New Motherhood: the lies we tell each other, the world and ourselves
In Autumn of the year 2001 I found myself, to my surprise (but to no one else’s) in the blackened brick office of a community psychiatric nurse sobbing uncontrollably as I recounted details of the brutal labour nine months earlier that had heralded the arrival of my now darling 18 year old daughter.
Invisibly, that same day she was born, I was to learn only months later, her arrival had in turn also heralded the arrival of another visitor, this one one unwanted and unexpected.
Like a slow and potentially deadly carbon monoxide leak, post natal depression is insidious by nature, it creeps in, rubs itself up against you (like Eliot’s famous yellow fog) and licks its tongue into the corners of your psyche before you even realise it’s there.
Many of you who have suffered, will know that post natal depression is not typified by an Ophelia-esque kind of obvious lunacy. New mothers are too busy for that kind of crazy. We’re too busy being busy new mums: too busy with nappies, bathtimes, babygrow washing and bottle sterilising, doting on a new life…and of course, telling ourselves and the world around us a whole heap of lies about how ‘well’ we are doing.
The first lies about motherhood start months, years even, before any so called bundle of joy arrives. The lies are also present in the silence.
Before programmes like ‘One Born Every Minute’ arrived on our tellies, did my mother, grandmother or aunts ever talk about the realities of childbirth? Of course they bloody didn’t. I do remember though a knowing wry chuckle when I told my mum I was putting a pack of cards in my hospital overnight bag on the recommendation a certain Miriam Stoppard who claimed that labour could sometimes be ‘protracted and a bit boring’, so it was useful to take things you could distracted by.
The Edinburgh Post Natal Depression Questionnaire often jollily presented by your Health Visitor in your home in the first few weeks after birth, offers up another classic opportunity to present the breezy bright appearance of a happy new mum, tell enormous porkies and get away with it…for a little while at least.
- I blame myself when things go wrong… Don’t be daft.
- I have felt scared or panicky for no good reason… Ha! No!
- The thought of harming myself or my baby has occurred to me… No…..never…..I mean, really…..never. I swear….
If you are anything like me, (frankly terrified of this brand new and utterly helpless tiny human I had sole responsibility for) there seems only one glaringly obvious outcome to this test if you are brave enough to tell the truth, and that is that ‘they’ will take your baby away from you, and there’s no denying that preventing that is certainly something worth lying for.
For me, the trickery didn’t end there.
As my depression gathered pace, even my body seemed to start lying to me. Symptoms of my PND first manifested themselves in an inexplicable sense of doom and an unshakeable conviction that I was going to die, despite being an outwardly fit, healthy whipper snapping 28 year old. No amount of gentle reasoning from my husband, my parents or dearest friends would work…I was right, they were wrong. I would soon be dead, and would prove them all wrong. That would teach them, I would muse, as I mentally planned my own funeral.
The crisis point that eventually brought me to the attention of my GP was an MRI scan (privately paid for, because if we didn’t hurry to get that imaginary brain tumour diagnosed that I thought I was dying from it would be too late) that revealed…physiologically at least, there was absolutely nothing wrong with me.
This had been preceded however, by months of worsening physical symptoms that had started with an innocent enough tingling sensation in my finger tips. Within a few weeks I started to lose my balance. Wobbling around the house during those long lonely days at home, eventually, pre PND diagnosis, I could only walk from one side of the room to the other by hanging onto the table, the chairs, the kitchen cabinets, whilst all around me the world span and wobbled. The next and most alarming symptom that brought me to the attention of a neurologist was facial paralysis, and it was he, gently, who first suggested I might have PND, which in turn eventually brought me to my knees in front of the psychiatric nurse who began to help me get better, with kind questions, the space to weep, and eventually a truthful understanding of what had led me there.
Louis Theroux’s recent documentary aired during the BBC’s Mental Health Week served as a timely and shocking reminder of the epic struggles with severe postpartum mental illness that some women have to contend with. Watching Katherine with one of the most debilitating forms of depression was both heartbreaking and telling. The same woman who had to have 24 hour suicide watch (so extreme was her psychosis) was at the same time uploading cute, artfully shot baby photos onto Instagram, and it made me wonder how many other new mums out there were unknowingly scrolling through Katherine’s Insta feed, the whole time their feelings of unworthiness being compounded by the same images that perpetuate the soft focus myth of new motherhood.
Some things haven’t changed in the last 18 years: Kylie and Madonna are still reinventing themselves, All Saints, University Challenge, and Antiques Roadshow are all still with us. Politicians are still twats and I still haven’t lost that half a stone. But thankfully some things are not, including the unspeakable stigma around mental ill health, that has meant I’ve barely spoken about this to anyone over the years. Katherine thankfully improved and was able to eventually leave her specialist mother and baby unit. My symptoms cleared up within a few months of my first CPN appointment, and at least now am sufficiently emboldened to even admit that it happened, but it’s taken me years to get here.
If a defining condition of being human is the desire to make sense of our own experiences, then I think one of the best ways to do this is by talking about them. We have a duty to each other and our daughters to tell the truth about new motherhood. Let’s cut through what Fi Glover recently described as the ‘industry of (false) expectation’. And let’s tell it unfiltered, let’s tell it like it really is in those early few weeks which are often quite simply bewildering and exhausting. And please, let’s finally be honest about it.