Hidden In Plain Sight
By Alicia Sullivan
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This piece was written as part of the blog series ‘My Mind, My Story’ for Mental Health Month 2021. Reflections are by mindshare writers with lived experience of mental health challenges. Content may contain triggering themes.
Being a new parent is an exciting time but also a daunting one, especially if it is your first child. Having a child wasn’t part of my plan, but I found myself talking to my bump every day – I even had a nickname for my unborn son, Jaydos. I felt I was ready to become a mum. The last month of my pregnancy was smoother than my first five months, where I was extremely sick, but my pregnancy was a breeze compared to the years that were to come. Those years were the hardest and loneliest time in my life, a time where I had lost myself. For a long time, I didn’t know why. It would take me years to discover that I had been living with Postnatal Depression, though it had been in plain sight.
The first few weeks after the birth of my son was an adjustment to what I had known. At first, everyone is around you, messaging you, wanting to see the new baby, there are health checks and doctors’ appointments. I was too busy to understand what I was feeling, but, as the weeks went by, the messages, visits and health checks became less regular. That’s when the isolation sets in. Most days felt the same, an endless cycle without respite. No time to try and reach out to people because of the pressure – the pressure to have the house cleaned, dinner cooked, the baby fed. Some nights I didn’t go to bed until midnight because I needed to ensure all the chores were done. Not finishing the housework in my head meant that I was failing as a parent, a partner and a person. Mums were meant to do it all, that is what I was taught to believe from tv shows, media and loved ones.
I rejected any parenting help from my partner. In my mind, I had to prove to myself and to everyone else that I was a good mum. To do that, I had to do it all. I was exhausted, irritable and lashing out at my partner which was impacting our relationship. I justified my behaviour and put it down to lack of sleep and the pressures of having a new baby. It wouldn’t always be like this; it would get better. But, like most things, it became a lot worse before it became better.
As my son grew, so did my anxiety. I couldn’t help but become fixated on every little detail about him. His size, his development, his sleep; I researched everything. I spent hours and hours online or reading books. Diagnosing him with different conditions and illnesses. I remember when my son developed a rash from eating yogurt for the first time, and I became convinced he was lactose intolerant. I spent two hours in the supermarket looking for foods he would be able to eat when he was older.
My research intensified when it became apparent that my son was having trouble walking. I was convinced that he would never be able to walk. I spent hours looking at wheelchairs and walking frames and reading stories about what it is like to have a child with a disability. After investing so much time in believing my son would never walk, he started to walk in his own time. I never told anyone how obsessive I had become; maybe deep down I knew my behaviour wasn’t normal. I was ashamed.
My turning point came when we found out my son had some developmental delays. I thought I had failed him: that it was my fault. I broke down and wanted to run away. My partner convinced me that my son needed me, and I knew in that moment that I needed to talk to someone about how I was acting and feeling.
When I was diagnosed with Postnatal Depression, I was a little shocked. I wasn’t aware of all the symptoms, I just thought if you had Postnatal Depression you wanted to harm your baby or you couldn’t love your baby. No one explained to me the signs to look out for. No one told me how complex, and how common it really is.
Things changed for me after I received help from a psychologist. I no longer obsessed over my son and stopped blaming myself for his developmental delays. I made more time for myself and others around me. I realised the importance of self-care and giving myself a break. I learnt to love myself as a mum – it is okay to be perfectly imperfect. My son and I have a really deep bond, I am thankful for this. I am proud of the mother that I am even if my son thinks I am weird.
I now offer peer support to new mums who are at risk of developing Postnatal Depression – I enjoy my role immensely. The women that I speak with appreciate having someone to talk to who understands what they are feeling without judgement. It is a service I wish I had available to me when I had my son, and I am glad that my journey can help other mums recognise their own feelings. Sometimes, a new mum needs to hear that they are doing the best they can and that’s okay. They need to know they aren’t alone.
Sharing stories can encourage change, de-stigmatise and, hopefully, stop Postnatal Depression from hiding in plain sight. That’s why I’m sharing mine.