Adventures of Postnatal Depression and Play
So here it is: my first blog post of 2016. I had always thought it would be something really breezy and playful, some exciting baby or toddler sensory play. But a couple of evenings ago I read this blog post I Have Had Postnatal Depression and it deeply resonated with me; it was like Suzanne had written my feelings.
It struck such a deep chord. I’m an advocator of Post Natal Depression Awareness; I want the message to be so clear to new mums and dads: it’s ok not to be ok. But then why hadn’t I written my experience, as long promised to Lindsay Robinson, at Have You Seen That Girl? The answer was in Suzanne’s story: loitering feelings of shame and embarrassment. How can I ask new parents to feel no shame in asking for help when I can’t admit it myself in a simple blog?
There’s such a stigma attached to mental health, particularly of the postnatal kind. We’re supposed to be super-mums and we’re all guilty of posting our images of perfection to our social media when in reality we’re like paddling away like ducks to water . I always find it interesting that posts about PND receive the least interaction on Little Explorers social channels. It seems that even liking or sharing a post could arouse a suspicion that someone’s not coping as well as they should.
Weirdly, I feel far more comfortable admitting I’ve been depressed due to my mum’s death – maybe because depression is expected when someone we love dies? There’s definitely a hierarchy of depression. Yet nobody chooses to be depressed, whether it’s a ‘regular’ kind or PND, but somehow we are judged more when it’s the latter. Perhaps because the judging starts as soon as pregnancy begins? Who knows. What I do know is that if PND can become a potentially ‘expected’ response, in the same way as grief for a loved one, it would be a lot easier for people to ask for help.
I’m acutely aware that I am luckier than many people and I certainly don’t want this to be a self-pitying piece but over the last few years I have learnt that sadness is all relative. Everyone’s emotions are as valid as the next persons. Also, let’s face it, parenting is hard enough when your mental health is intact, who knows where the boundaries lay between my PND and the usual pressures of parenting and sleep deprivation!
I’m sharing my story in the hope that if anyone else recognises how I felt they may find the strength to ask for help and actively overcome their PND, in the way that I didn’t. My story is one of premature birth and very poor support. The message that I hope comes across loud and clear is that there is hope, and what saved me was ‘play’. I’m not suggesting for one moment that play can cure PND, but it can quickly develop and strengthen attachment between parent and baby. A lack of connection was the biggest thing I felt guilty and ashamed about.
It was play that enabled me to love my son. It’s why I set up Little Explorers Sensory and why I’m about to start a Post Graduate Certificate in Therapeutic Play Skills. It’s the driving force for our plans to apply for funding, so we can bring the therapeutic power of play to parents with PND, for free. Play has the power to overcome, no matter what the circumstances.
So, inspired by Suzanne’s bravery and honesty, here’s my story (the condensed one anyway -the first was waaaay too long but incredibly therapeutic – I highly recommend writing your own!)
Premature birth, hospitals and more hospitals
Back in the summer of 2010, I was the happiest self I had ever been: loving pregnancy, addicted to fruit and veg, swimming and yoga-ing daily, and supremely excited about the prospect of becoming a mum. I was confident that it would be so natural for me. I was an Early Years teacher who loved children as much as they loved me. Every one told me I’d be an amazing mum; it never crossed my mind that I would find any of it difficult.
The summer holidays had started and I was blissfully enjoying the ten week countdown to my baby’s birth when I went into labour seven weeks early. What followed next still feels like a dream, or something that happened to someone else.
I had come into contact with Hand Foot and Mouth disease and the doctors, concerned it was responsible for my premature labour and that I may pass it to my tiny newborn boy, immediately rushed him off to the Neo Natal unit. I saw a blur of pink wrapped in blankets before he was whisked away.
It was shortly after, I learnt I wasn’t allowed to see him. I was put on the Postnatal ward in a side room, listening to all the other mums cuddling and feeding their bundles of joy. When visiting hours were over I was left on my own. I remember staring at my saggy tummy trying to comprehend that the photo in my hand of a baby, whose face was completely distorted from a ventilator tube and covered in wires, was mine.
