1-7 May: Maternal Mental Health Week

I was just scrolling through Facebook this evening, you know, doing some important web-based research, when I saw a post saying that it was Maternal Mental Health Week this week (May 1-7). According to talkingmums.com, up to one in five women experience mental health issues either during pregnancy or in the year following birth. Yet, out of these women, only 7% of them are typically referred for specialist help.

How many of you, like me, have suffered from PND, yet never admitted it to a doctor or health professional? How many of you out there are still suffering?

I’ll never forget the moment I knew for sure I was suffering from PND. Alison was only three months old and we had just discovered (or rather, the Public health nurse finally believed me) that she had a cow’s milk allergy. We had Ali put on special formula. She started gaining weight and became the happiest baby ever, sleeping through the night and everything.

I should’ve been happy, but I wasn’t. Relieved, yes. Happy? No.

All I wanted to do is disappear. I was just waiting for the right time.

I had this vision of having PND as standing over your baby’s cot with a pillow in your hand or wanting to throw your baby down a flight of stairs. While I appreciate that some women feel like that (and this doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re unwell and need help), I didn’t. I felt that my daughter was the most perfect person in the world and that she must have done something truly horrible in life to end up with a mother like me.

I didn’t know that PND meant looking in the mirror and being repulsed by the pathetic specimen staring back.

I didn’t realise that ignoring it wouldn’t make it go away. I ended up in the doctor with chest pains, shoulder pains, stomach aches and yet the doctor couldn’t find physiological reasons for any of them. She prescribed painkillers which didn’t seem to help. I always denied feeling down or depressed. Big smile on my face. Sure what would I have to be depressed about?

By May 2014, I could barely get out of bed. I wasn’t eating properly. I was crying all the time; it was all  I seemed to want to do. In order to get from one end of the day to the other, I had to measure my time in hourly units. Then half-hourly, and towards the end, minute by minute. If I can hold myself together for ten more minutes I’ll be grand, I would think to myself. But of course, I wasn’t grand – far from it.

When I took time off work, I considered my treatment options. I know it sounds ridiculous and shallow, but the thought of going on antidepressants filled me with dread. I wasn’t too keen on counselling either as my previous experiences were quite negative. But I knew I had to do something, so I started writing. Writing how I felt. Writing about my flaws. Writing about my talents. Suddenly, I felt liberated. I’m not recommending this course of action over medication or counselling, but writing was my saviour. It’s something I enjoy, am (reasonably) good at and writing my thoughts and feelings down helped me to own them, and then let them go.

Postnatal Depression has changed me into someone different to who I used to be. I am more sensitive now, and I hate myself for it. I’m still conscious of how people perceive me as a mother. In addition, I now have to make a conscious effort to look after my mental health, to recognise the signs of feeling sad or overwhelmed and act on them before they take over. I also have to be careful. I love helping people, but I have a tendency to internalise their problems to the point where they become my own problems. Sometimes I need to step back, say no and this is hard. I hate doing it.  But I have to remind myself that if I don’t mind myself, I can’t help others.

This week is National Maternal Mental Health Week, and while it’s great to have a platform to write about PND and mental health, the issue of maternal health shouldn’t be confined to a mere seven days of the year. We need to open up the conversation to all mothers, make them feel supported and not feel alone. When I published my long preamble about my experience with PND, I was convinced that either no-one would read it or that it would be dismissed as being a tad melodramatic. What I didn’t expect was the hordes of girlfriends, as well as women I’d never met, emailing me their stories and reminding me that I was not alone. Thanks to those women for validating my story and for making me feel that my depression was completely normal.

And if you are reading this, and you are silently suffering from pre- or post-natal depression, you are not alone either. Look after yourself and get the help you need. Trust me – even mothers who appear to be perfect can suffer silently.

You are worth the help. And after the fog lifts, life becomes so much simpler.

You are wonderful. You are beautiful. You are everything to your children, and they deserve you just as much as you deserve them.

But you can’t pour from an empty cup, so look after yourself.

Halloween Tricks and Treats

I am absolutely exhausted. I keep forgetting that I’m not Martha Stewart and I’ve spent a good part of today baking and making little treats with Ali. JP says that we were making memories, but that’s not what I would’ve called our kitchen circa 3pm this afternoon. Think confined space, sticky gloop and hand grenade. Funny how none of that is captured in those expensive baking magazines, eh? (In hindsight, marshmallow top-hats would’ve sufficed. Making muffins was pure madness, especially for someone who is almost allergic to baking).

Ali was harping on at me for ages to have a Halloween party, but to be honest, I don’t think Halloween is that big a deal. It certainly wasn’t in our day, when the majority of costumes were plastic masks and bin liners (I haven’t seen a kid in a bin liner in yonks). I certainly don’t believe in holding unnecessary gatherings which require cleaning up of any description unless it’s not in my house. We didn’t have Halloween parties, although some of the other children did. They were weirdly extravagant affairs, with material costumes and Halloween decorations.

I remember how I used to almost resent mum for this lack of effort, for this apathy towards what was such an important holiday. She didn’t even let us go trick-or-treating on our own: instead, we were bundled into the back of the car and escorted to her friends’ houses, where we would stay for half an hour at a time. I wasn’t impressed that she would let my older brother Steve go by himself. I remember the really early days, when Steve was still trick-or-treating, emptying our bags, trawling for cash. We’d usually be able to stump up about four pounds and Steve would walk to Egans the next day and buy four hundred penny sweets which would be long eaten before we’d touched all the monkey nuts we accumulated.

I  don’t think anyone in our house liked Bairin Breac, so every year mum would bake two apple tarts (which we sometimes ate after Trick-or-Treating) and hide punt coins wrapped in greaseproof paper. No ring shite for her; she made mauling her apple tart worthwhile. She also bought sweets for the trick-or-treaters, which was rare at the time, and I know for a fact that certain trick-or-treaters changed costumes and visited our house more than once! (Won’t mention names though – the past is the past and all that). And that was Halloween.  No frills, no party games or bobbing for apples. Pretty boring really.

And then one Halloween night, in 2001 to be exact, Dad got a phone call to say that his mother had passed. He looked so forlorn, so lost, and so tired, having only come in from work fifteen minutes before.  Fifteen years have passed, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like it. It’s something that all we cousins remember even now. After all, gatherings at granny’s was often the only place we were all together, and now that was gone. Her wake and her funeral happened during midterm, and us girls went back to school, a little bit emptier.

As an adult, the feeling of loss is what I now associate with Halloween, but as a parent, I want Alison to remember Halloween for the right reasons. I want her to remember fun and happiness, and not sadness. I want her to remember the lengths we went to to decorate, to make treats, to enjoy each other. But sometimes I have to remember to calm the f**k down.

As scary as it is, there’s certain things I just can’t control. It’s taken me a while to learn it, and one day, she will learn it too. It doesn’t mean that I’ll stop trying to make her happy. Although next year, I might just decorate shop-bought madeiras instead. And in doing so, I’ll be teaching her something important: there’s no point in trying to be something you’re not.