“You will be an awesome mother, you know what to do – you’re a midwife”. That was the comment I received my whole pregnancy. I always denied this and deep down I knew what I was in for, yet at the same time I was so naive.
I just assumed I would breastfeed beautifully and exclusively for the first 12 months, which is what I recommended to all women I educated whilst at work. I assumed my baby would be the ‘dream baby’ and wake every four hours for feeds and settle straight away. I assumed I would be catching up with girlfriends for coffee and “mat leave” was a mini holiday away from dealing with the stressful maternity ward. Oh how I was so wrong.
I didn’t find out what the sex of the baby was; yet I was nervous if I had a baby girl as the relationship that I had with my mother was very difficult and I was fearful of making the same mistakes. My mother has a mental illness – bipolar with very narcissistic characteristics.
On a warm spring morning last year I gave birth to a perfect little girl. I had an amazing labour and birth, it was the most incredible experience and I would do that labour over a million times in comparison to the last 12 months I have endured. As soon as Charlie was born, something inside switched, a feeling of fear. I had to be perfect, I had to breastfeed, and I had to protect this little person.
I breastfed for two hours to begin with and Charlie was still screaming. The midwife said to me ‘oh you’re a midwife – you know what to do’. I was thinking, I have been up for over 24 hours, I am exhausted, and this baby will not stop screaming. The fear and uncertainty of my ability to be a mother had already set in before I got down to the ward.
The first four days after birth I did not sleep. I was delirious, pacing the ward thinking I was going to die. Finally, I saw a physiatrist who prescribed a sleeping pill to help me rest. My brain would not switch off. Charlie just would not stop screaming and when she did I couldn’t sleep; I was obsessed with pumping, as Charlie would not attach to the breast. I felt I would be labelled a failure if I gave her formula, I would ruin her little stomach, and I would be a failure like my mother and Charlie would hate me.
I eventually went home nine days after giving birth with a follow up appointment a week later. That week at home I did not sleep much. I could never sleep during the day, my brain was always switched on and during the night Charlie would just scream. I lost all 13 kilos during those first three weeks due to stress and not eating. How long could this last?
I had my follow up appointment with the physiatrist at the hospital and just cried, begging for her to call my husband and them both go back to The Netherlands, where he was from and they have a happy life together as I cannot do this anymore. I am a terrible mother, just like my mother. I just wanted to die. The doctor said, “we need to admit you”. I said “no I have to go home by myself, you can have Charlie”. I was admitted that day and transferred the next week to a mother baby unit that supports new mothers with Peri Natal Depression.
The next three weeks I stayed in hospital, receiving psychological help and medication to help with the depression and fear I was experiencing. I rarely slept, and did not feel that admission helped at all. Charlie and I left when she was six weeks old with community follow up. I was told by six weeks she should be starting to sleep through the night. The other mothers babies in my mother’s group were, so why was mine not?
I am a failure I thought. One Saturday morning, Charlie was just screaming and it would not stop. I just got in the car and left. I said to Charlie’s dad, I can’t do this anymore, the sleeplessness, the arguing with him, the screaming of her – I was done. I got in the car with the plan to drive to Brisbane for a new life by myself, hoping that I would smash my car and die.
That’s when the first moment I knew I was really unwell. I stopped to fill the car up with petrol and I heard someone laughing at me, like an evil clown snickering in my left ear. I looked around and there was no one there. It fuelled my urge to get away even faster away from Sydney, away from that screaming baby.
I pulled over at Newcastle and just looked at the beach and cried. I had so many questions about me being a mother. The only person who I needed to talk to, I feared – my mother. I had not spoken to her in over five years. The last conversation I had with her was her hanging up on me saying ‘I wish I never had you, you’re selfish, I wish you were dead’. But I was desperate, I called her, hoping and wishing she had changed that she could be the mother I always wanted and needed. “Margaret?”* I asked. “Yes” she replied. “It’s Amanda; your daughter, how are you?” “Oh… she replied. I was devastated. She had not changed, yet I spoke to her on the phone for 90 minutes hoping for some answers. She was just so disappointed that I had not told her that I had Charlie. I reminded her of our last conversation and didn’t know if she wanted to talk to me. Her narcissistic personality came out and the emotional abuse continued. Comments such as “you’re not breastfeeding – you will never bond with your daughter”, “I left you with the early childhood nurse – I hated you”. I listened to this and thought, I need to get back to that screaming monster, as much as the situation is driving me mental at the moment, I can’t be like my mother. – Charlie deserves better. I cried and screamed the whole way down the freeway.
My mental health continued to decline over Christmas time; Charlie was three months old; I had stopped trying to breastfeed and express every three hours. I had put her onto lactose free formula and started to observe less crying.
I saw the psychiatrist and she recommended that I change to another antidepressant. At this time I was in a residential facility that supported women with mental illnesses with a nurse onsite, so if I needed help it was available. I continually screamed as much as Charlie did. I feared the nights as to how much sleep I would not get. I started withdrawing from the medication and it was the lowest, scariest point of my life. I would see bugs flying at me, I would see images of myself dead, the nightmares where horrific, with the lowest point of thinking there was a green monster with his hand crawling up my spine saying, “I am going to take over your brain, I will control your thoughts – you are going to die”. The hallucinations became so violent, that I was admitted back to hospital.
This admission was longer than the first and more intense. I felt so unsupported, yet support was physically present. Charlie was four months at this stage and still screamed. That’s when another really low point occurred. I gave her to a nurse and said “I can’t do this anymore, I have called an adoption agency to take her. I do not deserve this little person. She obviously hates me and screams. I am just like my mother”. We worked through this and I kept Charlie and I was discharged with lots of support in the community.
I continue to work on my mental health. I am still on the same antidepressant, but trying to wean off of it, as the nightmares and insomnia is still there 12 months on. I work with an amazing counsellor each week. Charlie and I have an amazing relationship now, I noticed at around the 6-7 month mark I felt this unconditional love for her that I assumed I would have at first sight. I have returned back to work 1 day a week, and I am such a changed midwife after having my own baby and experience, I have so much empathy and understanding. I am a full advocate for women’s mental health and provide support and guidance; in addition to a website I have created to share experiences and create a sense of community mongst mothers who are experiencing mental health conditions in the peri partum period.
Charlie and I still have days that are difficult. There is no timeframe on getting better from PND. My advice is be vocal about how you are feeling, seek help, there is no shame in asking for help. Raising a child is the most emotionally challenging thing in the world. Be kind to yourself, know that you are doing the best you can. I now get wonderful moments with Charlie and it eases the memories of the first six months.