PLEASE NOTE: THIS POST CONTAINS DETAILS OF POSTNATAL DEPRESSION & ANXIETY
Being left alone with my first child to care for was terrifying. I’d set expectations that I’d be returning to my career as a project planner six weeks’ post-partum. I’d also undertaken an evening course during my pregnancy that allowed me to apply for a place at University of Sussex to study linguistics. That was to happen 12 weeks’ post-partum. My daughter was to go into full-time childcare from 6 weeks, that was my naïve plan. Having not had the birth I’d fantasied about or acknowledging how that impacted my initial bonding with my eldest, combined with being housebound due to recovering from major abdominal surgery left me feeling that every aspect of my life was out of control. The entirety of my carefully laid out plans began to unfold and I was unwilling to accept it. I didn’t defer my place at University until the week I was due to be on campus and I couldn’t pluck up the courage to face the embarrassment and my own self-perceived failure of not being physically able to return to work. I was denying the fact that I’d become a mother of the stereotypes I had previously mocked due to their gender definition, and that it added to my feelings of failure due to being the opposite to the life I’d built myself. Once, I’d been independent, well-rested and spontaneous. Yet now I was negotiating with a child over how many more spoonfuls of food they’d eat. For all the unconditional love I experienced from my children, I still longed to have my ‘old’ life back for quite some time.
Having had my children in a city where the only people I knew were professionals, where I had no family or friends locally was isolating. It’s around this time that I recall becoming more aware of my anxious thoughts. Not only around trying to keep the baby safe and nourished, but around whether I was ‘doing it right’. Coupling these kind of thoughts, with the loneliness I experienced having a partner who worked 80 hour weeks in a different city, and endeavouring to fulfil all the other pressures that I’d absorbed from the kids playgroups and social workers. I learnt to only project the ‘good mother’ to the outside world, whilst behind closed doors I crumbled.
My journey into motherhood meant questioning and considering parenting approaches, as I had no positive parenting template to work from. In my immediate social groups (playgroups & breastfeeding clinics), the approach was mainly ‘child-centered’ which was, and is, “emotionally, physically and financially intensive” (Pedersen, 2012. Pg.231) I only began to realise just how intensive this style of parenting was when I had my second child. Whilst my first pregnancy was planned, my second pregnancy was a surprise. My reaction was of denial and blaming my husband for ‘getting me pregnant’. Combined with the loss of a parenting ideal and my partners shifting expectations, I felt I didn’t allow sufficient space for me to grieve for my eldest daughter. In that I lost the one-on-one time I could devote to her as I now had another baby, and the shift this caused in our relationship left me feeling resentful. “Women are so afraid of this loss of connection that their expressions of anger are frequently accompanied by tears, guilt and sorrow” (Lerner, 1996 Pg. 56) That through my expression of anger, through acknowledging my loss of self, I felt I would be alone and outcast. Whilst I would give my life for my children and love them unconditionally, there were points where I felt that I genuinely couldn’t be the mother they deserved and that I was unworthy of their abundant love.
I know I calmed my anxious thoughts with the idea that if I’m a ‘good mother’ then no harm will come to my children and they’ll love the ‘unlovable’ me. But through focusing my efforts into my partners and societies ideals as to what this ‘good mother’ looks like, I ended up burnt out. What my children actually need and want is a mother who is her self, who loves herself as unconditionally as she loves her children, who puts as much effort into their safekeeping as she might her own. I remember at this point of acknowledging my own self-care, I had been in personal counselling for about a year as I’d hit rock bottom with life.
Depression reared its head through aspects of my own self-care. I didn’t care how I looked, I ate badly yet ensured the kids ate healthily, was sedentary and lacked any form of motivation. I didn’t cut my hair for over 18 months & needed two teeth extracting after binging on sugar. “Blocked anger is often a factor in obesity… something is preventing the matter consumed as food from turning into energy” (Judith, 2004 Pg.217). And the more I ate, the worse I felt physically and mentally. I didn’t recognise myself anymore, I didn’t know who I was.
In my grief process, I felt that depression was a constant companion whilst anger was unpredictable. I became angry because my children weren’t living up to my idealisation of what childhood would mean for them; surely if they have a stable, loving home then I’d completely avoid this notion of temper tantrums? How wrong I was. The mundanity and futility I felt towards the children’s emotional outbursts was disheartening, they were reflecting back the same emotions I displayed to them. I was frustrated and detached and that served to feed into my depressive mindset…
This is Part 2 of a 3 part series of a personal account of postnatal depression & anxiety.
Judith, A. (2004) Eastern Body Western Mind (revised): Psychology & the chakra system as a Path to the Self. Random House: Berkeley, USA
Lerner, H. (1989) Women in therapy. Harper Collins: New York
Pedersen, D. (2012) The Good Mother, the Good Father and the Good parent: gendered definitions of parenting. Journal of Feminist family therapy (24): pp 230-246