As a mother of two, registered nurse, midwife and founder of Birth Beat, a convenient online childbirth education platform, it’s probably fair for people to assume that I had the whole pregnancy, birth and new mum thing completely sorted.
However, as a maternal health professional and advocate for the health and wellbeing of new parents, one thing I’m passionate about is sharing my real story in the hope that it will help even just one expecting or new Mumma. As hard as it is for me to talk about my experience of perinatal anxiety, I believe it is so important for me to share, especially as a health professional who may appear from the outside to have it all sorted.
My first pregnancy with my now 6-year-old daughter Polly was a breeze. I had the pregnancy glow, was bouncing with energy and couldn’t wait to meet my precious baby. However, I’ll admit that I was slightly over confident when it came to preparing for the birth. I was a midwife, I had it all sorted right?
Not quite. So confident in my ability to birth this baby on my own, I told my husband Ross not to bother taking prenatal classes as I would be quite fine without his help. Thankfully my birth was relatively straightforward and both myself and baby Polly were healthy. But I had robbed Ross of the opportunity to really understand what was going on during my labour and to be able to actively participate in the birth.
Polly was a dream baby who breastfed effortlessly from the very first moment she was placed on my chest. She slept like all the baby books tell you your child should and I actually found myself with spare time during the day while she was asleep. Polly self-weaned to a sippy cup when she was 11 months old (truly!) and the whole baby experience was genuinely enjoyable.
Theo, who is now four, was a completely different baby from the moment I found out I was pregnant with him at 5 weeks. I vomited daily until I was 32 weeks pregnant, I was weak and lost weight. Instead of telling me how well I looked, like they had when I was pregnant with Polly, people told me how pale I looked. In every sense it was the complete opposite of my first pregnancy.
Even though it was a tough pregnancy, Theo’s birth was a fantastic experience. By that time, I had created the Birth Beat course and my husband Ross had taken a class. This gave him a far better understanding of what was going on at each stage of my labour and enabled him to feel like he could help and support me. And while Theo was a big boy, born at 4.2 Kgs, I can honestly say that the day of his birth was a genuinely enjoyable experience.
From the moment I first tried to feed Theo, it was just different to how things were with Polly. Breastfeeding was painful. He wanted to feed every 20 minutes and barely slept. This was a pattern that continued weeks and months after he was born. I had to hold him and rock him to sleep, before he would wake soon after and the anxiety of another painful feed washed over me and the whole cycle started again.
I couldn’t sleep. Both because Theo wasn’t sleeping but even if he was, I couldn’t find a way to slow my mind and rest. I was hospitalised with mastitis, and suffered two more cases in quick succession. And then I got nipple thrush and Theo oral thrush. More medication. More pain. And yet I persisted on feeding him through it all, determined to stick to my plan to breastfeed.
I lived in a constant state of worry that my supply wasn’t enough for him. When Theo started to lose weight, I was a mess. Physically and emotionally. All I could think was ‘this wasn’t how it was meant to be’.
I almost left our 6-week check-up without doing the standard EDPS ((Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale) test. The nurse had forgotten and laughed it off as she knew me and that I was a midwife. “I forgot to do the EDPS, but you’re fine!”. My hand was on the door and I was literally about to walk out. But something stopped me because I simply couldn’t pretend that everything was OK any longer.
“No, I’m actually really not OK.”
To let down my front and admit I was struggling, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Especially as I was a nurse and midwife at the local public hospital. Everyone knew me, what would they think? I felt a real sense of shame for not coping with my new baby.
Little by little we started to get things back on track. We started comp feeding with formula and Theo started to thrive once more. We attended a sleep and settling clinic to help with the sleeping issues and create some form of routine in our lives. I saw a psychologist who gave me strategies and tools to cope with the anxiety I was experiencing. It wasn’t easy or a quick fix but taking that first step to reach out for help made all the difference.
I always say that I’m now grateful for both of my baby experiences, as hard as the second one was. I firmly believe it has made me a better, more empathetic and supportive midwife and it’s given me even more drive to continue bettering the birth experience and life beyond with a new baby for all parents.
It’s so important to let new and expecting parents know that it’s OK to not be OK. There is help available, you just need to take that first step and let someone know. Programs like The Gidget Foundation’s Start Talking Program are incredibly important and such a wonderful resource for expecting and new parents, especially those in rural and remote areas. Awareness is key and by sharing our stories and letting parents know that there are people, resources and programs that can help them if they’re struggling, we can change and potentially, save lives.