“Baby and mum are both doing well.”
This seems to be what most partners say when they announce the arrival of their tiny baby. While doctors’ notes may conclude that a mother is postnatally well and baby fed from both breasts and the midwives are happy to discharge the patients, there’s a mother somewhere scared to go home and begin this new life.
I asked Ali to be extremely honest with people when they called, texted, or dropped by to see how we were all doing. If you’ve ever had a conversation with me, one thing you’ll probably have noticed is that above anything else, I’m quite honest. There are times I don’t have much of a filter, and while I try to be polite and guarded, after ten minutes, I’ve probably gone into elaborate detail about something considered taboo. When it was clear that I wasn’t coping well with the postpartum period – the fourth trimester – owning that and being transparent about it was one of the smartest decisions I made in the midst and muddle of those first few weeks.
That’s part of the reason I want to write this. I was so overwhelmed, to the point where I ended up in A&E (more on that later) because postpartum was absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. I wish, so desperately wish, somebody had told me the realities of life after birth. I don’t want a single person to feel as alone and scared as I did, and so here I am again, being starkly honest (and fairly vulnerable) with my experience.
Honesty is one of the things that got me through this because it invited support. “Can you please do my food shop?” or “Can you stay the night and hold the baby?” are two examples of the many questions I asked people when I desperately needed help. Two days before I gave birth, on my 26th birthday, my sister wrote me a card that said something along the lines of: whatever you need, I’m here for you. I joked and said, “Even if I call you at three in the morning?” She said yes, of course, because she’s a darling, but I also rebutted with, “That won’t happen, we’ll be fine.”
I think we phoned somebody after dark, and often around 3am, every night for the first few weeks.
We just couldn’t do it alone.
When you google ‘pregnancy’, the top results include: symptoms, pillow, test, calculator, announcement, massage. Fairly neutral results. They focus on the comfort of the mother (the pillow), the excitement (test, calculator, announcement), and care (symptoms, massage). People and society are rather good at checking in on a pregnant person, asking her how far along she is, how she’s keeping, giving up their seat for her on the bus, booking her in to see a midwife every few weeks, checking iron levels and urine samples, tossing vitamins at her – C, D, folic acid, asking her what kind of birth she wants, organising antenatal groups so that together with her partner, she is somewhat prepared for the monstrosity of birth.
But when you google ‘postpartum’, you’re met with horror: depression, psychosis, hemorrhage, anxiety, night sweats. Mix that in with belly, exercise, and hair loss, because, of course, the postpartum body must be fixed while the pregnancy body must be celebrated. *note the sarcasm*
Postpartum is still seen as a scary thing. And in my experience, it was. Those search results clearly reflect the fear and rapid typing at 2am from many mothers across the globe as they Google anything to help them through the postpartum period. I remember searching ‘postpartum depression’ five or six times a night while I was up feeding my baby, just to see if there was anything – anything at all – that would bring me comfort, solidarity, or some kind of peace in the fact that what I was going through was normal, okay or temporary.
But Google didn’t help me, ever, in the end. Eventually, Ali told me I had to stop. Hearing him tell me sealed the deal, and I did. I made it through the night feeds without my phone. Instead, I’d watched trashy reality TV so I could think about something else, such as beautiful people hoping to fall in love on an orchestrated island or couples matched by science to marry at first sight, instead of wondering whether I had postpartum depression, anxiety or maybe even psychosis.
After I had Laith, the doctors on the postnatal ward offered paracetamol, ibuprofen, and some pretty lame breastfeeding support. The ward felt like 35 degrees as Laith arrived in the warmth of a heatwave, and my husband was only allowed to visit for three broken hours of the day. I was changing nappies, trying to feed, trying to sleep, trying to swaddle, trying to eat, all by myself, while in a bit of a pain and absolutely fatigued to the point where I felt ill, delirious, and very weak. The staff were far too busy to help or properly support me, and Ali wasn’t allowed to stick around because of the virus. So my introduction to motherhood can be summarised in one word: lonely.
I think, looking back, that feeling of being alone for so much of the birth and first day of Laith’s life set the scene. You don’t remember all the details of bringing a human into the world, but you do remember the emotions attached, and my main one was definitely loneliness. It marked me, being in a hospital bed, bleeding, with a tiny baby who was losing weight rapidly because I couldn’t get him to latch, as midwives tossed syringes and tiny plastic bowls at me and told me to hand express my milk instead, before walking away and coming back to check on me four hours later. I still hadn’t fed my baby properly. I wanted to go home. Finally, when I asked to be discharged, they asked me if I had fed him yet, and it’s in my notes that I told them that he fed for 35 minutes. I honestly don’t remember that. I think I maybe tried for 35 minutes, but it wasn’t until I got home and had proper help from my mum, Ali, and community midwife, that my baby was finally eating and gaining weight again.
