I was asked to write a piece about maternal mental health this week. I had intended to write something that really drew attention to the issue, something meaningful and moving to disrupt. As I was brainstorming ideas an email from my cherished first doula client landed in my in-box, and blew any fancy ideas I may have had straight out of the water. Joanna writes to movingly, so honestly about what prompted her post-natal emotional struggles, and how she healed herself, it surpasses anything I could possibly say. Tragically, Joanna is just one of the women I meet who's birth experience caused distress. While you're reading this, I'd like you to think about how we treat our women when they are at their most vulnerable. Do we really accept this? Here's Joanna's experience; "December 2016 - my life was changed forever with the birth of my beautiful and healthy daughter. She was tiny, precious and a surprise red-head. As Game of Thrones fans my husband and I turned to each other and both said ‘kissed by fire’. That she certainly is. Unfortunately, that was the only thing about the birth that I could compare to a large cinematic/Hollywood experience. There was not that moment of extreme, intense, heart-imploding love that I had seen for years in the movies. I didn’t instantly feel like a ‘mum’. I felt tired and battered and ultimately deeply in shock. Here she was, this long anticipated, intensely wanted bundle of pinkness on my chest - looking up at me in the hope that I knew what I was doing, and all I wanted to do was switch off. In that moment, or maybe sometime in the hours prior to her arrival, something inside me had switched off without myself or anyone around me noticing.
The details of the birth are somewhat unimportant. Someone else could have had the exact same experience with a completely different result. Just like every baby is different, every mum is different too - something that is too often lost in the pregnancy conveyer belt. But in short; it was long, it was painful, it was confusing. For me it was the single most frightening and lonely moment of my life. Ultimately I felt unheard and completely out of control. The more I felt this the more I retreated into my own head and was unable to adopt any coping mechanisms that, to be honest, I complacently never bothered to learn.
The result? Months of nightmares. Panic attacks. Inability to breast feed. Essentially an emotional shut down which I later, with help, could recognise as PTSD. To the outside world (including my mum who is a highly trained counsellor) I was fine. My baby was happy and well looked after. I was the mum that had everything under control. Never late for appointments, the first to arrive at mummy meet ups to grab the comfy seats in the coffee shop, the first to get their baby to sleep through the night and to wean. The reality though was that I needed to control everything around me and had just lucked out with a cooperative baby!
However, no matter what I did I could not erase the complete and paralysing fear of ever having to go through the birth experience again. In fact, comparing birth stories with other mums made it worse. I didn’t go through an emergency caesarean, I didn’t need an episiotomy, my baby was born healthy. How could I complain? Still the nightmares continued. But no matter how terrified I was, I had a clear image in my head of what I wanted my family to look like. The need to give my daughter a sibling was greater than my suffering. I couldn’t imagine feeling worse.
January 2018 - I am pregnant with baby number 2. I should be excited. To some degree I am, but every night when I close my eyes I remember the harsh delivery room lights and the taste of panic. I remember the sound that echoed around the room as my baby very quickly burst from my body. I remember the feeling of being prodded while being encouraged to breast feed for the first time. Bedtime soon becomes a flash back to the night that should have been the most exciting of my life, but in reality, was one of the worst. I lie in bed and wonder what that says about me as a person; as a mother, and night after night I sink deeper until my pillow begins to feel like rock bottom."
There's a happy ending to this story. Joanna went on to have an extremely positive birth with her second child, which I was very privileged to attend. I can only attest to the power of her determination, her deep reserves of resilience and the bravery it took to face up to the thorn in her side and triumph over it. Like many women, Joanna felt responsible for a problem which was not her fault. If you - or someone you know - is experience poor mental health during pregnancy or after birth, here are some resources you may find useful; * Talk to your own GP, midwife or health visitor * The Samaritans can be contacted for free on 116123 * PANDAs Foundation - support and advice for any parent experiencing perinatal mental health issues.