World Maternal Mental Health Day
Today is World Maternal Mental Health Awareness Day and forms part of this week’s maternal mental health awareness campaign.
There was a fleeting moment when I wondered whether a blog about maternal mental health awareness for our website – our brand design consultancy website – was appropriate or relevant. After all, it’s not what people engage with our business for.
But within our agency are women who have real lived experience of maternal mental health struggles, who doubtless engage with female clients who also carry lived experience of child-loss, miscarriage, post-natal anxiety or depression. And there are men who have seen, first hand, the trauma and lasting impact that these experiences have.
So, it does feel relevant and it does feel appropriate, despite how confronting it may be.
In this blog, both myself (Alice) and my colleague Elena share our experiences of miscarriage and the mental health challenges we faced after the birth of our living children. We speak of the myriad complexities that exist for women who experience child-loss, post-natal depression and anxiety.
It’s likely not an easy read, it certainly isn’t an easy piece to write, but it matters. It matters because countless women, every day, experience the life-changing reality of losing a baby and, all-too-frequently, losing themselves for a time.
Motherhood for many stirs deep emotions.
There can be moments of heartbreak, of joy; moments that are sacred and moments often left unspoken.
I’m a mum of a beautiful 5-year-old rainbow girl – a perfect gift of life after the death of our first baby.
The death of a baby never disappears – you learn to live with the trauma and grief but always wonder … what if.
What if I’d taken it easy during pregnancy? What if I’d been stricter with my diet? What if I’d eased some of the stresses in our life?
I carried out a gruelling interrogation of my own actions, mentally wrestling with what I’d done wrong.
The day of my miscarriage, we sat for hours in A&E, holding a tub that contained our baby. My husband had scooped it from the toilet after I’d experienced painful stomach cramps (which, on reflection, were contractions and I had given birth). I couldn’t stop crying, my husband was devastated.
In the haste of a busy emergency room, I remember one nurse abruptly asked me why I was crying. I said ‘I’ve lost my baby’, she replied with, ‘you should feel lucky you still have a chance to have another.’
Eventually, the sterile inspection took place, confirming that the foetus was gone and no sign of life was left.
I know technically the doctor was using accurate medical language, I did give birth to a foetus, but it was our baby. A baby I’d carried for 14 weeks, that had already transformed my body, the way I felt, the way I was starting to look.
That evening, after returning home from A&E, on auto-pilot I realised I had a pitch submission due the next morning. We’re all different in situations like these, but for me, I needed to drive this to the finish line before I could actually take the time out to process what had happened, stop and grieve.
In a very matter-of-fact-way, I told my boss what had happened.
By detatching myself from the situation, I was better able to focus on getting the job done for work. He was shocked and saddened, but immediately supportive, respectful.
Once the job was done, I fell to pieces alongside my husband. The reality of our loss was now all-consuming. The feeling of emptiness, of grief, of a life that would never be experienced.
I wrote a letter to Baby Mo. It was my way of sharing my love, my wishes for his or her life amongst the stars, my way of saying sorry for not letting us meet in person, my way of letting go, of moving forward. The letter is still under our bed, but I know I can never read it again.
Trying for another baby was one of the most fearful decision my husband and I made. What if it happened again? But we had to let go of the fear and turn towards hope.
The hope of being amazing parents, of sharing exciting adventures, of holding our baby in our arms and watching them grow.
A month after my Dad passed away, I fell pregnant.
Our daughter was a gift, representing all that we hoped the future would bring. We embraced the joy, the excitement and, luckily, the pregnancy was a breeze.
Before I left for maternity leave, the perfectionist in me had to leave everything in a position that allowed me to mentally say goodbye to a role that I had worked so hard for. A difficult moment again of wrestling with decisions followed … had I done the right thing having a baby and pausing a career that I knew I could continue to grow and accelerate? Could a balance ever be struck again?
Our baby was born, and life changed in moment. We were gripped with love, but also fear. Love of our long-wished for baby, fear of not doing the right thing.
That battle of love and fear can never be underestimated. I found myself in a spiral of post-natal depression which contradicted how lucky and grateful I felt to have our baby safely here.
I punished myself for being diagnosed with post-natal depression.