Many times I had imagined the moment I would lay eyes on my baby and how love would overpower me. What I actually felt was repulsion. Admitting that still showers me with shame and guilt.
It was over 24 hours later that I was first allowed to see my son. My midwife led me by the hand to his incubator and I remember feeling like I was meeting a stranger – any of those babies could have been mine. Thankfully his ventilator had been removed and I burst into tears of relief that his face looked normal. I cried because I felt so removed and unattached to this tiny creature. I was allowed to put my hand in the incubator to stroke his velvety skin, but unable to hold him. That monumental event took place the following afternoon.
I have often pondered whether my PND started the moment I was unable to physically and emotionally connect with my son at his birth. The scene I had played in my head for the previous seven months, of being overcome with love the minute I held him to my breast, was a million miles away. Perhaps there is something prehistoric within us that stops us ‘feeling’ when we deliver our babies too soon? Merely decades ago, hopes for premmie babies’ survival was low.
Over the next 3 weeks I spent all day and evening at hospital, in a three-hour routine of kanagaroo care, breast pumping and tube feeding. The hours I spent away from Albert were awful. I could feel a constant tug on my heart like there was chord physically connecting the two of us.
My breast milk wouldn’t come. I pumped through the night till I bled, staring at a photo of my baby. I would arrive at hospital with a couple of millimetres sploshing at the bottom of a bottle to be met with comments from nurses, such as, “Is that it?” I felt like such a failure. The only thing I had the power to do to help my baby was to feed him, but I couldn’t even do that.
After hours of breast feeding ‘support’ that consisted of calling Albert lazy, and having my nipples painfully squeezed and pulled, I was still producing a minimal amount of milk and he continued to be fed formula via tube. I was desperate to produce milk and eventually breastfeed.
Three weeks later, I was filled with dread when we were eventually allowed to take Albert home. I had become completely dependent on the nurses and was overwhelmed with the enormity of responsibility that I held in my arms. I was smarting with my continuing failure at breastfeeding.
A few days later, we were admitted to hospital again as Albert stopped breathing when feeding. A week of tests at Great Ormond Street ensued, lumber punctures, ECG’s, heart and brain scans: I was terrified but determined not to show it to Albert. I wanted to stay calm for him, so I kept it all inside. We finally made it home armed with medication and fear.
Anxiety, OCD and an appalling lack of support
My husband’s paternity leave was spent in the hospital, so our first day home he had to return to work. I remember the door shutting and Albert crying. I held him on my chest and looked down to see an ugly old man and had to fight a sudden urge to throw him off my chest. I gently laid him in his basket, frightened to pick him up.
I had no appetite and forced myself to eat. I developed compulsive behaviours; I constantly checked his temperature and whether he was breathing; I filled a notepad with data on his feeding and bowel habits. I was petrified of him catching germs and tried to keep him away from enclosed spaces. Exhausted, every time I closed my eyes I had terrifying visions of him falling down the stairs, drowning in the bath or me dropping knives on him. I woke up from sleep in panic attacks, crying and unable to get my breathing steady. My poor husband didn’t know what to do so would bring me Albert and hold him out to me, “You’ve got to stop, he needs you.” That would floor me. I felt so ashamed of myself.
I was waiting to feel love, to feel a connection. I felt I couldn’t look after Albert but I didn’t want anyone else to either.
When I tried to broach with family members that I thought I had PND, they responded with well meaning comments, intended with love: “It’s just the baby blues, everyone gets it, you’ll be fine.” I couldn’t bring it up again for fear of being seen as dramatic. Their love silenced me. I felt so alone.
I worked up the courage to mention it to a health visitor, who thankfully was brilliant. She listened and she heard. However, my doctor refused the referral as we lived in a neighbouring borough. After weeks of ongoing arguments over who was responsible for supporting me between Newham and Waltham Forest, my Health Visitor made me an appointment at the Perinatal Mental Health Unit at the local hospital.
