Have you ever felt that ‘eureka’ moment of connection with someone who describes exactly a feeling/situation you have experienced, but which you always assumed was so weird, you were the only one?
I remember getting it during one of my early days of volunteering with Juno. We were discussing the isolation of early motherhood: how it is so easy to be lonely when all you have for company is an infant who possibly can’t yet even smile or crawl, never mind have a decent conversation. Many mums find this a relaxing and special time; and yet for others it is a soul-sapping drudge of a period. Another volunteer mentioned how hopeful they would get when Pointless came on the TV every weekday at 5pm, and what a daily milestone this became; because Pointless on TV meant Daddy was leaving work, and by the time it finished, he might well be home. The luxury of adult conversation and a fellow human being to temporarily dump the baby on beckoned! Entire days could pass almost entirely based on a mantra of “if I can make it through until Pointless in x hours/minutes, I’ll be OK”. And they did. And they survived.
Other mums in the room nodded and smiled at this, some in recognition. I just about leapt off my chair with excitement. To hear someone articulate the same weird, somewhat socially unacceptable, feelings about a daytime TV programme that I’d had during my foggy days of postnatal depression was bloody wonderful! And this was several years after my recovery. To have had such a conversation right back in the midst of illness would have been even more impactful I’m sure.
Because postnatal depression, like any other form of perinatal mental illness, has a tendency to eat you alive. It painfully gnaws at your insecurities, and bites off your self-confidence in one big gulp. At a time when new mums (or mums to be) are likely to be exhausted, filled to bursting with hormones, and navigating one of the biggest change processes in their whole lives; perinatal mental illness can shatter our sense of self and leave us emotionally at our weakest. It is usually a hugely isolating experience. Good support networks and opportunities for reassurance are vital for recovery.
Every woman’s story is very different. But take me for example. I’d sailed through pregnancy on a cloud of existing social relationships and diligently-researched plans for parenthood. The reality hit me like a brick afterwards. For whatever reason, I was severely affected by postnatal depression within days following the birth. Crying became as normal as eating, and I found myself incapable of making the simplest decisions about caring for my son without consulting a midwife, health visitor, or Google. The loving bond between us that I’d always assumed would appear proved to be exceptionally late in its arrival and I spent weeks/months looking after a child who was emotionally a total stranger to me.
Feeding was a struggle, as was getting him to sleep (or stay asleep!) and somehow or other I convinced myself I’d given birth to the most difficult baby on the planet. I had no supportive circle of mums around to admit this to, or to reassure me that he was not. Postnatal depression seemed to make me incapable of managing normal polite chitchat with other mums, and I found myself regularly explaining to people “I don’t normally act this odd, but I have PND right now.” I secretly longed to hear a reply such as “Oh me too – isn’t it sh*t?” But that rarely happened.
Thankfully I was lucky to have good support through other channels (including the love and patience of my husband, and the kind-hearted camaraderie of some online parenting networks), meaning that after six months or so I pronounced myself cured from depression. I had a reasonably close relationship with my son, some level of confidence in how to look after him, cried a lot less, and the wide-eyed jittery look on my face at baby groups had reduced somewhat. So what if I couldn’t remember the last time I’d properly laughed or felt delighted by anything??? I had few others’ experience to lean on. I assumed that following mental illness, everyone felt ‘meh’ on a permanent basis afterwards. It took a good while to realise differently. But it would have been so helpful to talk about it openly with someone who’d been there too!
These days I know I *am*truly recovered and I experience both the wonderful and exasperating aspects of motherhood with an overall sense of internal balance and happiness. But I feel strongly that perinatal mental illness is something we should acknowledge and share amongst ourselves as mothers. To have a ‘eureka’ moment of connection – however small or fleeting – with another mum when feeling low can be so very powerful in re-building individual self-worth. That’s why I volunteer with Juno. I’m not a counsellor, and I (unfortunately) don’t promise to cure anyone, but I am a peer supporter who works with other volunteers to create safe spaces for mums experiencing perinatal mental health problems to open up, listen, and connect. If you are in the Edinburgh or Midlothian area and this article speaks to you, then do please consider getting in touch with us here at Juno.
Susi O’Brien, Juno Volunteer