As a mother of two small children the periods when I have been separated from them has been difficult. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 2003 and with a history of psychosis and postpartum psychosis, there have been times when I have insisted that I am voluntarily apart from my children.
Recently I spoke at the House of Lords on 7th June and delivered a parliamentary address at Westminster on 29th July discussing maternal mental health and the impact on the unborn foetus. The mother's mental health impacts on her children not only during the first 1001 critical days, but also beyond. Postpartum psychosis, in my instance, involved hideous visions, where a voice in my head was telling me to harm my babies and myself. Although I understood that these were mental aberrations and ignored them, having to persistently deal with them took their toll. I also suffered prenatal depression during both pregnancies from the third month onwards, feeling very little emotion inside, and experienced suicidal thoughts. Again I tried to ignore these morbid phases, knowing because of my mental health diagnosis that I might be vulnerable to such ideation. When I was pregnant with my second child, unable to cope with my mood disorder I requested that my first born go to Sweden to stay with his grandparents, knowing he would be safe and protected from my melancholy as well as safeguard my pregnancy. It was the right decision, but painful because these early years are crucial for mother and child, but if a mother is not well the child is better off with others who are stable and loving.
It all starts in the womb I showed this piece at the Houses of Parliament exhibition Tomorrow's Child
When my second baby was born, my husband was abroad for long periods at time for his work, again the visions started - far worse than before. I was insistent on breast feeding even though I suffered from D-mer (when the baby latches onto the breast a mother can experience dysphoria, feelings of sadness and visions which abate once the baby finishes feeding). For 8 months I suffered visions that were so disturbing and frequent there were times that I couldn't mentally take it anymore. In the end I decided to send my baby to my parents and to pump my milk to keep up the supply. It is a decision that I regret to this day, but for my baby's own well-being it was the only option although it disrupted my breastfeeding. In retrospect I wonder if I should have just soldiered on stoically, but I was down to 45 kilos, exhausted and mentally ravaged by the visions. We were apart for 4 longs weeks and I cannot describe the joy when we were reunited again.
Instinctively, I have tried to shield my children from those times when I am unwell, they can feel it and it impacts on their own brain development. It is only correct that mentally ill mothers should not be left alone with small children for prolonged periods of time.
Now again I am facing a period apart from my children. When I am with them it is very full on, I don't employ any help, apart from a cleaning lady once a week, and I work, too. My work is intense and time consuming, but I take motherhood very seriously and do my best to play, read, talk to my children and give them very nutritious home cooked food, but there have been times, especially if my sleep has been disrupted and my husband has been abroad, that again I find motherhood and managing my mental health condition very challenging. By May of this year, I was exhausted, I needed a break and to recover from the violent mood oscillations that I often have to deal with. Acutely aware of my mood patterns I have tried to map the violent ebb and flow of my mind.
Working keeps me well and in order for me to do my work I cannot have my children with me. They are in Sweden enjoying all that it has to offer, surrounded by nature and family and normality. Shielded by the unpredictability of a condition that flares up and subsides. It is comforting to know that they are happy and thriving - soon we will be reunited.
Mothers, with mental health problems, should not feel guilty if they feel so unwell that they cannot manage their maternal responsibilities. The rigours of motherhood test us all, whether you have mental health problems or not. It is better to be honest accept your limitations and ask for help. Because the priority always has to be the well-being and the protection of the child.
I want to reassure readers that I would never harm my children in anyway, what I have experienced are strange ideation - the result of hormonal fluctuations, faulty wiring between the synapse connections. My prefrontal cortex is weak and if sleep deprived the limbic system can take over leading to impulsive behaviour. Even though I have rare insights into my mind this doesn't mean I can control it. If mothers with mental health problems recognise the symptoms and patterns of their condition they might be better equipped to cope when they are unwell. Rather than rely solely on the mental health services, which are overstretched and in some instances can over react, they can turn to family or a neighbour instead to get the vital respite they need.
Mothers need to be aware that their mental health impacts on the mental health of their children. I have already taught my children basic mental health, they understand the importance of sleep and nutrition. I am equipping them, giving them the tools to consolidate their own mental health. I explain to them when Mummy is not well and they understand. All parents, especially those with mental health problems, need to do this - teach their children mental health skills which will help fortify their mind and enable them to tackle mental illness if it strikes in the future.
Being apart from my two children is never easy, but sometimes it's necessary and there should be no guilt if your actions are in the best interests of your child.
Sanchita Islam is the author of Schizophrenics Can Be Good Mothers Too written under the pseudonym Q S Lam (Muswell Hill Press, 2015)