Mental Health, Pregnancy and Motherhood

Mental Health, Pregnancy and Motherhood

With my daughter’s first birthday rapidly approaching, I’ve become quite nostalgic for the end of pregnancy and the beginning of her little life; the smell of new baby-gros and vests fresh from their packet suddenly catapults me back to my hospital room on the antenatal ward where I lived for 3 weeks before her birth.

I look at women in their final bloom of pregnancy and wish it was me (which is an enormous surprise to me, since I absolutely hated being pregnant.) I had a hospital appointment a few weeks ago and walking past Costa Coffee at the entrance made me wistful for what now feels like a dreamlike state, the bubble that envelops you when your baby first arrives.

Reflecting more rationally, without my rose-tinted spectacles on, there was so much I was unprepared for, and whilst it was in many ways a magical time, there was so much that no one prepared me for (both bad and good) and I really wish they had: 

1. Pregnancy might not be easy, and that’s ok.

Some women bloom in pregnancy and they love every moment. But, some women fade in pregnancy and struggle all the way through. There’s a tendency to romanticise pregnancy – I even do it myself – but for me, honestly, it was the toughest 8 months of my life. I found pregnancy physically and mentally exhausting from the get-go. Coming off long-term psychiatric medication made my first trimester (also plagued by hyperemesis) mentally unbearable. I struggled with anxiety and depression throughout pregnancy, coupled with horror at my changing body; I also had extreme heartburn and anaemia in my third trimester. In all, there was probably a window of about 4 weeks where I didn’t feel rotten – there were times I wished it would just end, and I didn’t care how. Obviously, with my retrospectacles on (and medication properly resumed) I’m horrified I thought that. But it happens. There is a myth that pregnancy is easy because it’s natural and that’s simply not true.

2. Pregnancy can seem never ending in the final few weeks before birth

Well-meaning friends with babies will tell you to enjoy your final few weeks of ‘freedom’ but nothing will make you feel better until someone puts your baby in your arms. Allow yourself to feel frustrated, but also – at the risk of sounding like a well meaning friend – the time that seems like it expands without bounds will get its own back on you when you’re staring down the barrel of the first birthday and you wonder ‘where on earth did time go?’ If it helps, give yourself little things to do every day to keep yourself occupied. I finished work at 31 weeks, and my waters broke just before 33 weeks. Those 2 weeks were hell (as were the 3 before they actually delivered my baby), and as someone who suffers with anxiety, I found it torturous – seriously, there were days when my midwife fielded two or three different worries a day from me. You wait for months to begin maternity leave, but as soon as it starts, it can feel like you’ve been waiting for years – but stop, breathe and look after yourself. I’m not going to tell you to enjoy your final weeks of freedom, but do try not to wish it away – it, honestly, arrives faster than you could know.

3. Nothing goes quite to (your birth) plan

I, smugly, kept my birth plan short and thought it couldn’t possibly cause any hiccups.  I hadn’t been ‘one of those mothers’ who writes 3 pages of detailed instructions – instead I just listed what I wanted and didn’t want. I wanted a water birth and was prepared to take any pain relief offered; the only thing I didn’t want was a c-section. Of course, my baby had different ideas. Stubbornly in breech, with a rhesus negative mother and a frighteningly early water leakage meant that the only option was to give birth by elective c-section 4 weeks early. I wasn’t even able to say I’d had an emergency section after trying for hours. Nope, my baby was being delivered in the most surgical, planned and clinical way possible. Which brings me to point 4…

4. Any kind of delivery is ‘giving birth’

I recently read an article that I wish I’d read before giving birth, which basically said that the definition of giving birth is a baby exiting the mother’s body. Vaginal, Forceps, Ventouse, natural, emergency or planned Caesarean – all of these are giving birth. Not one is ‘better’ than the other. I spent the first few months of being a mother apologising for not knowing what childbirth felt like as I’d been numbed from the chest down. I was the only one of my antenatal group to have a c-section and I felt like I wasn’t really part of the club. Now, I look back and think this is ridiculous: I gave birth just as any of my friends did. Every type of birth is valid and every type of birthing experience has its own challenges. In many ways I’m thankful that I didn’t have to push my baby through my very narrow hips, but that by no means makes me ‘too posh to push’ (and so what, even if I was). Your delivery will be the best delivery for you and your baby. You don’t have to justify yourself to anyone. You gave birth. That’s a miracle. Own it and be proud!

5. Don’t expect to feel a certain way when your baby is first given to you

There is a commonly held view that you will feel an almighty rush of love when your baby is handed to you for the very first time. Whilst this might happen, it’s just as likely not to.  You’ve just been through the trauma of of birth and suddenly a small being is placed upon you – a being whom apart from their kicks, you don’t know. I remember lots of quotations doing the rounds on Facebook – all holding up this first moment as being unforgettable and life-changing. For lots of people I’m sure it is, but please don’t believe that just because you don’t feel like that there is something wrong with you. I for one can’t really remember the first moments. In fact I don’t really remember an awful lot about the first week – I think I went into shock at the same time as my spinal block was administered, and only remember ‘flashes’ of the surgery and the first moments with my baby – and most of those are because of the photos taken. There are such high expectations of that ‘rush of love’ that it can be incredibly hard when that doesn’t hit you. But take your time; it may take hours, days, weeks or even months, but whilst you’re learning to look after your little one, you are building the foundations for a more enduring love than that very first rush, whether or not you experienced it in that very first moment.

