By Jessica* – Melbourne, Australia
I can vividly recall sitting in the hallway in our home outside our baby’s room while he cried in his cot, silently begging him to sleep. Tears streamed down my face as I thought over and over again, somebody save me. It was June 2020, right in the middle of a global pandemic, and I had recently become a first-time mother. Due to the number of coronavirus cases in Melbourne, we were in stage four lockdown, which meant we could only leave the house for essential items, or exercise for an hour per day. I had been warned that motherhood could be challenging and lonely, but I had no idea just how hard this new role would be for me.
Made to be a mother
Growing up I never felt like I was good at anything. I barely made it through high school and then I floated from job to job, never finding passion or meaning in anything I did. However, it never bothered me much. I knew my true calling would be motherhood. Once, when I was struggling with my postgraduate studies, a psychologist told me that perhaps I was just made to be a mother. Motherhood would be the thing at which I would excel. I know his words were meant to comfort, but they actually contributed to the story in my head, that being a mother would be easy, that I would be a natural at it, and that it would be my calling. It was these unrealistic expectations that set the scene for my battle with postnatal anxiety and depression.
The day we met Rio
I gave birth to my baby during the first wave of the pandemic here in Melbourne. It was a long and challenging birth, starting off naturally and then cascading from one medical intervention to another, culminating in a caesarean. I had an incredible team in my husband and our doula who together supported me physically and emotionally through the ups and downs of my birth experience. It was not what I expected, and I felt very emotional throughout it, but none of that mattered after they put my baby in my arms. I was in love. He was perfect. I have never felt such deep love and fear at the same time. He was this perfect little being. All I wanted was to protect him. But I was also scared, what if something bad happens to him? I am sure this is a normal experience for most first-time parents. I was excited to go home and discover our new normal as a little family of three.
The first two weeks at home with my baby were bliss. This was in part thanks to all those postnatal hormones floating around, and probably all the pain medication I was taking for the caesarean. Somewhere along the way, though, things changed. I became more sleep deprived, and my baby seemed unhappy most of the time he was awake. None of the routines and sleep schedules I attempted worked, and I blamed myself. There is so much conflicting pressure on mothers. We are told there is no right or wrong when it comes to parenting, but at the same time we are bombarded with advice on what to do and what not to do. I found myself obsessively searching online for ways to be a good parent, to keep my baby happy, to get him to sleep on his own, to make sure I was feeding him enough, etc. I thought, if I just find the right method everything will be ok, I will be ok, and maybe I will start enjoying this. I was consumed with finding the answers to all my parenting issues. I was wracked with anxiety when things didn’t go as planned, and I was completely unable to go with the flow and enjoy my baby. I lost my appetite and a whole lot of weight with it. I was unable to sleep, and then my milk supply dropped in response to all this stress on my body. I didn’t know who I was, my identity had shifted and disappeared. If I hadn’t cried by lunchtime it was a good day. I thought this was normal. I convinced myself it was just the sleep deprivation, or maybe the pandemic. The strongest fear I had, however, was that perhaps I was just not meant to be a mother. What a spectacular failure I had become at the one thing I was meant to be good at.
As a psychologist, I have worked with many clients struggling with mental health difficulties such as anxiety and depression. I am trained in several therapies, which are all aimed at helping people suffering from mood and thought-based disorders. I know practically how to challenge maladaptive thoughts and the importance of self-care and self-compassion. Yet, when it came to my own suffering, none of that mattered. I felt completely alone, terrified, guilty, and ashamed. I felt betrayed by my own profession. I was doing everything I would recommend a client to do in my position, but nothing worked. I was drowning in guilt and shame. My poor baby, having a mother like me; my poor husband, he didn’t sign up for this when he married me. I used to be such a resilient person… Why can’t I deal with this? I’m not meant to be a mother. I hate this, I want my old life back. Eventually, I had thoughts about going to sleep and not waking up. This scared me. I had never felt like my life was not worth living until now.
That was my wake-up call.
I had resisted the idea that I might be depressed and require medication because I thought I had the skills to manage my mental health issues. I do this for a living, how can I possibly not be able to manage it myself? How can I call myself a psychologist and help others with their problems if I can’t even manage my own? The thing with mental illness is that it doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you do, what you know. It is so much more complex than that. Just like heart surgeons are not immune to heart disease. I had all the skills, but I was not able to use them, I couldn’t ‘operate’ on myself. I needed help. Recognising this was my turning point. I started taking antidepressant medication and talking to my psychologist, my family, my friends, and my husband to whom I had been too scared to admit my feelings before. Being vulnerable is scary, but it is also necessary to allow others to help us.
Finding joy in motherhood
My baby is now 8 months old. I am healthy and happy, and I am finally enjoying being a mother. It was a long and dark road, and I know I have more work to do to unpack some of the painful experiences I have been through. Now I look ahead and hope I can take these lessons with me for the next challenge. It is not easy for me to share this experience; it is so far from what I thought motherhood would be like for me. I have a lot of sadness recounting what I experienced with postnatal anxiety and depression, and I hope that sharing it will help to reduce the stigma around perinatal mental illness. Do not suffer in silence. You matter, and my own experience has taught me that things can get better. Those dark clouds will lift letting the light in and illuminating the beautiful joy that is motherhood.
Jessica* is a clinical psychologist and the happy mother of Rio. She lives with her husband and their little boy in Melbourne, Australia.
*Surname omitted for privacy protection.