Having a baby is the most amazing thing is the world, right? It’s beautiful, natural, wondrous, and full of Mary Poppins moments when you totally ace parenting and go to bed smiling, thinking how amazing it all is. Or not.
For me, like so many other women out there, having a baby led to the darkest moments of my life. After the birth of my second child, I was diagnosed with postnatal depression (PND) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I know what you’re thinking; what on Earth do PTSD and childbirth have in common? PTSD is what front-line soldiers suffer from, so how can that be compared to the beauty of childbirth? Stick with me while I endeavor to explain.
I know what you’re thinking; what on Earth do PTSD and childbirth have in common?
My second child was born 25 months after my firstborn, Oscar, whom I delivered in the UK in a midwife unit. He was a big one (4.13 kilos) and made quite the entrance into the world, but we were both happy and healthy and I fell in love with him instantly. We had our wobbles (breastfeeding isn’t as easy as the world would have you think and reflux is one of the biggest parenting nightmares I’ve ever experienced), but none of this compared to the trauma of my second.
At 3.88 kilos, my amazing little bundle decided it was time to join the world exactly on her due date, which I thought was splendid as I was rather huge and a little tired of being so. I went into labor at 2 a.m. I had a bath, moved around, drank tea, danced to the soundtrack of Pulp Fiction – all of the things your normal laboring mom would do, except maybe for the soundtrack. When dad awoke, I informed him that D-day had arrived; we called our Doula and headed to the hospital. From that moment on, things took a turn for the worst.
My hospital of choice seemed extremely unprepared for a mom turning up so far advanced and the doctors and nurses were rather panicked. This obviously led me to feel rather unsafe and unsure of my decision to be there. After a very short labor, my little girl was born, but rather than that moment being the tremendous occasion following which I get to adore her, know her, hold her, and feed her, she was whisked away without any indication of her gender or her health.
In the five minutes between my water breaking in the carpark of the hospital and my delivery (yes, seriously, it was that quick), my baby girl had aspirated meconium (this means she emptied her bowels and it had been sucked into her tummy and lungs, which is really not a good thing). As a result, she spent the next eight days in NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit). During this time, I stayed in the hospital with her, expressing milk, talking to her, just trying to be with her as much as I could. She was my baby and I was her mommy; to leave her didn’t seem like something I could do.
However, by the second day, I knew that something was wrong with me. I wasn’t okay. I wasn’t the elated, excited, happy mother that I should have been. Yes, I could put this down to the situation, but it was more than that; it couldn’t be rationalized so easily. Something was definitely wrong with me. During the eight days I was in the hospital, at no point did anyone ask if I was okay. At no point did anyone sit down and acknowledge that it must be horrifying to see your baby in an incubator, to not be able to hold or touch her, to hear her cry because she is hungry but not be able to feed her. At no point did anyone see I was hurting so much. I felt like I’d lost a limb, like my baby had been ripped from me and was being kept in an incubator that acted like an electric fence between us. I could see her, but I couldn’t get to her or give her what she needed. To make matters worse, the doctor in charge of her care was very traditional in his ways, and would only share information with my husband — which pushed me even further down the path of despair and started a cycle of fear that would last years.
After a week of X-rays, antibiotics, distance from my baby, and very little information, she was – all of a sudden – handed back to me and I was told that, after one night in the hospital next to me, she would be ready to go home. As it turns out, this was more due to a space issue in the NICU than to my daughter being better.
I felt overwhelmed. Surely, if she was so sick, then she should be in hospital, right? She can’t have simply recovered overnight, can she? I haven’t breastfed her yet. What if she doesn’t know how to feed? What if I’ve forgotten how to do that? I don’t know how this one works; she’s been in a box for seven days. Are you sure she’s mine?
I don’t know how this one works; she’s been in a box for seven days. Are you sure she’s mine?
On day eight, things didn’t get any better. I should have been happy as we were going home, but instead I was filled with the overwhelming terror that, if I wasn’t with her and watching her 24/7, she would die. It wasn’t just a thought – it was an all-consuming, complete, and utter belief. She had been sick and then, all of a sudden, was ok; that can’t happen, which meant, to me, that the doctors were wrong. I had to be hyper-vigilant or I’d lose her. These are the thoughts that played inside my head, day after day.
I was terrified. I lived every minute of every day scared. I didn’t bond with her because I was too afraid that I’d lose her again and I couldn’t bear that. I functioned like a robot, meeting her practical needs but neither her nor my emotional needs. I didn’t allow myself to get close to her, to love her as she deserved, because it was too risky.
After six months of living in fear, I became suicidal, too terrified to sleep, not bonding, and not coping. I had been reaching out to my husband for help, but he just didn’t understand and kept trying to reassure me that she was okay and that I should be happy that we have a beautiful baby girl.
I finally dragged myself to a doctor after breaking down at the cash desk in Spinneys. The poor check-out clerk asked how I was doing today and unwittingly set off a total emotional breakdown. That’s when I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. I was given a prescription for medication and sent home. While I knew that I needed the medication, what I needed so much more was support, someone to talk to, a safe place. As none of this was forthcoming, I went home and started looking for support groups, counsellors, anyone who would help, anyone who might understand why being a mother, this time around, was just not amazing.
Two things happened next. First, I started the medication and it helped. After six months, I began to feel more normal, but no one had told me that depression medication needed to be taken for 12 months to help stabilize your hormones. So, after six months, I started to wean myself off the meds. This led to a total catastrophe. I had a major relapse that led to me taking an overdose, which put me in the hospital.
After this, I was finally referred to talking therapy, where I went on to be diagnosed with PTSD due to birth trauma. After another year of medication and talking therapy, I was able to wean myself off the meds with the help of a wonderful family medicine doctor. I didn’t, however, really feel that the talking therapy was helping much. We just talked about the day-to-day parenting nightmares and not the trauma that led to the PTSD or PND so, after a year, I stopped going.
The second thing that happened was that I found some friends: Louise, Michelle, Louisa, and Heather. They all understood what I was going through because they too had been through or were going through PND themselves. These ladies saved my life! Whilst we are now scattered across the world or we just don’t get the time to see one another, I can never repay them for all that their friendship and understanding did for me.
Whilst in the pit of PND, every day was a struggle. Just getting out of bed was too much to bear; I wanted to hide from the world, my friends, my family, and my children. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t want to do it anymore. Being a mother wasn’t amazing, it wasn’t beautiful, and it wasn’t enough.
All of that happened nine years ago and we have all survived that difficult time. We are here, we are stronger, and my love for my children is everything it should be.
During my pregnancy, I had never, not once, considered that I could suffer from PND or PTSD. I was going to be Mary Poppins. I was going to have four children and be the best mother in the world. As it turns out, two amazing children and a good-as-I-can-be mom is where we are, and that’s okay with me as long as it’s okay with them.
Andrea Guy is a Dubai-based mother of two and the founder of Out of the Blues, a support group for women suffering from post-partum depression.