As the Duchess of Cambridge welcomes her third child, she looks the picture of happiness and now the proud mother of three. But as the nation celebrates I can’t help thinking of mothers who have suffered from various forms of maternal mental illness. Expectant mothers who have lost their baby mid-term, or been told that there is something wrong with the foetus. Women who dream of becoming mothers, enduring numerous rounds of IVF, but to no avail. And then there are mothers who face poverty, who can’t make their appointments because they have other children to take care of, and are wondering how to feed them. Mothers who are are isolated and unsupported because their partner has left or is abusive. Then there are mothers classed as illegal immigrants who are not eligible for health care provision and face a precarious pregnancy. I learnt about cases like this when I organised a debate in 2015, hosted by Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, at the House of Lords and met many people working tirelessly to raise awareness about maternal mental illness. The Duchess of Cambridge, instigator of the Heads Together campaign has also spoken about maternal mental illness, admitting that she, too, found motherhood arduous at times. It was sobering of her to reveal this.
One mother I can never forget is Charlotte Bevan, she jumped to her death with her new born. She may have been suffering from post partum psychosis, one in every 1000 women suffer from the condition.
Personally, I feel robbed of the normal maternal feelings many mothers naturally experience. When I had my first scan I stared blankly at the monitor. When I attended my hospital appointments with my obstetrician I was laconic, hardly saying a word. My then psychiatrist told me that the pregnancy hormones would protect me and I would feel more stable, far from it. Prior to falling pregnant in Feb 2010, I had experienced two major psychotic episodes. I was unaware that the mental health of the unborn foetus starts in the womb. When I found out I was having a boy I plummeted into a deep depression, a condition known as acute gender disappointment - I sought immediate help. But I was told I would fall in love with my baby when he was born. Although I had a swift birth, when I held my baby I felt nothing at all. But the nightmare really began the third day after giving birth when I suffered post-partum psychosis and experienced visions to harm my baby. I told the staff immediately. Not allowed home for four weeks, the last two weeks were spent in a mother and baby unit in Brussels and my condition deteriorated. In the end I had to feign recovery in order to be released, but I suffered recurrent visions and episodes thereafter. My condition was exacerbated by breastfeeding because of D-mer, the upsurge in oxytocin created dysphoria in my brain intensifying the visions to harm my baby. The toll on my relationship was devastating, husbands need support too.
The support we received was simply not sufficient. I suffered similar symptoms with my second pregnancy and although I anticipated everything that might happen I faced a battle with the Belgian health authorities trying to get the help I required. As a result I wrote my book Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too, under a pseudonym. There must have been other mothers like me, who were more predisposed to maternal mental illness due to their underlying mental health problems.
My children are now aged seven and four, my mental health has improved after I stopped breastfeeding for five years. I am calmer now, I don’t suffer visions to harm my children, if I am sleep deprived I remain vulnerable to psychosis. I love my children, but motherhood has been tumultuous.
Such was my fear of having a third son that I put myself through five rounds of gut wrenchingly awful IVF to create four embryos using gender selection in Malaysia, to maximise chances of them being female, but there is still room for error. The practice is illegal in the UK. I haven’t done the implantation; the embryos lie languishing, forever suspended in time. My husband doesn’t think I could manage a third, there is the high probability that I could have post partum psychosis again. Is it worth the risk when I have finally come through the other side? I can’t answer this question. I turn 45 this year and as my fertility wanes, I wonder about the fate of my embryos, I ruminate on motherhood and what it means. I know there are other mothers suffering out there, but I just want them to know you are not alone and it does get better with time.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Mind, open Monday to Friday, 9am-6pm on 0300 123 3393
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)
- The Mix is a free support service for people under 25. Call 0808 808 4994 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org