The worst day of my life: A story about travelling to the brink and back with PND
The worst day of my life was not the day I found out I was going to miscarry my first baby but the day my beautiful, perfectly healthy son Benji was born.
Like everything else in my life when I was ready, I was ready, and I was ready for a baby. When we first started trying for a baby I fell pregnant quickly and it was wonderful. I sent my husband a picture of a positive pregnancy test I’d done in the bathrooms at work with the message, “You are going to be a daddy”. I couldn’t even wait for his response before I called him and asked if he had seen the picture. 12 weeks later I found out I had had a missed miscarriage. That was in November.
I remember my husband asking me want I wanted for my 30TH birthday in December and I just sobbed and told him all I wanted was a baby. I fell pregnant again in January.
From the start the pregnancy I was plagued with anxiety. I spent the first weeks just waiting to miscarry again and on my GPs advice I went to see Dr Vijay Roach. Vijay was wonderful and he could always tell when I was having a bad day. Still, I told hardly anyone until I was about twenty weeks pregnant and couldn’t really hide it anymore.
My son was born at 40 weeks and 1 day. He was healthy. He looked like his Daddy. Everyone was thrilled. Except me. As soon as he was born instead of being happy and enjoying the moment I went into what I call “Perfect Mummy Mode”. We must breastfeed, he must sleep X amount of hours per day, we must not co-sleep, we must feed/play/sleep, we must not use a dummy and I MUST feel the most wonderful bond with him. But I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong, I was grateful for him, I wanted him to be well cared for, safe, fed and happy. I just wanted a break from the enormous pressure of it all. And it was only day two.
The night before we were due to be discharged from hospital I had an enormous panic attack in the middle of the night. When the midwives asked what was wrong all I could tell them was that I just didn’t think I could do a “good enough” job of this mothering thing once I was home and without a whole team of professionals to help me. The next morning Vijay and I discussed an admission to St John of God Mother and Baby Unit then and there but I was too proud to consider it. I was sure I could master how I was feeling if I just tried a bit harder.
Back at home we tried to stumble through each day as best we could but the cracks soon started to show. The breastfeeding was a disaster but we persisted. Almost every day of our first week home we had an appointment with either a lactation consultant, at the breastfeeding clinic, a midwife or an early childhood nurse. We had my son’s tongue tie snipped, we tried every imaginable nipple shield, we tried pumping and feeding, then feeding and pumping. It was slowing driving me into the ground but I wouldn’t stop. Everyone told me to persist so I did. In those first weeks I don’t think I slept for more than 4 hours in each 24 hour period. I refused to breastfeed in bed because a midwife had told me it was not recommended because it might lead to co-sleeping. After each feed I had to top my son up with a bottle of expressed breast milk and once he finally fell asleep I pumped and sterilized ready to start all over again in about 30 minutes. When I tried to sleep in the day (which wasn’t often) my racing brain kept me awake. I started to dread every feed and I cried hysterically every time my son woke up. It wasn’t until I burst into tears at my son’s 6 week paediatric appointment that his paediatrician after taking one look at me told me to give him some formula because I very clearly was not coping and that our son was probably just hungry and not getting enough milk. Turns out he was right. I felt relief, finally someone had given me PERMISSION to use formula. But it didn’t last. I was consumed with guilt and shame.
The next day my husband went to a family birthday party, I couldn’t face going. I told him to go, it was important for him to have some time out too. That day Benji didn’t sleep well, I pushed him in the pram for 5 hours and sobbed the entire time. I hid my streaming eyes behind sunglasses but I don’t think that really fooled anyone. Every time I checked the pram and Benji was not asleep I felt a wave of distress so big I thought it would swallow me completely. That evening both Benji and I were hysterical (it turned out Benji had a few mosquito bites, but I was so obsessed with him sleeping that I didn’t even see them). My husband put us in the car and drove us through the night in the hope that Benji and I might sleep in the car. We got home just after midnight and I held Benji in my arms and stayed awake (because no co-sleeping!) until 5am so he would sleep.
