I got my period this morning and it made me cry.
I'm not trying to have a baby. I'm 42, my "baby" is 13 and I have adult daughters. My days of newborns and nappies are done. But something happened that I wasn't expecting.
I am grieving.
But I'm not grieving the loss of a baby. I'm grieving the loss of the kind of mother I wanted to be and I'm never going to get the chance to do this again. To do it differently with all the knowledge I have now.
All I had ever wanted was to be a mum. I had no plans for any kind of career or travel. I wanted to settle down, get married and have a family. I dreamed about the type of mum I would be. I wanted to be a stay at home mum, making home made baby food and going for long walks. I would be the kindy mum and volunteer in the canteen. I had it all planned out.
After suffering from PCOS and having a cyst removed which left scarring on one Fallopian tube when I was 20, I was told it was unlikely I would fall pregnant without assistance. Not long after this, I got married and we started trying for a baby - expecting it to take at least 5 years before I would fall pregnant - if at all.
After just 1 year, I was pregnant. After seeing those two pink lines come up on the pregnancy test, I was so excited! Terrified, but excited.
But after a blood test, I was told not to get my hopes up as my HGC levels weren't high enough to sustain a pregnancy. I was devastated. Looking back now, I think this is where my anxiety started. I had always been a little anxious as a child and struggled with depression in my teenage years, but I thought that was behind me. Yet this news triggered something inside me that I couldn't shake.
But day after day, week after week - I didn't start spotting, and my doctor told me that against the odds, my baby was going to be ok! So I started planning for the life we were going to have. I decorated the nursery (sunflower yellow - very "in" in the year 2000), bought all the cute clothes and lovingly washed them all in Lux flakes. I spent hours folding and refolding them and packing them back into the little drawers, chatting with my baby the whole time.
Throughout my pregnancy, I would get little niggles of uncertainty, but I just assumed that was normal when you have your first baby. I pushed away any thoughts that things wouldn't be "perfect" and enjoyed a healthy pregnancy.
And then one day in August, I bent down to tie my shoelaces to go for a walk and I felt my first twinge. I called my husband to come home and and laboured at home for a few hours. Then, we headed to the hospital and after a few hours, my baby girl was born. I had no complications, no pain relief and aside from basically being ignored by my obstetrician the entire time (he was more interested in having me lay on my back to 'deliver' my baby and chat with my husband about the football), her birth was pretty magical. I was in awe of what my body could do and totally in love with this tiny pink bundle. I felt fulfilled.
All was rosy until about day 3 and my milk came in - and with it, the baby blues. My sister, who'd had 4 babies before me, told me this was totally normal and that it would pass. Then I started to struggle with breastfeeding. A nurse actually said to me "I can just tell you're going to give up and give her formula!". I was beside myself! I felt like I'd failed before I had even started.
Things slowly went downhill from there. We took our baby girl home and while she was an absolute dream, I was a mess! I started to check on her multiple times as she was sleeping to make sure she was still breathing. I was scared to take her anywhere in the car in case I had an accident. When I went out anywhere, I was paranoid about people touching her in case they made her sick. On top of this, I was still struggling to breastfeed her and was away from my family. I was exhausted and completely overwhelmed.
Then when she was just 5 months old, my marriage ended. I moved to be closer to my family, but I found I couldn't seem to make decisions, I wasn't sleeping and OCD started to kick in. I was obsessively cleaning and checking on her, stressing over every noise or cough. Once she started crawling, I would need to follow her around everywhere and put any toys back straight away if she moved them. I was spiralling into depression and I needed help.
I saw a GP who diagnosed postnatal depression and anxiety (PND/A), and while I was offered anti-depressants at this time, I didn't want to take them. He referred me to a psychologist which I found really helpful to start processing all that had been happening. When my daughter was 12 months old, I moved in with my sister for extra support and started a university degree. While this was not the life I had pictured for my family, I started to adjust to this new normal and felt I was finally easing into motherhood.
