I had one of those idyllic pregnancies. Free from morning sickness, I did my pre-natal yoga three times a week like a good earth-mumma. My husband Jim and I nicknamed our unborn baby "Pickle" and I blogged about my hopes and dreams for her.
When it came to her birth, we read books, watched videos, took classes and did everything we could to prepare ourselves. I was determined to do enough cat/cow poses and perineal massage that I could have a drug-free water birth in our Birth Centre. I had a lot of anxiety around hospitals. I grew up with chronic asthma and consequently spent a lot of time in the ER. To me, a hospital was where you went when you were sick. Why would I elect to go there for this joyous occasion? Pickle had other ideas, though.
Two weeks before her due date, I started having intense contractions. Jim boiled heat packs and kept me hydrated while I labored for six hours or so. And then the contractions stopped. I was exhausted and slept the whole next day.
I came to learn that this was prodromal labor. Sometimes it's called "false" labor but there's nothing at all false about the pain. Some very lucky women experience it more than once.
I experienced it four times in the week that followed.
I began to feel like I was crying wolf when we finally went into the Birth Centre for the real deal. I had an amazing midwife who tried every trick in the book to get me my natural birth. At one point, I was standing naked in the shower, arms above my head, one foot on a stool, rotating my hips through each contraction. It was primitive. But I had a baby in the wrong position who would not budge.
I labored long into the night and, as the sun was rising, the midwife told me I might not dilate any further on my own without putting us both at risk. What was my alternative? Syntocin to increase the contractions and an epidural. Exhausted, I threw in the towel. Suddenly there was a flurry of activity. I was wheeled to the hospital labor ward -- the very place I'd been dreading -- and my small, intimate birth team was joined by doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists pouring in and out of my room.
Instead of peacefully laboring in a tub, I suddenly had an epidural in my back, a syntocin drip in one arm, a saline drip in the other and a catheter -- all while strapped down to a bed in a sterile white gown. The drugs may have numbed my pelvis but my emotions were racing. I was proud of how hard I'd labored but disappointed that everything had now been so medicalized. I was excited to finally meet my little girl, but terrified of the impending delivery.
They told me it would be a few hours before I'd start pushing and that I should try to get some sleep. Fat chance of that -- my legs wouldn't stop shaking as my anxiety soared. When the big time came, I pushed as hard as I could with little result. After an hour of this, they reached for the vacuum. I thought I could push her out if they gave me enough time but no one was willing to wait. Before I knew what was happening, a doctor whose name I didn't know was pulling my daughter out of me and into the world.
Feeling her against my skin, hearing that first cry, suddenly the struggles of the previous week faded away and everyone but my little family ceased to exist. You can't put into words that instant rush of love.
They let me have a go at feeding her but she was crying too much -- a headache from the vacuum, they explained to me as they then whisked her away to be weighed and swaddled while a nurse helped me into the shower to clean up. By this time, all my pain meds were wearing off. So in addition to the emotions and hormones flooding through me, the physical pain of everything I'd just been through began to catch up with me.
When they took my pulse, it was racing and they wouldn't let me go to the recovery ward until they did a blood test. This was when I lost it.
"No more tests!" I started crying.
I tried to explain that all the tests and monitoring were triggering my anxiety and making my heart race and if they just gave me a few minutes to calm down I'd be fine. But protocol is protocol and they just kept jabbing me until I was fit to leave so I could finally get some time alone with my husband and new baby.
Unfortunately, by this time, we were getting to the end of the night's visiting hours and Jim would have to go home.
"Try to get some sleep," he told me before getting kicked out.
There I was, unable to get out of bed unassisted, throbbing in pain and with a newborn baby I hadn't the slightest idea how to care for. I was afraid if I rang the midwives too often they'd think I was being difficult. So instead, I stayed up all night, desperate for help with this screaming being I still wasn't sure how to feed or console. When Jim came back the next morning, I cried uncontrollably.
He promised to help me as much as he could that day and kept encouraging me to take a nap. But each time I'd lay there, unable to clear my mind, and as soon as I'd start to maybe drift off it'd be time for a feeding or a test or a meal. Sleep didn't come that night either.
