By Sara Bailey
Post-natal depression. Chances are you probably know someone who has had it, whether they’ve told you about it or not. Or maybe someone told you they had PND, but you don’t really know what that means in everyday life.
Here’s my story – a story I’ll tell you as honestly as I can. Hopefully, it will help some of you understand a little better what it means for a woman to have Post-natal Depression (PND).
If you’d asked me a few years ago when this all began, I would have said it began with the birth of my daughter. However, knowing what I know now, and having been through it, I can say in reality it started much earlier than that.
I now know that you’re more likely to get PND if you’ve suffered from depression in your life. And I know now that even though I didn’t realise it at the time, my depression started in my late teens. During my teens I would cry often and without reason. I couldn’t tell you what made me cry every day, I only knew that I felt low, and heavy and I didn’t understand why. I would have days where I would hide under my blankets feeling totally unable to face the world. I didn’t ask for help, I didn’t seek a diagnosis of any kind.
In my early 20’s I got married to my long term partner and we decided to start a family. We were excited to be expecting a baby boy and we enjoyed buying the things we needed and preparing our house for the birth of our son. I finished work three weeks before my due date and enjoyed resting and looking forward to the birth. We’d planned a homebirth in our little flat and with the support of our extended family were as prepared as we could be.
Jackson was born at home after a hard and fast labour that left me feeling rather dazed and exhausted but also proud and empowered. Slowly I adjusted to being a mother, learning that my baby was happiest when attached to me. We spent our days on the couch, breastfeeding and napping together, and though I was definitely sleep deprived, I was happy. My husband worked close by and came home for lunch every day. When he was home in the evening and weekends, he devoted his time to our son and to taking care of his family. He always made the effort to get up with Jackson in the early morning so I could get a sleep in. If there’s one thing my kids know about me, it’s that I love to sleep!
When Jackson turned one, we decided that we were ready to have another baby. Pregnancy the second time around was a little harder having a toddler to care for but again we enjoyed planning a homebirth for our baby.
I don’t recall exactly at what point in my pregnancy I started feeling emotional, but things definitely started to go downhill. I was angry, I was sad, I was exhausted and frustrated. At what? Everything and nothing. I remember being mad at my husband a LOT. There was no real reason for it, but my last couple of months of pregnancy were dominated by these feelings. I don’t recall talking to my midwife about it as I assumed it was just pregnancy hormones. In my last trimester we started looking at buying a house and went often to open homes and mortgage brokers. We even put an offer in on a house that fell through and lost us money. Eventually I had to say it was time to put house hunting on hold as it was too much stress for me. Planning a homebirth is hard when you don’t know where you will be living!
As I moved into my last weeks of pregnancy, I recall thinking that I wasn’t ready for my baby to be born. I’d had a lot of arguments with my husband, and they hadn’t been resolved. My baby however had other plans and I went into labour at just over 37 weeks. Despite the high emotions in the house labour and birth was calm and beautiful. Supported by my husband, mother, midwife and my 20 month old son I laboured calmly and peacefully through the morning. We laughed and chatted and eventually our beautiful baby girl made her way into the world. She was perfect.
I cried quite a few times in those first few weeks of her life… adjusting to being a mother to two children is actually really hard. Honor was a lovely sweet little girl, sleepy and calm. Breastfeeding was going really well and most of the time I felt pretty good about how things were going.
When Honor was 6 weeks old, we got ready to move house. We tearfully said goodbye to our midwife and went under the care of our Plunket nurse. It was around this time that Honor started becoming more unsettled, sleeping less, crying more, and wanting to be held more. I knew that babies’ gut flora changed a lot around this age so assumed it would pass. It didn’t.
Honor cried and cried, and it felt like she never stopped. She would cry in her bed, she would cry in her car seat, she would cry in the pram and in the front pack or sling. The only way she would sleep was swaddled and cradled in my arms and eventually I got RSI from holding her in this position. We rarely left the house because I could only take her screaming at the top of her lungs for about 2 minutes before I started screaming too… I felt like a failure, I felt like my daughter hated me. Nothing I did helped her, nothing soothed or calmed her. I took her to doctors repeatedly and they all kept telling me that it was normal for babies to cry. I knew in my heart they were wrong.
I was struggling to be a mum to my two kids. The expectations I had of my not even 2-year old son were so high and so unfair. I expected him to take care of himself or be quiet while I tried desperately to put my daughter to sleep. I got frustrated and angry at him when he couldn’t do this. He was a very early talker and at the age of 2 knew some fairly choice swear words thanks to me.
My husband still worked close by and would come home for lunch. I would do my best to catch a power nap, eat, or shower when he was home. Often, I would call him and he would come home early on days where I just wasn’t coping. We were very lucky that his boss’s wife worked with the Brainwave Trust and so understood about PND – they probably knew what was going before I did.
At some point (and my timeline is hazy) I fell into a deep dark hole. When I wasn’t crying or upset, I was just numb. I would sit in a chair and think ‘I need to put hang the washing’ and several hours later still hadn’t been able to do it. Simple things became too hard. My fuse was so short it was almost non-existent. I started picking fights with family and not seeing them often.
