Catherine Cameron: Postnatal anxiety ignorance
"I was simply unable to be in the moment. After all, there was far too much to worry about." Catherine Cameron discusses the impact of postpartum ignorance
Four weeks before my due date, I visited a health store to purchase sleep aids for my pregnancy insomnia. On selecting some essential lavender oil, I came across ‘uplifting oil’, promising to help with postpartum depression (PPD). ‘I better grab some of that.’ I thought.
With a history of anxiety playing on my mind, I made an appointment with my GP. I was assured that my risk of PPD was something I could not control, and was told not to worry.
And that, was that.
On my daughter’s arrival, I surprised myself with the optimistic strength I experienced. Sleep deprived and recovering from major surgery, I spent the first week soaking in love and awe.
And then this strength slowly started to peel away. The first red flag I noticed was the way I felt about myself as a mother. Everything that went wrong was always my fault.
My fault, because I was a bad mother.
If she cried, and I found myself wishing for her to stop, I was a bad mother. If I looked at the clock, and dreaded the approach of another sleepless night, I was a bad mother. If friends asked to visit, and the thought of cleaning the house made my eyes well up, I was a bad mother.
No matter what I did, I was a bad, bad mother.
I started to panic. I have always been good at what I do. School, hobbies, my professional career, I have always strived for nothing short of my best. For, perfection. So why wasn’t I achieving this?
And that’s when I made a decision. No excuses. No more self-pity. I was going to be the perfect mother.
And just like that, I became obsessed with every single minute detail of this perfection. Her routine was written down and followed by the second. Her room was always tidy. The dishes were always done. The house was vacuumed multiple times a day. Messages were answered. Guests were welcomed. Smiles were worn. I took control of my negative thoughts and sought professional help. I diagnosed myself as experiencing minor PPD and studiously took the steps to heal.
From the outside, my well-oiled machine was ticking along nicely. I was deceivingly put together.
But deception is dangerous. Because it can become so believable, so perfectly maintained, that the very thing it is hiding is able to grow.
Soon the upkeep of this shiny bubble began to take its toll. The worry it required was beyond my control. I would worry about absolutely everything. The temperature of her room. Her clothing. The amount in which she fed. Her routine. The variety of activities she was doing during the day, and the quality of these. My interactions with her. The housework. The amount of photos I took.
I often found myself sitting with her, analysing every passing second. Have I read her enough books today? Have I sung her enough songs? Have I made her laugh enough? Are her toys stimulating enough? Should we move rooms so she doesn’t get bored of the environment?
I was simply unable to be in the moment. After all, there was far too much to worry about.
It is important to note that low levels of anxiety are normal. If we didn’t worry about things, we wouldn’t have the motivation to get out of bed every day. However, it is crucial to understand the degree of the worry experienced. My worrying was so acute, it presented not only mentally, but also physically. I began to feel nauseous, light headed, and faint. At times I was unable to control my breathing.
This continued for weeks, until a psychiatrist diagnosed me with three words that would change my life. ‘Postpartum anxiety’ (PPA).
And suddenly, it all made so much sense. How was I so unaware that the very thing I thought was protecting me, was in fact the root of the problem? Why did nobody warn me? Was I the only one?
Fast forward 12 months, and I am still trying to wrap my head around the complexities of PPA. I am learning that mental health is not about ‘recovery’, as anxiety is something I will never ‘recover’ from. However with the help of a support system and Maternal Mental Health, I am getting better at recognising and managing my anxious thoughts each day.
To be honest, it's taken a long time to find the strength to think clearly about my personal battle with mental health. Revealing that after my daughter was born things were not perfect is confronting. Frankly, it is embarrassing.
So why then, have I made the decision to be honest with you?
This, is why.
Because I am tired of the ignorance, the silence.
According to Katherine Stone, writer for ‘postpartum progress’, the number of women in the US who are diagnosed with postpartum mental disorders per year, exceeds that of women who sprain their ankles during physical activity.
Now I don’t need to explain to you what a sprained ankle is. But why then, is there so much ignorance surrounding postpartum mental health?
Regardless of how we view mental health, regardless of how we talk about it, don’t talk about it, or hope it will go away, the fact of the matter is, it won’t. Women will continue to bare children. And, women will continue to experience postpartum depression, psychosis, and anxiety.
It doesn’t make you weak. It doesn’t make you any less of a mum. It is not something you should hide.
We have come along way in understanding that mental health is an illness, and are finally recognising that women need to be aware of PPD. But PPD is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to postpartum mental health. The statistics of women suffering postpartum psychosis and postpartum anxiety are on the rise, and women deserve to be aware of this.
And so, today I ask you to find the strength to fight for a shift in how mental health is presented in antenatal and post partum education.
Being open about postpartum mental health takes courage.
And courage, promotes change. And when it comes to post partum mental health, I believe, it is time for change.
Be courageous mammas.
Courage allows the successful woman to fail – and to learn powerful lessons from the failure – so that in the end, she didn’t fail at all. –Maya Angelou