Coming home the next day brought a new set of anxieties. I was worried the neighbors in our building would yell at us for the noise. I couldn't get in or out of bed comfortably. And it became painfully obvious I was fading mentally due to the sleep deprivation. I tried to close my eyes for a nap every chance I could but I'd essentially get performance anxiety. I knew I only had a window of a few hours before the baby awoke to be fed and I'd psyche myself out.
The next morning Jim awoke to me sobbing in the bathroom, looking like a zombie.
"I think I need help," I told him. I felt desperate for sleep, desperate for help because I was worried I was going to start becoming dangerous. We did some calculations and realized that with all the prodromal labor it had been over six days since I'd gotten more than 2 hours sleep. I understood why they use sleep deprivation as a torture technique.
We called the hospital and they sent a midwife to our home. I explained to her what was happening through sobs and she realized this was much more than a typical case of the "baby blues." They re-admitted us to the hospital and said a doctor would come see me to make recommendations. In the hours that passed, I could feel myself spiraling.
Previously I'd been feeling desperate for sleep because I wanted so badly to be a good mother to this amazing little girl. But suddenly my thoughts were turning darker. I felt I was beyond help, at the bottom of a pit, and that each time my baby cried someone was shoveling dirt onto me. Jim took the baby for a walk so I could try to nap. But I could feel adrenaline coursing through my veins and it was telling me I needed to get myself out of this situation somehow, that I needed to run away, or worse.
Something in me still knew I needed to get through this somehow and I called for Jim to come back so I wouldn't be alone with these thoughts. When the doctor finally showed up, I felt horribly ashamed as I confessed out loud all the thoughts I'd been having. She made a plan for me. They were going to give me Valium to get me a night's sleep while Jim was allowed to stay and look after the baby. I pumped a bottle of milk for her and conceded to giving her a bottle of formula. The next day I'd have a psychiatric evaluation.
The Valium did the trick and when I awoke the next morning after 8 hours of sleep, I felt like a different person. When the psychiatrist came to meet me, I said I didn't need help anymore because I'd gotten sleep and would be all better. But she said she just wanted to chat a little about my history. As I rattled off details of past relationships and life changes, it became obvious to us both that I had a pattern of behavior. I'd moved states dozens of times, went to 3 different colleges before graduating, and had more jobs and boyfriends than I could count on two hands. Because when things get too hard for me, my flight response kicks in.
Boss treating me poorly? Quit that job tomorrow! Marriage getting too difficult? File for divorce! Change was how I coped with my anxiety and now, here I was in a situation I couldn't run away from. I had a husband and now a daughter who I loved dearly, and I needed to stay and make this situation work and it was sending my anxiety into overdrive with no way to cope. Add to this the trauma of my disappointing birth experience, hormonal fluctuations and major sleep deprivation and it was no wonder I’d been feeling like a mental patient.
I stayed another night in the hospital, able to get in a few hours of sleep. The next day the psychiatrist came back to discuss her recommendations. After some research and deliberation, I agreed to go on an antidepressant after being assured I could still nurse and committed to counseling with her one day a week for the next 40 weeks.
The following months were filled with ups and downs as we got to know our little girl and I got used to my new life as a stay-at-home mum. But now we're four months in and I'm proud to report I'm still in counseling to work through my issues with anxiety and that it's the best decision I ever made for my family. My overall happiness levels have been on the rise and I'm becoming more conscious of my negative behaviors so that I don't pass them along to my daughter.
I'm still working on not beating myself up for some of the feelings and thoughts I had in the days after my daughter's birth. But both Jim and my psychiatrist keep reminding me that I should be proud for seeking out help and working hard toward change even when it's difficult. That's why I'm sharing this story now.
Nobody wants to look like a bad parent and so when our babies are born we flood our Facebook pages with cute photos and tell everyone how it's hard but "so worth it!" So I guess I want people to know that it may be REALLY hard -- and for a long time. Some people struggle with depression and anxiety for years after having children. It may never feel worth it. You may feel moments of regret and resentment. You may feel like there's no light at the end of the tunnel.
But this is no time to bottle up those feelings out of shame. Seek out resources for coping with post-natal depression or other mental health issues, whether it's therapy, support groups, online forums or just talking to a loved one. For your sake and your child's, don't suffer in silence.