Do you ever ‘check in’ with yourself?
Last week was the UK’s first Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, and I’ve been reading some very raw and honest stories: first-hand accounts of post-natal depression (PND), medication and breast feeding, and the realities of motherhood when things aren’t falling into place.
My own experience seems insignificant in comparison, and I wasn’t sure I should even write this post. Because I didn’t suffer PND. I’ve had some pretty low ‘lows’ over the last two years, but I’ve always been able to pick myself up. I didn’t seek professional help. I always had somewhere to turn, and someone to listen.
But mental health is so important for every mum, and I think it’s vital that we all share our stories. No matter how insignificant we might think they are.
In December last year I wrote the below in my phone Notepad. It was four months after a missed miscarriage – which I could comfortably rationalise and accept – and I’d started to realise that maybe I wasn’t as ‘okay’ as I thought. That while the logical part of my brain had accepted the situation, some other part – my subconscious maybe? – was decidedly not okay:
‘I feel sad often. I feel angry and dissatisfied. Like things aren’t quite right but I don’t know what. I feel a sense of urgency. Of mortality. And at the same time pinned down by the weight of all the things I need to do or must do but can’t because I’m so very tired. I see #blessed sometimes and think oh fuck off. I procrastinate. I stop reading anything other than social media because it’s easy to scroll scroll scroll or do a BuzzFeed quiz and not think. I’m impatient. And feel lonely in my thoughts. Not understood. Forgotten because I’m known for getting on with things. For not letting the bad drag me down. For facing everything the universe throws at me head on and eyes open. But sometimes I think what about me. What about ME. And I picture a very small figure screaming into the void. Screaming as loud as that inner voice can scream. And when I get that attention I hate it because I don’t like the scrutiny. I refuse to be seen as weak or vulnerable. I won’t. I won’t have it. I’m okay. It’s just a mastectomy. It’s just more surgery. It’s just a miscarriage. It’s just a hysterectomy in a few years. I’m fine, I’m fine. Everyone has a cross to bear.‘
I get a catch in my throat reading that. It was a difficult time for me, and it makes me feel very sad.
I considered professional help – something online or anonymous – but decided to give myself time instead. I spoke to a few close friends about my feelings and they were amazingly supportive. I took time out for ‘me’ when I could.
But it’s so hard when you can’t put a name to a feeling and it’s with you every day. It’s hard to explain that to someone, or admit it. And I didn’t want to put any strain on my family. I was embarrassed and thought well everyone gets down, it’s not a big deal, why should my issues be any more special?
Around two months later the feeling of being trapped in my own mind started to ease. I felt lighter, like my body had been in mourning and woke up one day and said ‘enough’. Shortly after I found out I was pregnant.
And a different feeling took over: anxiety.
It sat on my chest like a spinning top. Some days slowly bumping the edges, so softly I hardly remembered it was there. Other days spinning frantically, faster and faster with nowhere to go until I wanted to scream or vomit or both.
Except I didn’t. I just got up and got dressed and went about my day. Ignored the racing heart. The weight on my chest. And wondered when it might go away.
A woman walked past wearing a red coat, red jeans, red shirt, red shoes, a red Chanel handbag and lashings of red lipstick – all in the same shade.
I watched her as she walked away, hypnotised, and impressed at the boldness of her style. A colour I didn’t even own, and so far removed from the calming shades I preferred – navy, grey, white, black, beige.
I thought about my own outfit. Slightly too-big maternity jeans, stretchy long-sleeve top that I sometimes wore to bed. Old hoodie and black jacket. Comfy slip-on sneakers. Hair in a bun. Light makeup.
Ordinary. Unassuming. Invisible.
As I sat there waiting I felt for the familiar chest flutter, always just below the surface.
‘How are you really?’ I asked myself.
‘I’m okay’ I said back. And again, firmly, ‘I’m okay’.
A nurse came to see me then and said I’d be called up in a few minutes.
‘You are brave. You are brave. You are brave’, I said to myself, when I walked into the small consulting room with my husband.
When I spoke briefly about my previous miscarriage.
When I said I wasn’t sure the pregnancy was real. Because I had symptoms last time too, but my body betrayed me and didn’t tell me how wrong things really were.
When I hopped up on the bed, and the technician explained that she’d be quiet for a few moments while she checked things out.
‘You are brave. You are brave. You are brave.’
When I saw the tiny baby and heard the heartbeat for the first time and smiled at my husband.
‘All looks good to me’ said the technician. ‘Are you okay?’
I said yes and meant it.
Except the anxiety didn’t go away. No matter how much I meditated or exercised or distracted myself with work or being a mum.
Dread followed me. Lurked. No matter how I tried to shake it off. ‘No’ I told myself firmly.
But it followed.
When I went for a second early scan it was still there. Allowing me only a few moments of relief when I saw the baby again – healthy and wriggling – before it settled back in. The worry. The resignation. The exhaustion.
