Something transpired out of motherhood, rising from the ashes like a giant pink flamingo. It probably began earlier than I care to admit, but a few weeks after Devin was born, my focus was gone, my routine and schedule, all fragmented and I suddenly felt this overwhelming urge to blow up. It was less to do with the fact that we had a five-week-old baby and more to do with the extreme possibility I was suffering from intense postnatal anxiety and depression.
This is not an easy post to write as anyone who has suffered mental health issues will know. For me, it’s probably one of the most important things to discuss about being Momma Bear though. Which is why its in three parts because this story is longer than I wish it to be. The reason I am writing it here is so that you know you’re not alone. That those feelings are not you but rather that wild flamingo taking over.
With every word I write in this conversation, it is all underlined with, “It’s ok to not be ok,” and if I could drop some neon lights and fireworks on these pages, they would twinkle with those words whispering in your ear over and over again.
After Devin was born, I spent more than a year fighting irrational, unpredictable, upsetting and painful feelings, mingled with an intense guilt, doubt and hate towards myself, as though everything I felt was my own fault or of my own making. It wasn’t. It’s only now, with some distance from those difficult days that I can see how strong I actually was to fight and get myself better, without medication no less. I was not being a martyr by refusing medicinal help, I simply chose a different way and this is my story.
In the beginning, as any new mother would do, I questioned whether I was suffering the baby blues as the pregnancy hormones began to leave my body and sent me into a spiral. After Allegra, the baby blues kicked me sideways and I cried incessantly for days. That deep, guttural cry that makes you lose your breath and all you can do is sit and rock yourself back into some sort of normality again. It was intense. But it disappeared and rarely came back. I suffered mild postnatal depression from when Allegra was three months old but that was more to do with the saddening isolation we can all feel, and less to do with the chemical imbalance of depression.
The somewhat ironic thing is when Devin was born, I felt an incredible euphoria that I had never felt before. I was on top of the world with sheer happiness. I felt strong, in control and unbelievably content. It may have been partly to do with the whoosh of hormones spiralling in my body or the final wave of relief after months of worrying if we’d ever get to see her tiny face and smell her sweet blonde hair.
What’s This Stirring
In the weeks before her birth however, I suffered anxiety and apprehension which I assumed was due to being incredibly nervous about the C section. I could feel it building and it scared me. It was a forewarning for what was to come in a way. I said I wouldn’t lie or dazzle the darkness with glitter, but I do find it difficult to write about this period in my life when it was my family, and notably my children, who took the brunt of my behaviour. The reason I talk about it so openly is because I spent too long blaming myself for this behaviour. I suffered intense anxiety attacks and moments of anger and frustration which, to me, did not equate to the ordinary feelings of postnatal depression. I was not sad, or low, despondent or miserable. I was not depressed. Or so I thought.
Surely, I was simply not coping, and I was being a bad Momma Bear. Get your act together. There’s nothing wrong with you. I chastised myself. I blamed myself. Anything to take the anger and frustration away from Allegra who sadly witnessed more than she should ever have.
When there were weeks left before I was due into hospital for an elective C Section, myself and Allegra were alone. Together. Best friends for a time before our family would become four voices and eight arms all grabbing for attention. She had Momma Bear to herself which all little girls want. I had days planned, memories to make with just her. But I was not myself and I could feel a frustration and anxiety bubble beneath my toes every day. She took the brunt of moments when anxiety got the better of me.
She was confused when I threw her breakfast bowl in the sink with the cereal and milk splashing up on the window, not knowing why Momma Bear was angry. All because my frustration level erupted and within seconds I was having an anxiety attack. Unable to understand, control or stop the attack, it played out in front of her little eyes. She saw me cry those heavy tears, not knowing what was wrong, what was happening or if she needed to get help.
She was the one who eventually, patted my back and told me to breathe, coaching me through meditation. And this was just the beginning. The beginning of what became her norm, a norm she readily accepted and never hated me for.
Whether my euphoria after Devin’s birth was due to sheer relief that the surgery was over, pure happiness at meeting our baby girl, or a surge of hormones creating a chemical imbalance in my worn out and damaged body, it was inevitable that I was bound to come crashing down. But it happened slowly. It snuck up behind me, sneaking through the shadows and eventually grabbed both my arms behind my back and left me completely defenceless.
Home Alone with Anxiety
The first two weeks at home, Papa Bear was on paternity leave, and we enjoyed some beautiful family days out. I felt as though I was coping with the lack of sleep and didn’t berate myself for switching to formula feeding when breastfeeding didn’t work out for me. Allegra was delighted with her baby sister and accepted her into our family and home with no worries. Everything truly did seem perfect as we took the obligatory first day’s pics and battled against our desire to adopt a siege mentality again.
Towards the end of Papa Bear’s second week off work, I began to dwell too much on when he would return to work. I began to worry. I began to dread that first day. Those anxious feelings and spates of panic came back.
Surprisingly, that first day alone with two kids was quite nice and relaxed, and Papa Bear walked in the door that evening to a happy family. The second day was when the realisation hit that the frequent anxiety I was feeling was more than straightforward worry about being on my own with two children.
I had met my sister for lunch, and we took a stroll around the shops after picking the kids up from pre-school. The wind was warm, we wore no coats and if I was so inclined to let my legs see daytime, it would have been one of those days for a short skirt. We bought ice pops, to be licked as we walked through the town. Allegra and her cousin ran on ahead of us as we lumbered our way up a ramp with a buggy each. Allegra ran fast. Too fast for my liking as the ramp ended and the busy road started. I screamed. I shouted. I was the mother everyone swiftly looks at because someone has stolen her child. I could barely hear my own voice above the panic in my head.
I broke down that day when I felt the overwhelming panic and pressure and intense fear that I was doing everything wrong. I suddenly felt out of control, lost and unable to cope, as I crouched there beside the three-week-old in the buggy, shouting at the three-and-a-half-year-old not to run away on me. She looked at me wondering why I was so mad. She wasn’t going to run into the road. She wasn’t going too fast. She was fine.
I cried incessantly. I couldn’t breathe. I thought the desperation would go on forever. And that was when I realised that this was not me. This reaction was stronger, harder and more severe than anything I’d felt before. The uselessness, and anxiety I felt was taking over.
But as with anything, it passed, and I felt good again until the next time. And it made me question what was it exactly I was suffering from? Was I simply trying to deal with the upheaval of having a newborn and a three-year-old? Was I suffering from the incredible exhaustion that comes with night feeds and being on the go all day long? Was I regaining my normal hormone balance as the pregnancy hormones say goodbye? Was I suffering from Postnatal Depression? Anxiety?
In comparison to what I felt the first time postpartum, this time felt so much different. So much more intense. With so little control. At five weeks, I was still experiencing the painful pang of what felt like depression mixed with anxiety and confusion. I realised I needed help because I couldn’t make sense of those bewildering emotions and break outs of anger and frustration. When I say anger, I mean rage. Completely unpredictable and confusing. There was not much that didn’t set me off. A wrong word, being pulled at, burning toast, struggling to get the wipes out. There was a bubbling nervousness under my chest that could erupt at any time.