Maternal Mental Health and Me……….

I had wanted a baby for as long as I can remember. Growing up there were no babies in the family and so I never got the chance to even hold one, which only added to my obsession. I remember once being stood in town with my mum as she chatted to an old acquaintance who was pushing a pram. I became very fixated on the baby, longing to pick her up, to cuddle her, to smell her. Surreptitiously I offered her my finger and she gripped on, looking intently into my eyes. It was like a stolen moment that the adults didn’t know about. Later I asked lots of questions about the lady, trying to discover where she lived so that I could find a way to walk past the house, and maybe catch sight of the baby again. I felt terribly guilty about my plotting – probably all tied up with often being told off for wanting what I couldn’t have. The irony, of course, is that the mum would most likely have loved to have a ten year old come round and entertain her little one. The baby would have loved it too.

Although the feelings of longing never went away, the space became filled with the usual distractions of life.  Friends, hobbies, arguments with parents, studies, boyfriends, break-ups, career, meeting ‘the one’, mortgage, marriage……it had its ups and downs, of course; but there were no major hurdles in the trajectory I hoped I was on. Within three weeks of meeting him I asked ‘the one’ if he wanted children. “I’ve never really thought about it” he replied, “but, I guess, in theory yes”. That was all I needed. I had been teetering on the edge of falling in love and now I could throw myself over.

When the time came to try for a baby nothing happened. At first that was ok, these things can take time. But when after, 8,9,10 months I was greeted by my period, I started to panic. Blood is such an appropriate accompaniment to the horror of its meaning for me at that time. Going to the toilet was filled with dread and foreboding. If it was clear I would hold on to hope for a little longer – only for the inevitable trauma of blood shed to engulf me when it eventually arrived. For others of course, blood comes as a welcome relief. My older relatives even referred to their period as their ‘friend’. “I’ve got my friend” they would say.  It has never felt like a friend to me. At that time it was the antithesis. Real friends fell out of my life too as one by one they became pregnant – some even accidentally. I found being with them unbearable; wanting to lock myself away until I could re-join their gang. The isolation didn’t help my frame of mind, of course, but I wasn’t ready to fill my life with alternative distractions as that felt like letting go.

After a year we went to see our GP and initial investigations confirmed we should seek specialist fertility advice. The waiting list for an NHS assessment was 2 years, and every month counted in this new world of a ticking clock we had entered. Fortunately we had saved up for a kitchen as ours was falling apart, and so we could afford to go privately. We had no need of a kitchen anyway if we had no children to cook for, I rationalised. I’m not entirely sure that my husband, the chef in our relationship, felt the same way but he knew not to argue. ‘Egg shell avoidant’ had become his modus operandi. We had no idea where to start looking for a clinic – the league tables were manipulated, we had heard, such that the ‘best’ often excluded the more complex cases. (Sounds familiar). In the end we went to Prof Winston’s. Although he was no longer practicing he seemed like a decent fellow when I had heard him talk on the telly  – our rationale was as basic as that.

Very quickly into the process the Consultant identified that it was highly unlikely that we would ever conceive naturally, and that IVF was our only option. As I listened to the news, my world fell apart. It didn’t help that I had spent years studying statistics – 21% success rates, as it was at the time, were not good odds. Especially as that would have included couples who would go on to get pregnant naturally anyway. “What next?” I asked. “When you are ready you can register for your first cycle downstairs in the clinic on the right”. When we went downstairs, my husband turned left. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Home” he said. “What about registering for treatment?” I asked, dismayed. “Don’t we need to think about it?” “No” I replied, and dragged him right. It was the only option; and we needed to start sooner rather than later. He didn’t dare tread on that egg shell.

In the unlucky world of the infertile we turned out to be one of the lucky ones. Our first attempt was successful, and I became pregnant. Yes, it was a horribly stressful process. The injections, the travel to clinic miles away at unearthly hours, the waiting to see if each stage had been a success – and how much of a success. How many eggs? Too many eggs? Over stimulating which meant cancelling the whole thing? How many embryos? What quality of embryos? Had they survived? How many had survived? How many to return? Had they implanted? But when it works; all of that fades into the background. In fact it seems like a much more reasonable exchange of effort for such an extraordinary outcome than simply having sex.

The fertility clinic held onto us for a little while – offering extra scans; and hormones to help the pregnancy to ‘stick’. Then, at twelve weeks, we were turfed out into the throng of normal pregnancies with everyone else. In some ways this should have felt like a relief; but for me it was the start of my spiralling anxiety. We weren’t a ‘normal pregnancy’. If this didn’t work we were unlikely to ever conceive again. Checking that I hadn’t started bleeding was my primary obsession in the early days. Five times during our ‘celebratory’ meal out, and only stopping there because my husband set a limit. I couldn’t wait to get home to be free from scrutiny to check as I pleased. Then came the potential risks to the baby – changing the cat litter, other peoples children who may or may not have chicken pox, soft cheese that may or may not have touched the plate I was eating from, too hot a bath, accidentally tripping on my flared trousers (my fault for being so stupid to wear them in the first place). The list was endless and as soon as I was reassured about one thing, another would be ready and waiting in line to take over in my head.

