‘It wasn’t easy to accept that I needed help’
‘It felt like admitting I was weak and that I was failing at motherhood’
Within hours of her birth I knew I felt “different”. After the euphoria (and shock) of childbirth had passed, an unexplained restlessness set in – and it wasn’t just the epidural wearing off.
It’s hard to describe the elation that follows a relatively stress-free childbirth unless you’ve been through it.
I was unimaginably happy and surprised to see that my chosen name “Luke” probably wasn’t going to work for our newborn daughter. She was perfect, though visibly shocked like her mother, and I felt like wonder woman. I had grown a person and effectively squeezed a melon out a nostril. Nothing could bring me down. Until nothing seemed to. My baby girl needed some help in the special care unit as her blood sugars were unstable. My hubby sailed out of the hospital, high as a kite, and I felt the first pangs of fretfulness at being separated from my baby.
My hospital notes appeared to sing my praises as the days passed. “Mum is independent with care and managing very well,” they claimed – quite the compliment for the person whose first instinct when a dirty nappy was produced was to call the midwife. Surely there was an easing in period?
“A mild sedative might be a good idea,” a midwife suggested on night two as once again I spent my night traipsing up and down to the special care baby unit – in case my baby needed me. “You need your rest too,” she said kindly. I declined; I needed to be ready, just in case.
The day we left hospital I cried the whole way home, not quite sure what was the root of my upset. “Baby blues” had been mentioned to me before I was discharged and I tried to reassure myself that this incredible sadness would pass. It was temporary, I convinced myself, slightly unsure, but too scared to consider otherwise.
Separation became a real issue for me. “I don’t like my husband taking the dog for a walk,” I told my doctor – herself a mother – during my first feeble attempt to seek help at my baby’s six-week check-up, appreciating all the while how irrational I sounded. “I don’t like to be alone,” I added trying to justify what I had said.
“And I can’t manage to go for a wee either lots of days,” I explained, “because I can’t put the baby down or else she gets upset so I’ve stopped drinking tea during the day,” I offered, as if a reasonable solution to my dilemma.
I left the surgery with a happy, healthy baby and a feeling of shame that my sadness had no justification. I had all I ever wanted and yet the tears would not stop flowing.
One particularly fraught afternoon I let my mask slip. My daughter had cried incessantly and nothing I did seemed to comfort her. I phoned my mother-in-law. “The baby won’t stop crying,” I sobbed. “I’ll be there in half-an-hour” she replied.
And, as sod’s law tends to dictate, my baby stopped crying two minutes before her gran’s arrival. My mother-in-law took her from me and suggested I take a break and go get my hair done or something. I went to the local shopping centre and hid in the toilets crying until I felt an acceptable amount of time had passed for me to return to my daughter.
It was several more weeks before I finally got the help I needed, guided by an extremely observant and supportive public health nurse. It wasn’t easy to accept that I needed help. It felt like admitting I was weak and that I was failing at motherhood. I had no reason to be depressed and I was furious with myself for being so.
In my case, medication did the trick. One day without really noticing when or how or why, I realised I wasn’t so sad any more; I was numb and that was a far better option. Numb enough to do the things I needed to do to get better.
I’ve had postnatal depression after the births of six of my seven children and I still haven’t reconciled with that fact. I’ve had more bites of the cherry than many when it comes to new parenthood, and a sense of failure prevails that I didn’t manage to crack the avoidance code. Experience can be a double-edged sword – one that reassures you you’ll recover because you did before and one that whispers shouldn’t you have known better?
Because that’s the thing about mental health: a stigma can remain even with those who’ve struggled with it.
It’s not just about overcoming the hurdle. Sometimes it’s about coming to terms with having faltered in the first place.
Jen Hogan with her family: ‘I had all I ever wanted and yet the tears would not stop flowing.’