I believed I’d brought it on myself, that I was letting my husband down, letting my family down and, worst of all, letting my precious little girl in front of me down. Seeing my baby crying, and trying so hard to figure out what was wrong, trying different things but not getting it right crippled me.
I was lucky to have an amazing family around me and a support network of other mums in the same boat. I knew I had to grieve and say goodbye to a career I’d worked so hard to progress and accept it was okay, that life was different now.
Everything would get better, and hope was there to pull me through and allow me to embrace our gorgeous girl who continues to thrive. And ultimately, I returned to work and pushed forward within my leadership role, taking on further challenges and realising my goals.
The Team recently won the opportunity to work with Sands on a brand strengthening programme. Suddently I found myself in a position where the dichotomy of life and death was again front of mind and difficult to manage. But the realisation that there are so many hidden stories that need to be heard spurred my action to break the silence of a taboo subject and share my story.
It’s an opportunity to shine a light for others during their own struggles with maternal mental health, to offer reassurance that there is hope even in the darkest of moments.
Low-level anxiety is an ever-present reality for most mums, it sort of goes with the territory of having kids and our primal need to protect and keep them safe … but knowing how to cope, finding your own ways of lessening the anxiety, being kind to yourself, and embracing positively is essential.
We have two children, our son, 8, and daughter who is 5. But I’ve been pregnant four times.
I suffered with severe post-natal anxiety after the birth of both our son and daughter. It was all-consuming and socially crippling. Daily panic-attacks were the norm for years (last year was the first without one in seven years) and getting in the car with one or both children was overwhelmingly stressful.
It wasn’t stressful because of the kids themselves, the stress came from being so profoundly aware, on what felt like a cellular level, of the enormity of my responsibility. I felt wholly inadequate as a mother, even though, to anyone looking in, I had it all together.
I was also suddenly – for the first time in my life – keenly aware of my own mortality. It was just a lot for my mind to handle.
Throughout this, I was still working. When our son was 15 months old, both myself and partner were made redundant from the same agency; in one morning we’d lost our entire income.
So we started job hunting. I was fortunate to be headhunted for a good job, but not only was it full time but it was also located over an hour from our home. We had no choice, the pay would support our young family and meant that Joe could pick up freelance work around taking care of our son.
I found the experience brutally tough. The conflict between needing to show up each day at work, manage a team, make decisions that would impact people around me while also knowing that my baby needed me at home and that every ounce of me wanted to be with him was emotionally exhausting.
I was in a constant state of stress, feeling guilty whichever way I turned because invariably, to my mind at least, I was letting someone down.
I was doing my best to keep it all together and on the surface, I probably appeared to be. But in the car to and from work, or on my lunchbreaks, the reality was total, anxiety-laden overwhelm.
For me, post-natal anxiety showed up in all aspects of my life.
Oftentimes it would appear seemingly out of nowhere. One day we were driving down a local street, I was in the front passenger seat and the kids were in the back. Joe (my partner) and I were chatting when I felt a slight tightness in my chest.
Instantly, I was certain I was having a heart attack and I’d soon be leaving our precious babies motherless. That was literally my thought process (an example of my earlier mention of becoming very aware of my own mortality.)
Joe pulled over and I opened the door, swung my legs onto the pavement and tried to steady my breathing. But it continued to worsen until my hands and feet began to curl in on themselves, almost like a seizure. My body felt like it was fizzing, my ears were ringing and my vision blurred. I just couldn’t breathe.
We were near our local hospital, so Joe drove me to A&E. As we pulled up, a paramedic was walking past our car and saw me.
He was instantly beside me, telling me I was in an extreme state of hyperventilation and needed to follow his instructions. I focused on his breathing, trying to mimic it with my own. He held my hands and told me I was safe and I cried.
And the tears just kept falling, and as they did, my breathing slowed, my chest felt lighter, my hands and feet stopped trembling. He was right, I was safe. I wasn’t dying.
This is just one example of many that occurred over the first 7 years of motherhood. Throughout this time, I was working as usual, doing my best to avoid conversations that might scratch the surface of ‘how are you doing?’ just a little too deeply and unleash emotions that I wasn’t ready to share, because where would I start? Where would I end?