The distraction of work helped a bit, but nothing outside of work could take my mind off the inevitable, as I saw it, failure of this pregnancy. It was just a matter of time, and the dangers were everywhere. I was exhausted. My husband persuaded us to go away for a few days hoping that a change of scene would help. We went to a stunning country house hotel that fortunately, had toilets on every floor – the first thing I checked when we arrived. When we woke up on the first morning there was a note under the door saying that the decorators would be on our floor at some point, and apologising for the inconvenience. That was, quite literally, the least of my worries. After breakfast we headed out for the day. Between leaving our room and getting to the car I needed to check. “I’m sure I felt something” I told my husband as he tried to persuade me we could at least wait until we got downstairs. I dived into the toilet by the lift and emerged minutes later. “The painters are in” I said. He looked utterly devastated. “It’s ok” I reassured him, “I could still use the cubicle – they were only in the cloak room area. Everything is fine”. He burst out laughing – explaining what “the painters are in” meant to him – a crass, laddish term for periods. I didn’t so much as raise a smile.

I dont think I smiled throughout my pregnancy. The other thing I didn’t do was go anywhere near baby shops. What was the point? It meant we had prepared nothing – no nursery, no clothes, no nappies, no nothing. The midwife told us we would at least need a car seat to bring the baby home in and so we headed to Mothercare.  I blanked out everything in the shop around me as we relayed the instructions to the shop assistant – we want the safest and easiest to fit in that order please. He showed my husband how it worked and checked it in our car. I went for a walk behind the building and vomited. The one thing I did do that did seemed to help as I felt my anxiety rising was to repeat to myself “at this precise point in time, there is no evidence what so ever that this baby is anything other than fine”. I repeated it frequently; sometimes fifty times a day.  It was the only way I had of calming myself – albeit momentarily. It was a long nine months.

On the baby’s due date I went into labour. Surprisingly, I felt an incredible sense of peace – maybe because I was no longer in charge; and the safety of the pregnancy was no longer down to me. I had a wonderful midwife who, as part of a team, had supported me throughout and was happy to support a home birth as I lived so near to the hospital. It all progressed very smoothly. I didn’t mind the pain – just like the IVF it made perfect sense that none of this should come easily. Unfortunately, at ten centimetres dilated, progress stopped and we needed to transfer to the hospital. I had an emergency caesaerean – again all performed calmly and expertly by a fantastic team of professionals. When they handed us the baby I thought he was the most perfect creature to have graced this earth. I was a bit shocked hospital staff weren’t being sent in their droves to catch sight of this miracle child. The next few days passed in a blur of sleepless euphoria. I even managed to get myself discharged before the mandatory 3 days post caesarean by confusing both myself and the junior doctor in charge of my care about how long I had been there. He had probably had as little rest as I had.

Back home I remember the point my world came crashing in. It was when I was sat in our sitting room with my feet up trying to rest and recuperate, and the baby was upstairs in his crib. A black cloud descended over my head like a very heavy, very physical presence. I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. “He’s going to die and it will be my fault” I screamed to my husband, who was happily preparing dinner in the next room. “he’s fine, he’s asleep upstairs” he tried to reassure me. By this time I was inconsolable. Somehow I had been given a perfect child that I didn’t deserve, and I was about to ruin his life. I was useless, I would fail him, he had been born to the wrong person, we should give him up now before it was too late. There was no talking me round and my husband knew I needed help. “Shall I phone the midwife?” he asked. ”No” I said. I told him to phone my best friend.

Within no time she was there, toddler left at home with his dad, three month old infant in her arms. I had neglected her during her pregnancies and early motherhood so painful was my infertility, but that mattered not. As soon as she walked into the room I told her I thought the baby was dead. She didnt tell me otherwise but said she would go upstairs to check. She came back down, still holding her own baby, and said he was breathing evenly, and his breath was warm on her hand. He was extremely peaceful and I had clearly done a good job of feeding him enough to help him sleep so soundly. I could come up and check him with her if I wanted, or I could rest up, which is what he needed from me most of all.

She caught me staring at her baby. “I bet he looks huge to you, and a bit odd?” How did she know? He looked like he had been pumped up like a balloon. She continued “I remember staring at my husband’s ear after our first baby was born. It looked like a giant’s that had been transplanted onto his head” she laughed. “We get so used to staring at our own baby and tuning into to their tiny perfections that it distorts everything else we see”. I felt myself starting to breath more regularly. “It’s exhaustion, its hormones, its pain killers, it’s relief – its everything you have been through”. I started to sob. “You haven’t stopped working towards this for years – sitting still and resting must feel really odd. But honestly, that is what your baby needs from you most of all so that you have energy for him when he wakes”.

She stayed for a while, and I calmed, the black cloud lifting a little. I even managed to eat some food. When she saw me start to smile she braved “lovely as it is, I think there are other shades of cardigan that would suit him better than the hospital one he is wearing”. It was time to trust that he might really be here. And even if there were no guarantees it would be forever, he did at least deserve some clothes. I will never forget how important my best friend was in getting me to that place.

5 thoughts on “Maternal Mental Health and Me……….

Add yours

  1. Ah – lovie! Beautifully written. The pain and joys are felt.


    Elizabeth N Kerr, PhD, CPsych.
    Program Director The Epilepsy Classroom
    Clinical Neuropsychologist Epilepsy Surgery Program
    Dept of Psychology
    The Hospital for Sick Children
    555 University Ave | Toronto, ON, M5G 1X8

    Every child deserves a healthy start, a strong mind, and a bright future


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