‘Just get to the 12 week scan’ I told myself. Although that brought little comfort either, as my last pregnancy showed a completely unexpected missed miscarriage at that same scan, the year before.
I was nervous and excited when the day came, and my husband and I went to the maternity ward for our appointment. After the two positive scans it felt like the final hurdle.
‘You’ve got this’ I said to myself.
The technician was capable and kind, and there was baby again. On the screen. Kicking and wriggling and non-stop moving. Hubby held my hand and I sob-laughed with relief.
And then the technician said ‘I’m so sorry, this is really surprising’.
I was told that my combined screening result showed I had a 1 in 16 chance of having a ‘Down’s’ baby. That my hormone levels were that of a 47 year old woman. That I was considered very high risk (anything higher than 1 in 150 was high risk), so much so I was offered a same-day blood test for free, giving me the actual odds to a 99% likelihood.
At that point we didn’t care. We said ‘no big deal, we can work with those odds!’ We’d just seen our very active, very alive baby, and anything else we’d deal with later.
So we spoke to another midwife about the situation, I had blood taken, and we went home to wait. Hubby went back to work. I started making some lunch. And then that spinning top started spinning, spinning, spinning until I worried there was something wrong with my heart.
‘I’m not okay’ I said to myself.
Two days after the scan I left for a holiday in Italy, booked many months before. I didn’t sleep very well, and found myself awake one night at 1am, in the beautiful city of Verona. Unable to sleep, stress eczema breaking out around my mouth, chest heavy with anxiety, nauseous. My husband and son were sleeping in the next room. And I lay there, disconnected from my then 14 weeks pregnant belly, as I waited to find out whether my child had Down syndrome.
I flipped the statistics and thought well okay, there’s a 93% chance my baby won’t be affected. But that didn’t stop me Googling ‘high risk’ and ‘Down’s’ and all sorts in the early hours. Looking for hope, or an answer I knew I wouldn’t find.
I thought back to the holiday snaps from the year before, where I was obviously pregnant, and started to wonder again if my baby was even alive in those pics, or had already passed. ‘Will it be the same this time?’ I asked myself. Would I look back at the pictures from this holiday and think well that was taken just before my life changed again, irrevocably and forever.
I very rarely feel sorry for myself. Bad things happen to good people every day. But I’ll be honest, this one threw me a bit.
I didn’t get the results phone call on the day I was supposed to, likely delayed because of Easter. So it was home from the trip and a weekend to get through and constant reminders to myself not to worry before I had to.
‘Just breathe’ I said to myself.
Thankfully I didn’t have to wait too much longer.
I got the call on a Monday morning. My actual risk (calculated by looking at the baby’s DNA, extracted from my blood sample) was 1 in a million. The best result anyone could hope for.
For the first time in months I felt light and free. The spinning top gone. I could breathe again, and I sobbed with relief. The stress had been immense. The wait so hard on both of us.
Joy is slowly creeping in now, and I can hold my belly and think ‘hello you’. I’m still wary, and don’t think I’ll fully relax until there’s a baby in my arms. But I can finally enjoy the pregnancy, and let myself be a little bit excited.
But what if these feelings come back again? What if I can’t shake them or I find myself sinking faster and deeper and unable to cope?
As mums we put the welfare of everyone else ahead of us. Our children, our home, our family and friends. We battle on. We persevere. We endure.
We don’t get downtime to be sick. Our employers care about deadlines, not the permanent fog we might find ourselves pushing through.
We worry. All. The. Time.
About disease and kidnappings and meeting milestones and emotional development and too much time working and not enough vegetables and no time for your partner and the two-seasons behind wardrobe you can’t afford to update and the weight you can’t lose and the bills that need paying and then you see that gorgeous pregnant woman on Instagram with the immaculate house and perfect legs and you know it’s not real but you still just…
I don’t have the answer. I’m still muddling through. I found it very difficult to admit to anyone I was struggling. I couldn’t bring myself to take the next step and speak to someone professionally. So I appreciate that it must be even harder when you need medication or counselling or someone to step in and be an advocate when you’re lost in the fog.
All I will say is please take the first step and speak to just one person. Let someone know that you’re struggling. That you’re not as okay as you’d like to be. It might be all you need to help you through.
Your feelings matter. They really do. No matter how silly you feel saying them out loud or admitting them to yourself.
I’ve got some amazing women in my life who I can lean on, and be candid and open with. Who show me kindness and honesty without judgement. But if you don’t? There are some fantastic, anonymous resources out there. Take that step if you need to.
Every mum struggles at some point. And whether it’s the occasional ‘down’ day, or you need medication to get you through, you are not alone.
And as for Instagram? I posted some beautiful pics from my trip to Italy. But you wouldn’t know how I was really feeling, or what was going on behind the scenes.
No one lives a perfect life, and they shouldn’t have to.