6. It takes time to bond, it takes time to become a mother

Immediate ‘rush of love’ to one side, it takes time to bond properly with your baby. We are programmed to care for our babies as best we can in those first few days. But looking back, I felt that I was going through the motions. I was doing things on auto-pilot. Waking her every 3 hours to feed (because that’s what I was told to do), changing her, cuddling her and caring for her. Very quickly, I learnt to ‘read’ my baby but that didn’t mean I felt close to her. I felt protective, of course, but I didn’t feel that connection that everyone had told me I would feel. Even my mum kept saying “Now you know how I feel about you” – but I just didn’t. But, a year later, I do. With every day that passed, as I behaved like a mother, I came to feel like a mother. But I was so, so anxious that I wasn’t bonding – that I was simply going through the motions. I was overwhelmed by this enormous responsibility and didn’t feel cut out for it. How could I possibly give my heart to something that I didn’t know? How could I ever be myself again, life as I knew it had totally been pulled out from underneath me? I barely felt anything for the first month, but now, looking back over the last 12 months, I can honestly say that my bond has grown with each passing day – that my unknown, terrifying bundle of responsibility has become a real personality whom I love with all my heart. Give yourself time.

7.  Don’t be afraid to be honest about your feelings in the first few weeks

It’s really easy to let the media, family and friends tell you how you should be feeling – and even for them to recognise those feelings in you when you haven’t felt them at all yourself. Like I said before, it took time for me to feel that rush of love – to bond with my baby. However, I know that I sent out texts hours after birth to say how much I was ‘already in love.’ The reality, of course, was that I was frightened, overwhelmed and drowning in responsibility; there was no room for the love that I had been told I should feel. Even now family tell me that I took to motherhood with incredible ease. All I can say to that is that I must be a very good actor. About a week after delivery, whilst I was still in the post-natal ward, I finally connected with the whole experience and my whole world came tumbling down. Even to this day, I can’t tell friends and family how desperate I felt – my whole world had just been enhanced by my beautiful daughter – how could I be feeling bleak? But I was. And I am eternally grateful for the midwives who supported me through that and made sure I was seen by the perinatal psychiatrist and had a short admission to the mother and baby unit to help me get my mood under control. But I still feel like a failure for that, and I shouldn’t. New motherhood is terrifying and I guess the best way to navigate through those first (often fearful) days is to show yourself compassion. Let yourself feel and please, please talk to someone. Midwives are amazing  – let them support you!

8. Take no notice of unhelpful media

My baby was 4 weeks early, so once she was born, I was still receiving emails from baby blogs and websites, telling me about how I should be feeling and what my baby looked like at this stage of pregnancy; giving me tips on how to prepare for impending birth and motherhood. With a really difficult pregnancy behind me, and a birth that differed wildly from my plans, all these emails did was highlight how empty I felt and like I’d somehow wasted my pregnancy or not done it well enough. Each ping of my phone was another reminder of how I’d got it wrong and was extremely upsetting.  My experience of pregnancy and early motherhood was so far from their idealised picture, it felt like a final insult. It took a nurse in the mother and baby unit encouraging me to unsubscribe from these emails for me to start to feel better about my experience. With a little distance, I was able to stop comparing myself to others and begin to enjoy aspects of motherhood, rather than beating myself up all the time.  

9. Baby groups can be helpful. They can also be unhelpful.

Early motherhood can feel exhilarating, but it can also seem incredibly lonely and overwhelming. Once your partner’s leave is over, you’re on your own with this tiny being who’s reliant on you for life itself. Antenatal and post-natal groups can provide you with an absolutely vital network of friends and babies with whom to spend your maternity leave. As someone who can find social situations stressful, I nevertheless became part of one such group – and they were, at times, my lifeline. We shared our anxieties, our issues with parents or partners, and our worries and joys about our babies. But you’re thrust together, with often only the babies in common, and as groups of women often do – things can get competitive. Don’t isolate yourself, but don’t let group dynamics make you feel like you’re not as good a mother as anyone else. I am sure that I’ve made friends for life, but I also know that sometimes it’s about taking the baby-talk with a pinch of salt. My late-crawling/walking daughter is the oldest of my antenatal group, but the least physically advanced. I’ve agonized over this, and felt pointed remarks from friends. But, in the end, our babies are all unique and will develop at their own pace – comparison can be incredibly disheartening, so my advice is to stay out of these kind of conversations if at all possible, I promise, it will make you feel much calmer.

10. Join The Motherload® and share the love

I was added to the Motherload about four or five months after becoming a mother. Oh, how I wish I’d been added earlier: realism, honesty and a genuinely non-judgemental bunch of mothers (and the occasional father) who, honestly, have kept me laughing on days when I’ve felt like crying. Media can be extremely unhelpful, but without doubt, The Motherload® has been nothing but enlightening and spirit-lifting. Pay it forwards and invite mummy friends you suspect of being in need of a little light-relief and support!

About Hannah

Hannah is a thirty-something mummy since October 2015. Currently trying to navigate through the rewards and challenges of balancing motherhood with full-time primary teaching whilst maintaining an acceptable level of sanity. She loves ballet, books and bedtime but not necessarily in that order!  She lives somewhere in the East-Midlands with her 2 small white dogs, man-child and (as coined by my sister in-law) ‘The Baby India’.

Instagram: @ballerinahannah

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