In 1915, Margaret Llewelyn Davies edited and published ‘Maternity – Letters From Working Women’. This moving collection of letters from members of the Women’s Co-operative Guild details their experiences of pregnancy, miscarriage, childbirth, stillbirth, infant death and parenting.
At the end of every letter was listed the family salary and the number of miscarriages, stillbirths and live children they had.
These incredible letters enable us to hear the voices of working women speaking to us across time, describing their experience of motherhood (and often near-constant pregnancy) in a working-class family and without access to free healthcare. Anyone who has ever been pregnant will find something to relate to here.
The letters drew attention to the high level of perinatal loss and the need for better healthcare and financial support for parents. Many mothers had to do heavy and exhausting work throughout their pregnancies and return to work soon afterwards. They and their children’s health suffered as a result.
I’m writing this to make sense of how I felt yesterday. I’m sharing it because I’m sure I’m not alone. Parenting is really hard and parenting with mental health problems can sometimes be a real struggle.
I became a mum in October 2017. In some ways, it’s made me more resilient. But those dark and anxious thoughts have always found my most vulnerable spot to poke away at – and now that’s my gorgeous, loveable, wakeful, clingy, frustrating, exhausting, friendly, kind, smiley little boy.
Uncertainty, blame, guilt and comparison
When I’m really struggling with my mental health, all those normal parenting concerns are magnified. I lose all perspective. I question everything. I blame myself for his tears and worries. I get frustrated that he rarely wants to get down from my arms and play, when there’s so much I want to explore with him. Then I feel so guilty for wanting him to be even the tiniest bit different. He’ll have enough of that in his lifetime without me doing it too.
I compare myself to others and find myself wanting. I overthink his naps, the amount he breastfeeds, the time he sleeps, the little he eats. I wish I could have his Dad’s strength and calm.
I struggle to find the energy to bounce him through the day. On the very worst days, I hold him with tears in my eyes, unable to see my way through the next ten minutes of parenting tasks, let alone the hours until bedtime. And then I feel pathetic – and guilty that he saw me cry.
My heart feels raw when I think of him. I hurt for the pain he’s bound to feel, for the upsets and the bullies and the difficulties I can’t protect him from. And when my defences are low, I get horrible intrusive images of him falling, or drowning, or burning. Images that send my adrenalin soaring and leave me shaky and tight chested.
Fundamental emotions, twisted and distorted
It doesn’t get to this point too often, thank goodness. Usually, I have more perspective. I’m more resilient, patient and practical. But when I do spiral down, it’s faster and harder than before.
Those fundamental mum emotions of intense love, protectiveness and wanting the best for him get twisted and distorted into guilt, sadness, fear and negativity about myself and my ability to cope. And these emotions are so strong, so deeply fundamental, that their distortions are powerful and destructive too.
Strength and love
The love I feel for Oaklan is incredible. When I’m not with him, I feel as if I’m slightly holding my breath until we are back together (even if I’m also desperate for a break!). These feelings will never fade. I never want them too. Perhaps part of being a parent is accepting that I’ll always be dealing with deeper and stronger emotions than ever before. But I hope that by starting to recognise how they interact with my mental health, I can stop letting the worries and fears take over too easily.
We’re never alone
Almost as soon as I posted on Twitter I got this response from another mum. I knew it wasn’t just me but sometimes it feels very lonely in my head. It’s good to be reminded that we’re not alone.
It struck a chord because I was feeling uncomfortably aware of the disconnect between how my life looked on my Instagram account and how it really felt. I do live with my husband in a house I love, in the gorgeous Chew Valley. We have a healthly and happy one-year-old boy Oaklan and an energetic collie Dr Watson. That much is true.
I’m very aware of how lucky that makes me. Something the article misses out is how a collection of your favourite pictures, shared with people you love, can sometimes help create that sense of perspective during darker times.
He has never been a good sleeper and three hours unbroken sleep was a rare gift. Until six months he wouldn’t nap in a cot at all and until eight months I couldn’t leave him while he slept. He hated being put down or sitting still and needed constant attention and interaction. All of which was manageable until his sleep deteriorated to the extent we’d have regular nights when he would wake every 45 minutes or so. I was surviving on the nap I would get when Al took him for a couple of hours in the morning. Four hours of broken sleep felt like a good night. My own insomnia started to get worse. Al went away for work for eight days and everything broke soon after he got back.
I couldn’t sleep even when I had the opportunity. Bedtime and naptime made me panic. I went to bed with a dry mouth and my heart racing. I felt I had nothing left to give and spent a lot of the day in tears while feeling guilty that my stress and sadness was affecting Oaklan.
Luckily, my family came down to help for a week. While we were away in Cornwall (see the gorgeous beach photos) I had another three or four sleepless nights and panicky days. I spoke to the doctor and upped my medication to 100mg/day (the highest it’s ever been).
Over the next few weeks, our sleep was up and down. The insomnia and bedtime fear was still there. After a bad night I would feel very panicky that the awful sleep times were returning. Although my anxiety slowly reduced I started to feel very low with lots of intrusive suicidal images. I found it hard to feel connected to Oaklan and could only go through the motions of parenthood. At night, I could feel my heart beating hard in my chest as I struggled to sleep.
These feelings are slowly fading now. But it takes time to climb out of the hole. For a while I was coping on a daily basis but my resilience was really low. I struggled to manage when Oaklan was difficult or if something else made the day harder. Then I felt really guilty for relying on other people and pretty useless as a mother.
But nights have got easier to manage. His sleep is improving and Alex can settle him now. My sleep is mending and I’m feeling brighter and calmer. I hope I’m rebuilding that resilience too. Returning to work has also helped. I enjoy the balance of three days writing and four days with Oaklan.
Postnatal mental health support
So that’s the honest story behind some of those lovely pictures. Postnatal mental health problems can affect you much later than you might expect (I think technically the definition is up to a year after birth). It has been really really hard. But I’m incredibly thankful for wonderful friends, supportive family and, of course, Alex. Not everyone has those kinds of brilliant and nourishing relationships to help keep them safe and well. And it’s probably worth adding that a lot of people find supportive communities and friendships on Instagram too. This post by Holly Bourne is a lovely example.
Oaklan came on the 5th October. He’s almost eleven weeks now and things are slowly starting to feel a little easier. I’m still pretty tired – and I’m writing this with him feeding on my lap – so please excuse any typos, half-formed ideas or clumsy phrasing.
I wanted to get down some thoughts about early parenthood and mental health. It’s something I was pretty worried about. I was concerned about the lack of sleep and relentlessness of it, plus not being able to exercise enough and dealing with a very different shaped body.
I was on 50mg of Sertraline throughout my pregnancy (a decision that was definitely the right one for me) and I chose to increase this to 75mg in the first difficult weeks. I think that’s helped. But, despite everything, early parenthood has also highlighted some healthier thinking patterns and approaches.
The achievement of labour and birth
I’d hoped that pregnancy would change my muddled relationship with my body. I’ve heard women say that it helps them see their bodies in a new light and recover from long-term eating problems. This didn’t happen for me. The whole nine months was an uncomfortable struggle with my changing body. I felt trapped and out of control. By 41 weeks I was desperate not to be pregnant. But labour and birth were more empowering. After seven hours of contractions, he came so fast I delivered him myself at home. An hour ago the midwife on the phone had told us I was still in early labour. We were lucky but it’s still an experience I’m proud of. I finally managed to see my body as something special and cut it a bit of slack (at least for the first six weeks or so). Continue reading →