I couldn’t stay at the hospital. But perhaps I should have because I was back in less than 18 hours later. I woke up from a nap with a sore chest. I leaned over and took a deep breath in, and it hurt even worse. Tight and aching. My initial thought was a blood clot, a pulmonary embolism, maybe sepsis. When you’re discharged from hospital after having a baby, they give you all these warnings about such diseases. Not to scare you, but to make you aware. But for me, it began an endless cycle of health anxiety. I couldn’t stay awake, but I had to tell somebody I was in pain. I told Ali, and he called my mum upstairs. She phoned an ambulance. The paramedics took me to the hospital as I tried to stay awake for fear of dying if I fell asleep. Also, what about my baby? I had to feed my baby. My mum was allowed to come into the ambulance with us, as I wasn’t in any condition to care for Laith. I was drifting in and out of consciousness, and it felt like that – a bleary, blurry, exhausted, nauseous saturation – for hours. They ran quick and thorough tests on me so that I could get back to my baby as soon as possible.
“Go home and try to relax,” the doctor advised. But how could I do that when my entire life had changed, in one deep breath and a push? It should have helped, having proof that I wasn’t dying. My bloods were fine, my heart was healthy, my bleeding normal. But for some reason, I was convinced that I wasn’t okay. Between Googling and constant nausea and not eating, hardly drinking, worrying about my baby’s weight, this threat of us going back to hospital if it wasn’t increased by Sunday looming overhead, and the complete and utter lack of any sleep (which turns out, you really need to survive), my anxiety got worse.
And worse. And worse. And worse.
On the Sunday, five days postpartum, Laith’s weight was finally increasing. Only 40 grams, but it was something. We could stay home. I felt slightly less worried but still quite nauseous, so my sister went on a mad mission to get me an anti-nausea medication which is quite hard to find on a Sunday. When she brought it back to me, I took it, immediately felt less sick, ate something, and then started to feel a little drowsy. I laid down for a nap quite content, but 45 minutes later, I woke up in a total panic. This was the start of my panic attacks which happened up to ten times a day for weeks. Before this, I’d had one panic attack in my life – a few weeks after Ali’s seizure – but even that was nothing like this.
My body went into total fight or flight mode, wanting nothing to do but just pass out. Sleep the day away. Avoid. But my anxiety told me that if I let that happen, if I succumbed to sleep, that I would die.
It sounds dramatic, but that’s honestly all I could think about. Dying. I had convinced myself that I was either dying or going to die and was living in a vicious cycle of fear about it. Everybody told me to sleep, let the anti-nausea medication do its thing, that this was normal, but I was fighting Ali for the medication leaflet to try and convince him that I was having a reaction to it and needed to go to hospital. Our family sat with us for a few hours while the medication wore off, and when it did, I just felt empty.
I didn’t feel like me anymore. I hadn’t felt like me in weeks, especially since the arrival of Laith. And everything I saw from friends who were having babies around this time, or people I followed on social media, showed that having a newborn was this lovely, cosy, happy bubble. Yes, they were sleep-deprived, but they were full of joy. They found breastfeeding hard, but they loved the bond it created. They cried from time to time, but mostly because of how much they loved their baby.
So what was wrong with me? I was sleep-deprived, but there was no joy to counteract it, only a desperation to sleep for days. My breastfeeding journey was going okay, but I wanted nothing more than my husband to grow a pair of boobs so I could take the night off. Nothing about feeding my child felt special. I cried, too, all the time, and never from love, but from fear, loneliness, sadness, and exhaustion. There was really, honestly, sadly, nothing that good about it. It pains me to admit that but for the first four weeks, I did not enjoy motherhood. At all. (Apparently, this is normal but nobody tells you this. I don’t really want to tell expectant mothers either because it does honestly get better. It gets so much better. It becomes beautiful. And the bond grows, and it’s okay to let someone else feed your baby, and you get your sleep back week by week, and the tears slow.)