The day finally came when I decided that I was not OK anymore. My kids were crying, and I had nothing left to give. I dialled my husband’s work number and told him ‘I can’t do it, you need to come home, I can’t do it anymore.’ As I said these words, I looked at the clock and realised it was only 9AM and he’d only been gone an hour.
I googled post-natal depression and found a helpline to call but there was no one to take my call so I left a message. I called my Plunket nurse and she wasn’t there. I felt lost and abandoned. I wanted help and nobody was there… I took the Edinburgh test for PND online and came up with a high score. I was confused, I thought PND happened to people who were already depressed, or people who had terribly traumatic births.
My Plunket nurse visited me soon after and I talked to her about how I’d been feeling. We agreed that I should visit my doctor and get a prescription for antidepressants. My GP was a fairly ‘alternative’ style doctor so she wrote me a letter of support suggesting that this is what she thought would help me in case he wasn’t keen to prescribe anything to me.
I visited the doctor and when he asked me what he could help with I just cried and said, ‘did you get the letter.’ He quietly found and read the letter from my Plunket nurse and said, ‘let’s get you sorted out.’ Within 2 weeks of starting Citalopram, I felt better. I felt lighter and my fuse was getting longer. I was still a long way from normal, but those drugs made a huge difference to me.
When my daughter was about six months old, we decided to have some family portraits taken. We planned it so that it would be just after her nap time, and she’d be rested and happy. Of course that day she didn’t sleep as planned and was wide awake as I started panicking about it.
We had 4 kids in the photo shoot, my 2 kids and their 2 cousins, and she was the only one that smiled and clapped her hands at the photographer. It was that day that I realised that she was fine now, she’d grown out of whatever was causing her to be upset and was actually a happy easy going little girl. Whatever low feelings I was experiencing now was just me and not caused by her.
I started working part time and that helped me a lot. I got out of the house and talked to other adults. And though in my mind I started feeling better I was feeling physically ill. Everyday around 2pm almost exactly I would start feeling dizzy and nauseas. I went to my doctor and asked for help and was given anti-nausea tablets. Every day I felt so dizzy I had to lie on the floor and was basically unable to parent properly. Eventually I figured out it was the medication making me sick, so I went off them, and soon after felt the gloom coming back. I had to go back to the doctor again and asked to try a different medication which thankfully worked much better.
As my daughter reached her first birthday the cloud over me was starting to lift. I felt like I was finally bonding with her, and it was like I was falling in love with her all over again. I remember feeling surprised at just how gorgeous she was, and I would say to my husband ‘OMG she’s so cute’ over and over like it was something new. But it WAS new to me, and it was a really important time for us.
I can’t say exactly when I felt like I was out of the woods, but I do know that somewhere around the time Honor was 2 I was off the anti-depressants. I had tried to come off them several times feeling like I should be okay, but I was often wrong about that.
It took me a long time to decide I was ready to have a 3rd child. I always knew in my heart that I’d have three children, but we waited until Honor was 2 years old. She was an adorable little girl and my husband and I were in a really good space. We were a happy little family, and we were ready to welcome another baby.
My third pregnancy was physically hard. I’ve always hated being pregnant but being pregnant and looking after two pre-schoolers through the summer really sucks. My moods during the pregnancy were okay but as my due date came closer, I had a few wobbles. Though I desperately wanted my baby out of me I was also terrified that his birth would signify the beginning of PND for me again. I had booked a birth photographer to attend the birth and almost cancelled it, convinced that everything was going to go wrong, and our happy life was about to go out the window.
Alexander was born, at home as the others were, as the sun rose, our children woke up to meet their new baby brother shortly after. With this birth we were all on high alert for PND. We were prepared. My husband was working less hours, my mother in law was visiting often and helping out with the house and children, my own mother came often to cook. And even though Alexander was a normal baby, crying and sleeping the normal amount, the day came where I was ready to ask for my prescription again. I remember rocking him as he screamed, and I had tears rolling down my face. My husband came home for lunch and asked what was wrong and I told him, it was going to be just like Honor all over again. I really had to work hard to separate them and remind myself that Alexander was not Honor and that things weren’t necessarily going to go the same way. And they didn’t.
This time I was prepared, and I allowed myself the help. I asked for help when I needed it. I let my husband be in charge of the baby and children at night. I slept in. I even did exercise.
I was asked not long ago what my message was when telling my PND story and I had to think about it. I decided what I really wanted to get out of sharing it was to just be real and honest and say that I wasn’t ok for a long time, and that is ok. Parenting is hard, messy, and tiring, and sometimes if you’re really unlucky you get PND to deal with too and it’s even harder. I want everyone to know that this happens more than you realise, and if you are honest with people around you, there’s a good chance they’ll say, ‘I had PND too,’ or maybe even just say ‘actually I’m not ok’.
My youngest son is now almost 3 and even though I would say I no longer have PND I don’t know if my PND journey will ever really end. I don’t know when the official postnatal period ends. But I do know I will always be a mother and I will probably always have bouts of depression. There will be plenty days where I am exhausted and just wish I could sleep my problems away. Sometimes I might need anti-depressants to help me through and sometimes the love of my family will be enough.
Will you all do me a favour? The next time someone you trust says to you ‘how are you?,’ instead of responding with ‘I’m good or I’m fine’, answer them truthfully and remember it’s ok to not be ok.