I have two healthy, happy little boys who were both born early, one at 34 weeks and the other at a whopping 29 weeks, and after each of them I experienced the crippling self loathing that was post natal depression.
My issues started in early pregnancy. Far from being a glowing picture of health, I was in fact a shattered nauseous lump who could barely waddle due to PGP, not exactly how I had pictured it. With my first pregnancy I found it hard to look forward to the prospect of a baby when each day felt like an uphill struggle I was barely surviving so when I started bleeding at 34 weeks and was told the baby would be coming early, my initial thought was one of relief. It didn't last long. The reality of what I would be facing with a premature baby soon outweighed the now seemingly trivial prospect of another few weeks with the relentless 'morning' sickness. But of course nature did not take into account my feelings on the matter and my first son was born 6 weeks early, weighing just 4lb, 15oz. He spent only 10 days in the neonatal unit which, I have since come to realise, was a short and uneventful stay indeed; however, for a first time Mum it was a brutal introduction into the world of parenting.
My first cuddle with my new son was more than 24 hours after his birth and was in a room full of beeping machines monitoring his progress. Not quite the bonding experience I had hoped for. His first feed was from a tube down his throat (with formula due to my milk having yet to come in) and his first few days of life were full of prodding doctors and painful needles. Don't get me wrong, I am eternally grateful to the 'prodding' doctors and midwives, they helped keep my son alive, but my overwhelming emotion was one of intense guilt and I have never been able to shake off that black cloak of self loathing since. I believed the suffering my poor baby experienced in his first few days was my fault. He should have still been safe inside me, and maybe if I'd been more careful, more grateful for my pregnancy instead of lamenting the woes of morning sickness, he still would be. My first job as a mother and I had already failed.
And the roller coaster of emotions only began there. After 10 days of asking permission to hold my baby, living on someone else's schedule and attempting to breastfeed in a room full of people, we were finally allowed home. I was convinced our troubles were over but in fact they had just begun. After 8 weeks of quite literally no sleep and a baby feeding and puking around the clock, he was finally diagnosed with reflux. One packet of infant Gaviscon later and he was a different child but by then the damage was done. My milk dried up due to poor feeding and I made the reluctant decision to stop breast feeding. I had no support from a health visitor apart from a weekly clinic where they were more interested in form filling than the person stood in front of them. If they had looked up from the forms for more than a few minutes they would have seen a broken, beaten young woman who felt like she was completely out of her depth and failing spectacularly at the most important task of her life. I completed health assessment forms showing I was 'dangerously unhappy' but they were brushed off as bad days and I was sent home, back to my self made hell to continue failing. I couldn't believe it. I had always been quite academic, never failed at anything I put my mind to, and yet, the most essential task I was ever to undertake was getting the better of me, overwhelming me and basically kicking the shit out of me on a daily basis. The role a woman was quite literally designed to fulfil, and I couldn't do it. What was WRONG with me?
I became a complete recluse, convinced if I stepped out in public people would immediately see the extent of my failure and judge me accordingly. I was most certainly not enjoying motherhood and I beat myself up for that too. Some women would kill to be in your position, I told myself, how can you be so ungrateful? But how can you enjoy something when you believe with an overwhelmingly intense conviction that you are no good at it? And so I pretended. I said the words, I acted the part and I told everyone I was fine. Until the night that I snapped, placing my baby, as gently as I was able in my hysterical state, into my husbands arms and running screaming for the door. I wailed down the stairs like a demented banshee and dissolved in heaving sobs on my living room floor. I think that was the first time I really knew something was wrong. It wasn't just baby blues, it wasn't just sleep deprivation, something was actually wrong. My desire to jump in the car, drive away and never come back, my thoughts of stepping in front of a bus or that my child would be better off without me, they weren't normal. My inability to accept the readily offered help from my family and friends was born of fear that it would be proof I could not cope. I needed to realise accepting help was not another sign of my failure but instead a ladder to help me from the deep dark hole I had dug for myself.
So I began to talk, mainly to a therapist, who helped me to see how unkind I was being to myself. She reminded me that, despite the fact I had been dangling in the edge of sanity, I had still taken care of my child. I had bathed him, sung to him, fed him, cuddled him and loved him as best I could. Despite my belief he had no reason to love me, despite taking so long to bond, despite having none of the warm fuzzy mummy love, I had still done it all. And THAT was true love. It was like a ray of sunshine broke across my mind, like I finally had proof I wasn't as shit as I thought, and so my struggle to break free of the swamp that was PND began.
Fast forward two years and I was pregnant again with my second child, convinced this time would be different. I was no longer the clueless child, I was supermum and this time I would ace it. So when my waters broke at 25 weeks, my delicately built tower of hope came crashing down. I held on to my tiny baby for four weeks before he got impatient and finally burst into the world. Baby boy number two was born ten weeks early weighing only 3lb, less than a bag of sugar.
The neonatal unit was a familiar place this time around but we were faced with the prospect of a far longer stay and the juggling of a three-year-old to boot. My emotions were all over the place. I felt bitter, oh so bitter, that I would never experience a 'normal' birth or get to hold my squalling baby immediately after it was done. As it was, when he came out crying that was relief enough for us before he was whisked away. I felt monumentally sorry for myself, and the poisonous envy I felt at seeing a blissfully ignorant pregnant woman who would never know what this felt like was almost too much to bear. I watched my baby grow from behind a glass window once again and the guilt crept back in, it's insidious hooks took hold in my mind and twisted painfully as I was a spectator is my baby's care.
But we were lucky, so incredibly lucky that our son came through his stay in neonatal unscathed and was released four weeks before his due date. The lack of sleep, lactose intolerance and inevitable reflux followed and once again took its toll on my mental health. I found myself deep in the fog of self doubt, guilt and utter helplessness that created a bubble around me preventing me from feeling anything but misery. I was angry, frustrated and very very tired. But this time I was ready for it. I forced myself to leave the house and I made a couple of wonderful friends I met in the neonatal unit who were traversing the very same mental stepping stones as me. I started a course of anti depressants which took the edge off the emotional roller coaster and allowed me to see the light, only a glimmer some days but it was enough.
So I've battled the PND demon twice and I've survived each time but I truly believe it's the most excruciating pain I've ever felt... And that includes child birth! It has taught me much about myself that I didn't know. I'm stronger than I ever believed and I have come out the other side more patient, empathetic and open minded than I was before. I also have two wonderful boys who came through it with me and for that I am eternally thankful.
So if you are in the midst of your battle, please don't give up. You are tougher that you could imagine! Nobody can do this as well as you and you will come out the other side a better person for your experience. Just put one step in front of the other, keep talking, accept help and just keep going. It will get better, I promise.