On our fifth wedding anniversary, seven days postpartum, I saw a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with acute anxiety, gave me some meditation guides and referred me to the perinatal mental health team, who I wouldn’t end up seeing for another four months. The meditation helped a little, between the panic attacks, which only ever seemed to appear once I’d woken up. I’d battle them without any warning, and because my baby woke every 1-2 hours, I was waking up a lot and therefore having these panic attacks a lot. And they weren’t what you think – hyperventilating in a paper bag or breaking out in hives. For me, it was my entire body feeling like it was on fire, starting in my toes and creeping up to my face; it was passing out as soon as I sat up, even though my son was whimpering to be fed; it was hallucinating that I’d fallen asleep while breastfeeding and rolled on top of my baby; it was dark, scary thoughts that I couldn’t seem to fight; it was feeling so nauseous that I couldn’t even drink and then worrying my body was shutting down which only made me feel more nauseous and therefore, I was drinking even less; it was being so spaced out I couldn’t hold a conversation or process where I was and what was happening. It was all sorts of things that I didn’t feel in control of at all. Not one tiny bit.
My mum had to coach me to eat and drink (it took me about a month to eat normally again). My husband had to remind me every ten minutes that I was doing okay and that he was there. My dad had to stay the night and hold the baby just so I could get an uninterrupted three-hour stretch of sleep. Ali’s mum had to bring food so that I had something if I ever felt like it. My sister had to answer phone calls about medical questions at 11pm every night. And in between all of this, all the tears, and prayers, and panics, people, of course, wanted to meet our baby. And so I’d put on a brave face, while still making sure I was honest, and let people in our home while I sat uncomfortably on the couch, my stitches knitting together and my boobs aching with milk, as people congratulated us and remarked on what a gorgeous wee boy we had. And all I could think about was:
I need sleep.
Take him home with you, please.
I don’t know who I am anymore.
I want to go back in time, just a few weeks, even if it means I am pregnant forever.
All these thoughts that I didn’t want, didn’t expect, didn’t feel okay having.
And it stayed like this for four weeks. Four very long weeks. It felt like months, maybe even longer. Each day was a challenge. I stopped taking it day by day, and started going hour by hour. Sometimes even minute by minute. It became trial and error. We took the dog back, hoping that would make me feel like my old self again, but it was an added stress. Ali went back to work, and I fumbled my way through that first week, only to end up feeling like the world had collapsed in on me and that I was stuck in this sad, weak, incapable state forever. Trying to find time to shower, while knowing that if I wanted to get better, I also had to find time to eat well, exercise a little and do my meditation. There was never enough time.
But with a little extra support and putting up personal boundaries and finding a way to include my baby in the things that I needed to do, things did start to get better. I would do my meditation while feeding Laith. I would make my lunch while he slept in the sling. I would feed him, change him and make sure he was comfortable and safe while I had a shower. I relearned to do everything that I’d taken for granted for 26 years. I gave myself a break, cut myself some slack, showed myself grace. I let other people show me grace. I let my baby show me grace. I stopped Googling. I talked to other mums, who assured me that they felt the same once upon a time, and it now feels like a distant memory. I let hope fill the gaps. I let love in. I started to enjoy the miracle of being on the earth at the same time as Laith, this beautiful, content, kind soul. I started to trust him. If he needed to get up 10 times a night, that would be okay. Ali and I started splitting the nights so I could get four or five hours sleep in a row. We let our families stay at the weekends so we could both get a good rest. I prayed. A lot. I talked to my health visitor and GP about how I was feeling. I made time for myself. I wrote. I read. I watched some old favourite movies. I was really really honest about things and in those words spoken to other people, I started to find healing.
I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent there, but I don’t think I ever want to be, because this isn’t about getting back to where I was before. It’s about finding a new path going forward. So what I do want is to be 100 percent accepting that this is reality now. And I’m pretty close. And I’m really happy about that.
And most of all, I absolutely adore our little boy.
(Author’s note: I wrote this around 4.5 months postpartum. I am now 7 months postpartum and can confirm that it has gotten better even since then. Around 6 months, Laith started developing his own little daytime routine, which gives me predictability and time to rest and recharge while he’s sleeping. His personality is shining even more. He is funny, patient, relaxed, giggly, and communicative with his feelings. He loves a cuddle, getting out for walks, bird-watching, and laughing at the dog. Together, we love listening to music, dancing in the kitchen, snuggling in bed, going for drives, and visiting friends and family. To have gone from that exhausted emptiness at the start to a place now where I’m full of joy, gratitude and have a handle on my anxiety is possibly one of the biggest blessings of my entire life. Motherhood and parenting is such an individual experience. This is mine. Yours will be yours. Completely different. But I felt called to share my experience just in case you see yourself in it and feel a little less alone.)