When Jas was 3 1/2 years old, I met the man who is now my husband. He also had a daughter around the same age as Jas and we hit it off straight away. Eventually, we moved in together and became a family of four with both the girls living with us the majority of the time.
What I didn't expect with this change, was for the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm to return. I hadn't carried and birthed a new baby. I didn't have months of sleepless nights and feeding issues. But what I had done was take on the mothering role and all the responsibility for another child. Don't get me wrong, this was a conscious choice and I feel truly grateful to be her mum, I just wasn't prepared for how overwhelming it would be.
Raising a blended family comes with it's own set of complex issues and while I thought I was prepared for this, clearly, I was not. We had even gone to counselling to get advice on the best way to do this, yet I still felt completely overwhelmed with my new role as mum of 2 with the added stress of other parents in the mix.
When the girls were 7, we welcomed a fifth member to our little family. During this pregnancy, I was determined to do it all "right". My husband was incredibly supportive (something that was seriously lacking in my first marriage). I went to ABA classes so I'd know ALL THE THINGS and I was determined to breastfeed my baby. I attended hypnobirthing classes to help me prepare for my birth and throughout my whole pregnancy, I felt calm and prepared. I thought there was no way PND/A would hit me again - this time it would be different.
After a beautiful, but fairly quick, natural birth where I felt incredibly empowered and confident, we welcomed our son into the world. I felt amazing after he was born - like I could take on anything! I thought I'd be able to leave hospital after a couple of days and I really wanted to be in my own home and back looking after my girls.
But my baby had a different plan. He started to lose too much weight and they wound't let us leave the hospital. My milk came in and with it, the baby blues once again, but I felt more prepared for it this time. I knew it would pass.
After a week in hospital, we were allowed to take him home and had to monitor his weight closely. We arrived home and he was doted on by his big sisters - they were both totally in love with him! I had spoken to my child health nurse about my history and she would keep an eye on me. We settled into our new routine and while I was tired, I was feeling pretty confident I could handle it.
But then the feeding issues started - and they were totally different to the problems I had the first time around! He cried all the time, we barely slept and I was experiencing vasospasm after every feed (*vasospasm happens when blood vessels tighten and go into spasm, so that blood does not flow normally. Mothers with vasospasm of the nipple feel sharp pain, burning or stinging in the nipple. It is usually accompanied by sudden whitening of the nipple, followed by a colour change from red to blue).
So I would feed him for an hour then have this incredibly painful vasospasm for 45 minutes to an hour after each feed, only to have him wake and want to feed again. It was a relentless cycle of feeding, pain, tears and frustration and it wasn't long before I was completed exhausted.
But I was determined to breastfeed him! I sought out the help of a lactation consultant who told me he had a very high palate and that this was affecting his latch - causing the vasospasms. He was still not gaining enough weight, so she taught me how to express milk and use a breastfeeding supplementer to feed him.
So off we went with the hope that this would work and he'd be able to feed well and get what he needed from me one way or another! But he also had reflux which was why he was constantly in pain and cried more than he slept. This was where I came unstuck.
I remember a night when my husband came into the room after I'd fed him and I practically threw the baby to him. I couldn't bear to have him near me anymore and I was so tried I could hardly stand. My husband took it all in his stride (bless him) and spent the next couple of hours pacing the hallway with our baby so I could sleep.
My thoughts were running in circles and I started catastrophising - what if I had a car accident on the way to dropping the girls at school, what if my baby died in his sleep, what if my husband left me because I wasn't coping.... the thoughts were relentless.
After weeks of this, plus trying to look after my girls and get them off to school and cook the meals and keep up with the washing....
I was done.
Even with a super supportive, hands-on husband who was working from home at the time, I fell to pieces. I was struggling to get out of bed, I didn't want to see anyone, and the idea of leaving the house was terrifying.
And I was so angry!
I had done all the "right" things. I had an amazing pregnancy and birth, I had been to all the classes, I had a fantastic husband, a supportive family and close friends. Why was this happening to me again? How could I be so prepared and WANT this so much, only to have it not work out the way I wanted it too?