The next morning my husband took over and I slept, only waking every few hours to pump. At the end of the day he came to remind me to eat and I refused to get out of bed. I went back to sleep trying to block out the world around me. I was overtaken by the urge to run, run as far away as I could and never come back. I told my husband I was feeling bad but we both agreed maybe I was just still tired and if I slept some more I’d feel better. The next morning I couldn’t get out of bed. By this time Rob had been caring for Benji on his own for 48 hours but I still couldn’t move. I was paralysed in bed. The thought of picking Benji up repelled me. When I was finally able to sit up I made the decision that I was going to leave. The baby was making me sick and I was very clearly completely unfit and unable to be a good mother so that was it. I booked an Uber to the airport and asked my husband to get my passport out of the safe. I’d looked up flights to Malaysia and there was a Malaysian Airlines flight leaving at midday which I could probably make. In that moment I thought, ‘oh well, if another Malaysian Airlines flight crashes and I’m on it, it wouldn’t really be too bad an outcome’. I don’t know where I planned to end up, or what I planned to do, but I needed to get away. I hoped that once I came back Benji would be gone and Rob and I could get on with our lives and forget the whole unfortunate thing ever happened.
My wonderful husband knew in that moment that this was a crisis. A crisis that Vijay had taken great care to avoid. Luckily because Vijay had spoken reaching out to help before Rob was all over it. As I sat in bed planning my escape he organised my admission to St John of God Mother and Baby Unit and called in the cavalry to help look after Benji while we packed for hospital. On the way there Rob and I comforted each other saying it was the right thing to do and we’d hit the nail on the head quickly and we’d be out in a week.
The Mother and Baby Unit was wonderful. It didn’t feel like a hospital and I started to feel safe for the first time in weeks, but despite their amazing care after three weeks (which is average length of an admission) I was worse. Much worse. I was enveloped by overwhelming despair of the pressure and drudgery of it all. It was just too hard and it wasn’t worth it. Being a perfectionist I just couldn’t cope when Benji didn’t do what I thought he should be doing. I felt that the pressure of motherhood was crushing me and I wanted out. I was consumed with fear. Fear that any mistake I made would have devastating consequences. If Benji catnapped in the day, he would do it at night. The sleep regressions. The sleep associations. Dummy dependence. Bottle aversion. Teething. If we had a bad night it was obviously my fault because I had done something wrong during the day. Suicidal ideation started to come in huge waves that almost suffocated me but I was too afraid to tell anyone what was happening. Fortunately, because the staff at the Mother and Baby Unit are so good at what they do they already knew something was wrong. Together the nurses and doctors made a plan for me, new medication, extra support, help during the nights and above all they gave me hope. They all told me I would get better when I felt like it would be this way forever. They told me recovery was possible and they were right.
All my life I had been taught that if you tried harder, prepared better and learnt more you would do better. As a lawyer this led to a successful career in a pretty tough job of which I was and still am immensely proud. The concept of lowering my expectation and being ‘just good enough’ were completely unacceptable to me. It was hard but slowly I begun to realise that recovery wasn’t going to be linear for me and that I was going to have to accept a certain loss of control. It took me 4 months to feel fragments of my former self returning and 6 months to feel like some sort of normalcy was coming back into our lives. My son is almost 10 months old now and I have those moments of joy that Vijay asked me about at my 6 week post-partum appointment when I fibbed and told him I knew what he was talking about. I still have bad days but they are fewer and further between. Usually they are the days when I have been trying too hard for too long or when I have been googling instead of talking. Motherhood is not easy but I think we make it harder on ourselves. The breastfeeding and sleep industry, the plethora of information, the expectations of happiness and joy and above all the assumption that women in Australia don’t need a village to raise a child. I don’t say that without these things I wouldn’t have gotten PND. I probably still would have. But maybe it would have been different.
If I have another baby I will do things differently. I will be kinder to myself. I will bend rules and I will be forgiving when my baby does too. I can’t be sure that the day my next baby is born will be the best day of my life, but I’m fairly certain it won’t be the worst either and that is a win in my book.
To other parents out there who are finding parenthood less than the #babybliss experience we see on social media everyday. Start talking. I went into hospital totally alone but I left with a son, and for that I am eternally grateful.