On arrival I was told that no such unit existed (though it did!) so my Health Visitor convinced me to go through to A&E. Without doubt, sitting in a waiting room with someone vomiting next to my baby; explaining to a Triage nurse that I wasn’t coping; and being sent to see a psychiatrist, was the most humiliating experience of my life.
I came away feeling like a failure and utterly hopeless – how could I change the way I felt?
The healing power of play
The one thing I did take from my meeting with the psychiatrist was that I had to be kinder to myself and that given time, the love would grow. I made a checklist of things to do – spend time outdoors in nature, socialise with other mums, and eat well.
Accepting that I had PND was such a relief; it was strangely empowering. Understanding that I was ill and that this wasn’t my fault was hugely comforting. My sister was amazing. I repeated what she had said to me, “it’s not you, it’s the PND” over and over like a mantra. Giving responsibility to the PND for all the negative behaviours began to release me from the stone like grip of guilt and shame.
Breast feeding had not progressed and was causing a great deal of anxiety and stress. I am so thankful that my mum asked one day, “Do you need someone to tell you it’s ok to stop?” Whilst I wish I had been able to breastfeed, allowing myself to bottle feed was another step towards feeling stronger and more positive.
I wish I had asked for more help, I wish I had insisted on some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy because I don’t think I ever conquered the PND, I just took the edge off it. Hindsight is a marvellous thing. I began to lead a ‘normal’ enough life so was fooled into thinking I had recovered. I think I wanted to believe that I had. No one would have known: I smiled and hid it well.
The visions and panic attacks stopped and I begun to control the obsessive behaviours enough to engage in the merry go round of night feeds, nappies and the general haze of ‘baby brain’. The fact that I didn’t love my baby rocked me to the core, though I never admitted that to anyone.
The turning point for me was that I now had the energy and focus to begin to interact and play with Albert. Luckily, I had experience from teaching and nannying, in how to talk and play with babies; I’ve met many parents, depressed or not, who don’t know where to start with such tiny people.
As we played together and I used skills such as OWLing and Reflective Listening, I began to really get to know Albert and connect with him. Slowly and surely our attachment began to deepen and he was incredibly responsive. I’m not sure how long it was before I confidently felt love, but it was around three months. I don’t know how long it would have taken without play.
Like I said, play didn’t ‘cure’ me, but it allowed me to form a loving relationship with Albert that we built on every day. I do feel guilty that Albert had to wait so long before he experienced true love from his mother. I wonder what impact that had on his development, especially when I look at baby photos of him, but I’ve learned to be forward looking and fill each day to the brim with love.
I don’t think I ever recovered from my PND. Perhaps initially I just needed to manage it, and given time I probably would have felt strong enough to deal with it properly, and seek proper help. As so often happens, life threw our family a back to back sequence of life changing curve balls, which I won’t go into, but made the last six years incredibly challenging. I don’t know where the PND stops and the stress and grief begin but I imagine they became a melting pot of ‘blergghness’. I put all my efforts into protecting my sons and doing my best to give them a smiley, fun, loving mother. My marker of a successful day was if they went to bed feeling happy, loved, and tired after a day of enriching play.
I achieved that but to mine and my husband’s detriment; it meant I had no energy to heal myself. Thankfully, the tide has turned and 2016 has been the year of feeling stronger and for the first time in what feels like forever, not depressed. I am certain that if I had been given the correct support for my PND, I would have been much better equipped to deal with the last six years.
So thank you Lindsay and Suzanne, without your bravery and honesty I wouldn’t have written this. Collectively, if we can all share our stories we can normalise PND and make it easier for parents to ask for help. To anyone feeling shame because they don’t feel love for their baby, I hope they read this and feel relief. You’re not alone. It’s never too late to make a connection, and play is one powerful way to do it.
or on the website www.littleexplorerssensory.com
Do you have a story to share? I’d love to feature it. Email me, Lindsay, at haveyouseenthatgirl.outlook.com