I recently welcomed my darling daughter into the world, after a gruelling 30 hours of labour and a particularly difficult pregnancy.
Now that my daughter has been born and I have some distance, I realise that I had almost certainly suffered from undiagnosed pre-natal depression. I hated being pregnant, I convinced myself I didn’t want this baby and even had suicidal thoughts. My healthcare providers did ask me about my mood every now and again, but my responses of ‘fine’ or ‘not too bad, thanks’ should really have been interrogated, especially given that my decade-long struggle with depression and anxiety had led me to a suicide attempt only a year earlier.
A difficult birth and struggles with breastfeeding
All my fears vanished however, the moment I saw my daughter – utterly perfect in every way. Unfortunately after just 10 minutes of that first glorious skin-to-skin contact, I started postpartum haemorrhaging – a rare, but dangerous side-effect of birth which affects about 10% of women worldwide.
After the trauma of birth, I found myself really struggling with breastfeeding, which is something I had planned to do since I saw that very first positive pregnancy test. Besides terse instructions from a nurse I received no assistance. The hospital’s only breastfeeding consultant was on leave and I didn’t know there was an option to get a hospital visit from a private lactation specialist. Instead, I ended up exclusively syringe-feeding colostrum I’d harvested during pregnancy.
Upon getting home, I finally had to admit defeat. That night, my daughter became a formula-fed baby, and my feelings of guilt were intense. I felt I couldn’t give my daughter the best start in life, and that I was no more to her than any stranger with a bottle. I cried for three weeks straight, with my sadness first turning into anger and then into self-loathing.
The people around me did not understand what I was going through. In fact, the only people who really understand the grieving process and guilt of not being able to breastfeed are other mothers who had had similar experiences. I felt so guilty that I even tried to restart lactation without telling my healthcare providers. I didn’t need the extra pressure to succeed. I was expressing and taking supplements aimed at increasing milk production… but to no avail.
The fear, post the birth trauma
Throughout all this, I found myself obsessing over the birth and postpartum haemorrhage. What had gone wrong? How had I ended up in stirrups, with an epidural, a second-degree tear and more than a litre of blood loss? I had planned to have a calm water birth and instead needed two blood transfusions and spent a harrowing night with hospital staff on standby in case anything else went wrong. I was not prepared for that.
In the coming weeks I found that I was terrified by even the slightest ailment, and would spend hours staring at my daughter, shaking and crying, wondering how long I would have with her. My health anxiety was off the charts.
Letting go of guilt
Six weeks later, I eventually let go of my breastfeeding hopes. I’m working through my grief, while trying to banish feelings of anger by reminding myself that I really tried. I’m also finally on the path to getting much needed help. I have found a safe space to talk about my perceived failure and am exploring “rewind therapy” to help me work through the birth trauma. To other mothers out there going through the same thing: remember, you did not fail, you made a difficult decision for the wellbeing of both yourself and your child.
Getting the support you need
Looking back on this experience I know I should have been more forthcoming about my feelings and sought help earlier. I do wish my healthcare providers had connected with me more, since I know I am not the only one who experienced these difficult feelings. In fact, I am shocked by how widespread these feelings of failure, guilt, anger and sadness are among new mothers. At the same time I am comforted by how much it helps to have each other to talk to.
One huge positive that I am taking from my experience – other than finally being able to cuddle my incredible little girl – is that once I’m confident that I’ve regained my strength, I fully intend to make maternal mental health a special focus of mine in the year ahead. By educating and advocating for pregnant women who live with mental health problems as well as new mothers who are emotionally impacted by the trauma of birth and the inability to breastfeed, we can build better understanding and support networks.
UK/MED/19/0100 May 2019