battling on with the feeding in this way at times hindered my recovery. My irrational thoughts that at times he was rejecting me and that I was nothing to him were reinforced when hours were spent sat on the sofa having great difficulty latching him on, having him scream and wriggle, endlessly struggling to feed and failing to put on weight. During my pregnancy with Imogen, my husband and my perinatal nurse advised me to have the attitude that, ‘if breastfeeding works for both myself and my baby then great, if not then it’s not the end of the world, it will not mean that I am a bad mum or affect bonding’. This is an attitude that in my right mind I feel is very healthy and should be adopted by all expectant/new mothers and health professionals! Whilst in hospital Imogen had jaundice and the midwives advised to top up her feeds with formula. I refused, wanting her to remain exclusively breastfed; looking back I think that this was an initial sign of my mental/emotional vulnerability in this area.
I found it tough feeding Imogen as it only worked for us properly on one side and I soon became unwell with mastitis. Imogen would feed little and often and the night before I was admitted to the mother and baby unit I was up every half an hour. The next day I was beyond tired but convinced myself and told my husband that everything would be okay, Harry was at nursery that day and I would just sleep when she slept…easier said than done! I think that because I was so exhausted, feeling mentally and emotionally vulnerable and was realising that breastfeeding wasn’t going the way that I hoped it would, that I had recurrent panic attacks. I was admitted to the mother and baby unit with post-natal depression and anxiety. After a couple of days I discharged myself as I didn’t want to accept that I was ill and that things were going wrong again, I just wanted everything to be ‘normal’. However, despite trying to convince myself that everything would be okay, it wasn’t, and an overdose saw me back on the unit. I was also sectioned for a brief period following another attempt at leaving hospital which also, unsurprisingly, did not go to plan. Back on the unit I felt trapped in a dark place, unable to see light at the end of the tunnel and feeling suicidal. I spent the majority of time sleeping and barely ate, getting up and dressed felt like an impossible task. I continued to persevere with the feeding, but stopped when Imogen was about six weeks old due to my milk drying up, which can happen with post-natal depression. In my head this was the final straw; I had failed, I was a bad mum, I was nothing and there was no point in me being around anymore. It was finally after giving into the fact that I was unwell instead of fighting it, and letting in the professionals, engaging with groups and seeing the clinical psychologist that I began to recover. It was hard work, but by the time I was discharged from the unit when Imogen was almost three months old I had turned a corner.
On the whole now I am doing well. I am blessed with a supportive husband and close friends, many with children of their own, who have stayed with me through difficult times and who I see regularly. I am still receiving input from the perinatal team to ensure my recovery continues in the right direction. Thankfully my relationship with Harry did not suffer through this experience, he came to visit me in the unit and we were open and honest with him, at a level that he could understand, which also gave the opportunity to model emotions and openness with him. Although I do feel angry at times that I fell ill again, I avoided a full blown psychosis and it has been shorter lived, thanks to the support of the perinatal team and the skills and coping techniques that I learnt first time around. I feel extremely blessed to have two beautiful, happy, healthy children and to have such a close relationship with both of them. You don’t get the beautiful rose without the muck and mess of the soil, and I believe that beauty has and can continue to grow from the pain and turmoil of my past experiences. I believe that they have and will make me a better mummy; I am passionate about bringing up my children in an environment in which they feel safe, secure, unconditionally loved and validated – where they can be themselves and express their emotions without fear of being ridiculed or pushed away. Furthermore I am passionate about raising awareness and supporting other mums and families, as being a parent is, as I have said, the hardest but best job. For me, I need to be aware that I may always be that little bit more vulnerable in times of stress, change or uncertainty, but through overcoming past hardships I have learnt the skills and techniques to cope with these times. Furthermore, I know the importance of seeking support and help straight away, instead of burying feelings and pretending that everything is okay. With the right support and input and by being honest with yourself and others, you too can overcome what may feel like the impossible.