I’m not going to be annoyingly “happy clappy”, “every cloud has a silver lining”, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” about my postnatal depression. The illness sucks. It sucks big time. Postnatal depression stole a time that should have been magical and left permanent scars on every happy memory, every photo, every cuddle.
Looking back, with a happy, healthy and pesky seven year old nagging me as I write this, I can honestly say that the wounds have healed and I am able to remember some happy times, even from the darkest months. They’re tarnished though and always will be. Does my son remember it? No. Has it left scars on him or our relationship? No. Does it matter to him now? Not in the slightest. It sucks for me that my first experiences of being a mother were crappy. It isn’t fair that I will never get that time back. But it hasn’t harmed my son and that is what helps me accept the illness and move on from it.
Being a writer was a saving grace during my miserable year of maternity leave. I used my evenings to write a novel, The Boob Group, which although fiction, draws heavily on my own experiences of postnatal depression. Writing about it was cathartic. Creating a character with the illness gave me a sense of perspective and perhaps a little acceptance of myself. If you don’t normally write, maybe try a diary. At the very least, you will be able to look back on it in a year or two and realise just how far you have come.
I cannot say that post-natal depression gifted me anything at all, other than a few years of misery. It didn’t help me grow as a person or as a mother. If I am feeling very positive though, I can come up a few good things that came out of the experience. The main one being that I learned a lot about myself as a person.
For instance, apparently, I’m a perfectionist. Who knew? Certainly not me! How can someone who is lazy, fat, ugly and a failure at everything they do be a perfectionist? Well, it turns out that I have low self-esteem as well. That one wasn’t so much of a shock. Of course, this self-awareness may have come anyway. But there is nothing quite like months of intense counselling, various courses for depression and anxiety and then being pinned under a breastfeeding baby for hours to give you the opportunity to over-analyse.
Which brings me to the only positive thing that came with my post-natal depression: an overwhelming obsession with breastfeeding. Seven years later, although I think that in an ideal world, breast is best, I also realise that formula is just as good at filling a hungry tummy and at helping a baby grow. Back then though… Let me put it this way, I was still expressing when my son was 14 months, so that he could have it in his porridge instead of nasty cow’s milk. I know! Why do you think I write under a pseudonym?!
I clearly thought breastfeeding was the only thing I was doing right. I blew it up to be bigger and more important, because it helped me feel like a better Mum. It was agony some days, most days. I bled. I cracked. I cried. But I kept going because if I stopped, I would be doing nothing right for my boy. It is only by reading The Boob Group with fresh, non-depressed eyes that I realise how low I was and how all-encompassing my obsession with breastfeeding.
However your depression manifests itself, don’t beat yourself up. We don’t choose the things we use as crutches to get us through difficult times. And they aren’t all bad. I was quite jealous of the immaculate house a friend had during her post-natal depression.
The one thing that I wish I had known is just how common postnatal depression is. I wasn’t a cold, cruel, heartless, freak of a mother. I was one of many, many women who suffer with the illness. If you are reading this and feeling alone in the darkness, try to imagine your closest friend is going through what you are going through? Would you judge them? Would you think they were a bad mother? Would you turn your back on them? Go easy on yourself. Some of the best mothers I know have suffered with post-natal depression. They are loving, kind, thoughtful, generous and lots of fun. Post-natal depression has not defined them as parents. It no longer defines me and it doesn’t have to define you.
It is a hard experience to go through and an awful introduction to motherhood. It will rob you of so many wonderful times and memories. It will leave you feeling raw and guilty. A decade later, it will still leave you with regrets. But there can be a happy ending. The depression can go. You can move on and have a happy experience of motherhood. The best news is, your little baby who you think you are messing up, is perfectly oblivious. What you need to do right now, is talk to someone; a friend, a doctor, a health visitor, a partner. Talk to someone you trust. If they have a child, you never know, they might have gone through exactly what you are going through now. Nobody can get better by themselves and it is not a sign of weakness to ask for help. We are all just bumbling along, trying our best. I bet you are doing absolutely fine if you just give yourself a break.
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