My phone buzzed so much last week, you would be forgiven for thinking I had a vibrator in my bag becoming excited every few minutes. The buzzes indicated the messages from people asking if I knew about the Louis Theroux documentary ‘Mothers on the edge’ which would be highlighting maternal mental illness and the specialist help available from psychiatric Mother and Baby Units (MBU) .
I am a fan of bringing real life stories of mental illness into the open because knowledge is power. My own story was used as the basis for a storyline in EastEnders in 2016, bringing the issue to prime time audiences and most importantly, mums sitting in their living room with a baby on their lap thinking, what have I done, and showing them they are not alone.
Much has been said in the media about the programme. Some have praised the powerful insight while others have said it was disrespectful to the mums who were unwell and treated them like mannequins in a shop window for us to gawp at. I disagree. I think it was a moving and honest insight into something which can affect any mother but is rarely spoken about.
The programme opened with a scene in the nursery of an MBU. A mum was being shown how to massage her baby. All looks normal to the untrained eye but we quickly saw the layers peel off. I saw them fall in a heap as I felt a pang of familiarity race through my heart. The mum touched her son Rupert’s leg , I heard her breathe deeply and her voice shake as Louis asked how she was. It’s her own child’s leg yet she is fearful of stroking it. Imagine that? Fearful of touching your own baby. I didn’t have to imagine it to try to understand it as I experienced that feeling 9 years ago.
9 years ago I gave birth in a hazy bubble of bliss. What followed felt like the bubble had been popped, stood on, crumpled up and chucked in the bin over and over . My joy was cruelly snatched from me as I looked at my baby and instead of seeing his beautiful face gurgling back at me , I saw absolute terror. I felt like I had made the worst mistake of my life in having him and wanted to escape from these feelings however I could. Terrified tears came because of a darkness in my mind that I didn’t want there.
I felt like nature had played a terrible trick on me.
In another scene , Louis meets Catherine. She is attentive to her son , pushing him around in his buggy, looking composed and content , dressing him on her bed. She shows Louis photos of him and her public joyful comments about motherhood on social media and to the outside eye, you would think, why on earth has she be placed under section and in a psychiatric unit ? As Louis and Catherine go for a walk around the unit with her baby, it is a fairly hands off conversation, like one you have with work-mate in the corridor but gently lets us discover more about Catherine’s emotions. She talks of not feeling anything when she hugs her son, how she is consumed with grief for her last child who sadly wasn’t born, how she doesn’t feel she deserves to be his mummy. She then mentions she will likely be spending more time in the unit than originally thought because of something she did the week before and Louis looks startled and mentions how he would never have known she was ill.
I imagine many viewers were sitting at home saying the same.
Catherine had a flawless face, with perfectly applied make up. She was dressed in nice clothes and her hair was brushed and shiny. That was why Louis would have thought she was well – because she looked like she was in control. I found this a really insightful part of the documentary for we talk so much about women being able to conceal their postnatal depression with make up and people don’t delve any further than the layer of foundation on the skin to see what sadness could be under it. Mascara can lift the eyelids that cried a million tears the night before. Lipstick can brighten the words of despair that no one can hear. Louis showed that a simple conversation can be like a dose of medication and often mums are desperate for someone to ask them how they are . We hear later that Catherine goes AWOL from the unit and we are yet again reminded of how the time after a woman gives birth, she is at her most vulnerable.
There was another heart-breaking scene when one of the mums sat on her sofa as her children surrounded her, with Louis on the other chair, and she shut her eyes as if everything around her was just too much. Seeing her like that hit the viewer hard. Alone in her thoughts, thoughts she didn’t want.
Mother and baby units can be wonderful places for they allow mums to be admitted with their babies.
When I was hospitalised, there were only 15 units and we had to move 200 miles to get me admitted to one. Shortly, as the programme stated ,there will be 21 and much of the effort to secure the new units because of experts by experience like myself sharing their stories.
Only so much can be captured in an hour and I think the team did a great job of sensitively capturing the bubbling undertones of maternal mental illness while showcasing how units help mums at their most vulnerable. They discussed how medication, therapy and parenting classes take place while mums are there with their baby to enable recovery to begin in a safe and secure environment. I read one article that said the programme should have been canned in the pre-production phase as there is such meagre public interest in it but I disagree. I would suggest there is a huge public interest in the mental health of women bringing another life into the world.
I am incredibly grateful to the women featured for allowing us into their temporary unwell world. Think of the millions of people who now know what a mother and baby unit is. Think of the millions who now know that behind the smiles of the women who give birth, there may be the fire of fear flaming. Think of the millions who now know to ask how a new mum is .
Think of the millions who now know, as the programme showed at the end, that recovery is possible.