Fast forward to early last year, and after having been feeling pretty buoyant and ‘capable’, we found out I was pregnant. It was a wonderful surprise, we’d always hoped to have 3 children and I felt as though I was being given one last opportunity to enjoy – not just cope with – the early years of motherhood.
To be clear, I loved – and still love – motherhood, and I think – hope – I’ve always been a good mum. My battles with it have been internal, it kindled all my insecurities and perceived inadequacies into a raging, hard-to-extinguish fire of anxiety.
As the pregnancy progressed, I realised, with a heart full of joy, that the baby clothes I’d lovingly tucked away in my memory box were needed again. They’d once again be filled with plump little limbs and that gloriously soft milky smell that’s so unique to newborns.
As with my previous pregnancies, the first month and a half was rough from a morning sickness perspective, but it was tempered by the deep contentment I felt at the prospect of holding this baby.
Would I be lying if I said I wasn’t paranoid about miscarriage?
Yes, absolutely. I’d had a miscarriage between our son and daughter and knew the statistics involved.
But I tried to put the worries to the back of my mind and allow myself to enjoy being pregnant.
It was as we rolled further along that things started to feel different. At 13 weeks we were told that the baby wasn’t growing at the rate expected, that the measurements ‘weren’t looking very promising.’
I felt a sudden, visceral dread that everything I was so desperate not to happen was about to happen. And a couple of weeks later, it did.
The details of how my miscarriage unfolded are difficult to relive, it was potently, painfully real and yet utterly surreal. Suffice it to say, I was taken by ambulance to hospital where I stayed overnight and the next day to be monitored.
I was bereft, exhausted and lonely. My hormones were all over the place, my body felt confused and unfamiliar and, you’ve guessed it, anxiety took hold again.
I’d spent the previous fifteen weeks growing this little one, this unexpected new blessing that we were so grateful to welcome. My body had hummed with two heartbeats instead of just one, my belly was beginning to round and I’d pondered whether I’d go into labour on my Dad’s birthday in December (our due date).
I have a fairly philosophical outlook on life, I try to accept the things I can’t change and don’t pretend that life ever promised to be fair or predictable. I accepted that we’d lost our baby – I was desperately sad about it, but I accepted it had happened and that I couldn’t change it.
For me, the mental health challenge remains ongoing. Not (as mentioned above) because I’m not able to move on with an acceptance of what happened, but because physically the miscarriage caused a lot of disruption to my health.
I’ve been severely anaemic since it happened, with each monthly period like its own miscarriage, causing me to feel faint, with sudden rushes of intense heat and blurred vision. Because of this, every month I’m plunged back into the emotions I felt when I was losing our baby, as I slipped in and out of consciousness in our bathroom waiting for the ambulence to arrive.
Trying to move on, despite my willingness to intellectually, is challenging when every month brings with it a week of extreme flashbacks and trauma. In January this year, I was referred to the hospital gynaecology department for scans and investigation. The current waiting time is 40-50 weeks.
And so here we are, hopefully by Christmas I’ll have been seen by referral and things – healthwise – will improve.
Yes, one in every four weeks is really hard, but the rest of the time I can truly say I am deeply content. We have two healthy children, and I’m forever grateful.
They’re the most joyful, inspiring tonic to the heaviness of grief my body carries each month, and a bitter-sweet reminder of why I’d have been so very happy to tuck a new little one beneath my arm at bedtime, when we settle in for stories.
On this world maternal mental health awareness day and every day that follows, my hope is that we all try to become more comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and we all have the humility to remember, time and again, that we rarely know the full picture of what is going on in the lives of those around us.
So much of my anxiety and burnout came from the unspoken expectation of people around me to avoid – at all costs – making them feel uncomfortable by how I was feeling. It caused me to internalise it all, to push down how I was feeling or what I was facing to lessen – or remove – any impact to them.
I didn’t want to rock the boat or be seen as ‘high maintenance’ or a problem to anyone. It takes its toll.
As a society, we ask a lot of women. We want high-performing professionals, but we also want nurturing mothers to carry and raise our children; we want maternity leave all tied up within a pre-determined amount of time and ideally, we don’t want the messy details of anything in between.
Until robots replace mothers, we need to keep improving the awareness around maternal mental health issues, keep opening up to those around us and showing support – not judgement – to women doing their best to be their best in incredibly challenging circumstances.