Navigating the postpartum darkness

When my baby was born on December 13, 2013 I knew my life had changed forever. I think any mother will say the same thing: the moment your baby is handed to you, whether it be straight after birth, hours, days or weeks later, you’re hit with overwhelming feelings. Fear, love, hope, the feeling your heart may explode all mixed together in an emotional fireball.

“Before she hit the world she was this fire heating every bit of me, so intense, burning and I think I knew, even then that she was going to be remarkable. Then when I held her for the first time, it was like holding this beautiful bomb of energy. Even then it scared me so I think I’m prepared for this - whatever this is.”

My son was going to be that child, wild and full of fire. I think that’s why we were brought together. We both had a fire that when put together could create flames strong enough to rip through a forest. Nothing could have prepared me for the intensity.

My first, and soon-to-be biggest challenge would be feeding my baby. I remember being in the hospital on my first night alone with him, in a shared room with another new mother. I looked at him and felt a wave of fear, thinking to myself I am still a child myself, how am I meant to look after another (very tiny) human?

I pressed the nurse call button in tears and she came to help me feed my crying baby. I felt vulnerable and exposed and she squeezed tiny amounts of milk from me and used a syringe to feed my baby. It didn’t feel as natural as I imagined it would be - not that I spent a lot of time imagining myself breastfeeding. It was then, that night alone at 1 am that I had my first taste of what was to come. It may have been dark outside at these hours but it became the darkness I felt inside myself that became the demon. It was not just being alone, with a tiny, screaming fireball in my arms that was the problem, it was being carried off to the darkest areas of my mind — places I never knew existed.

For 6 weeks I became a zombie and felt like I was walking around in a dream. I could see everything happening but I never quite felt like I was there. The truth is I didn’t really want to be there.

When I returned home, after being in hospital for 3 nights, my next struggle began. Our family dynamic to start with was a bit complicated. We were living with my parents and sisters while our home was being built. It felt so unnatural to feed in front of my family or even be around them while trying to be a mother because I was the baby of the family. I felt like I had no place and I was terrified of even being around my son when we got home.

The first week at home with my son, it felt like the whole world had gone back to its normal rhythm, that everyone around me hadn’t even noticed the huge crater indented into my life and I was supposed to go on with life navigating this crater. I began to disconnect from my baby. I was so afraid of him and spent so much time pleading for my life to go back to how it was before giving birth to him.

It was 6 weeks of this darkness where I felt I  was slowly drowning. At that point I realised I was lucky to have the help I did. I slowly climbed my way out of the hole with the help of my Maternal Child Health nurse, PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia), my mothers’ group and my family. At week 3, my nurse told my family to immediately go and buy some formula and bottles for my own health. I don’t remember how I felt when I heard her say that.I don’t really remember much of the details of that time...but I remember my mother’s disappointed look. She had kept telling me how well I could feed, that I had enough milk and that he was latching properly and that every mum would wish to be able to feed as easily as I could.

But it wasn’t so easy, not for me. I think most people believe that ending breastfeeding only happens because of a physical problem. But I wish to tell people that it’s not so simple. Mental health is a huge factor that can surface in any area of parenting, especially breastfeeding. Logically it makes sense that you can either feed or you can’t — but when you look deeper and experience the postnatal depression that consumes you after giving birth, things can be more distressing, difficult, painful and dark.

I became stronger after I got the help I needed, although it was a slow process through the overly stretched services available. I finally became a mother at the end of that black hole that was the first 6 weeks post birth.

I developed a bond with my maternal nurse, I had a new group of friends through my parents group, I found a great doctor and psychologist and even found comfort in the baristas at my local cafes.

I truly believe these people saved my life and my sanity. I became particularly close with a few of the mothers in our parents group. One breastfed her daughter for over 18 months even through numerous bouts of mastitis, and the everyday struggles of being a stay-at-home mum made her so inspiring. Another, returning to work after 10 months at home and breastfeeding, she made it her decision to end breastfeeding and return to work which I find just as inspiring. Along with many other mothers who breastfed, pumped and formula-fed I am well aware that sometimes we have to decide what is the best way for us – as the mother – to raise healthy and happy children. We’ve all done this in our own way.

I look back now at those first 6 weeks in particular and wish I could do it over again, without the PND and psychosis. I wish I could have another chance to push through breastfeeding for the simple fact of knowing what it feels like to bond with your baby that way. I think I will always wish for that time back but after everything, 5 years later, I have a healthy, happy, content son who is in no way harmed by my difficulties and struggles.

This story was generously contributed by Stefanie Johnson, mother to Levi.

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