After meeting with my child health nurse and crying for about an hour, she referred me to a PND support group. I saw my GP who prescribed antidepressants. This time, I took them. I was on antidepressants for the first 3 years of my son's life.
And this is where the grief comes in.
Over that three years, I felt numb. I felt like I was playing a role. I looked like I was doing all the typical mum-things. I loved my children, I cuddled them and we'd play together. I chatted with the other school mums like I was just fine and helped out in the classrooms. But I remember going to a movie with my husband and the kids and while they were all laughing, I just couldn't. I couldn't feel the joy. I could't feel anything.
One day, after dropping the girls to school and my son to daycare, I was driving back home and as I went around a bend in the road, I wondered "what would happen if I just kept driving straight and went over the edge....". I wasn't suicidal, I didn't want to kill myself, but I wanted the thoughts and the exhaustion to just STOP.
The guilt I have over not being the mother I wanted to be breaks me every time I think about it. The regret of not being fully present to my children, to my husband, to my life, is still close to the surface.
After three years on antidepressants, strong anti-inflammatory medication for chronic back pain and a huge amount of weight gain, I decided enough was enough. I met a woman who changed the way I looked at the food we were eating. I dramatically changing my diet, and I was able to come off all my medication. My children's health dramatically improved too, and I decided to study a nutrition degree so that I could help other families like mine.
Throughout my study, my focus was to work with children. I went into schools and taught the importance of understanding your body and what types of foods it needs to thrive. I finished my study and jumped straight into clinical practice - again with a focus on children's health.
I kept feeling a pull towards working with pregnant mums and new babies, but I kept ignoring it. At the time, I didn't understand why, but kept telling myself I wasn't "qualified" enough.
Then one day I was asked to do a talk on gut health in pregnancy by a child-birth educator colleague of mine and I said yes. Being in this room and talking with all these expectant mums shifted something in me. I went home after giving the talk and cried.
I cried for the loss of the kind of mum I had wanted to be back then. I cried out of anger for needing to take medication and how it made me feel. I cried for what I missed out on and what my babies missed out on from me.
But then I stopped crying, and I made the decision to let it all go. I couldn't change what had happened. I knew that at the time, I really needed that medication. I knew my babies all loved me and that I did the best I could.
This was when I decided to change the focus in my clinical practice and I started working with pregnant and postnatal mums and young babies. I threw myself onto more study and research on pregnancy and postnatal health and learned the vital role nutrition plays in mental health. I started presenting on postnatal depletion and postnatal depression & anxiety and I developed an online program to support mums with introducing solids. This program turned out to much less about food and way more about supporting mums to feel confident in making informed decisions for themselves and their children's health.
As I started writing and developing tools and resources for these mums, I realised how much I needed this for myself too. I put together all the things that I wish I'd had back then. All the lessons I'd learned, all the people who were qualified to help (midwives and childbirth education practitioners, lactation consultants, sleep and behaviour specialists, psychologists, supportive GP's and integrative doctors), the people to follow on social media that show what motherhood can really be like - the good, the bad and the ugly!
I also signed up to be a PANDA Community Champion to help raise awareness and eliminate the stigma of perinatal mental illness. PANDA have brilliant resources, including mental health checklists, support for dad's and partners and a free helpline.
I didn't know it straight away, but working with these woman has healed me. While I won't be having another baby, and I can't go back and change anything, I now get to work with woman and their babies and help them navigate their own way through motherhood.
By sharing my own experience with postnatal depression and anxiety and my transition to motherhood with each child, I hope that I help another mum who may not be coping to know that she's not alone. That it's OK to struggle with motherhood and that you're not supposed to know what you're doing all the time! That there is help available and it doesn't mean you've failed if you need it - in whatever form that comes in.
PANDA National Helpline: 1300 726 306⠀
Lifeline: 13 11 14⠀⠀
Kids Helpline: 1800 551 800⠀⠀
Beyond Blue: 1300 224 636⠀⠀
Suicide callback service: 1300 659 467⠀
National Breastfeeding Helpline 1800 686 268
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