After having her newborn boy, Melanie’s* mental health began to suffer. This is her story to help raise awareness for Perinatal^ Mental Health Awareness Week.
I am a huge over-thinker. I always have been. Sometimes it works in my favour, I am always prepared, organised and I like to think I am a relatively successful person. When I found out I was pregnant, I promised myself that I wouldn’t overthink it. I didn’t do a lot of reading or preparation, I just followed the advice my obstetrician gave me, attended the recommended classes and purchased what I needed from ‘suggestion lists’ I received when I attended these appointments and classes.
I had seen a lactation consultant about two weeks before the birth of my son. She talked to me about collecting colostrum before birth and showed me how to do it. I thought it was a great idea and it helped me feel prepared and I knew my baby had a backup and would be fed.
I don’t really know when the worrying started… It might have been the moment I cried over a lasagne on day two; or the stress I was feeling trying to have successful breastfeeding sessions; or my lack of supply, or my flashbacks to a previous sexual assault while I was sitting in a room with my breasts exposed. What I do know is that it happened within my first five days as a Mum. I remember hiding it thinking it would pass and I excused it as baby blues.
Breastfeeding was the most stressful start to being a new mum. I know everyone there was trying to help me be successful, but comments on the size of my breasts, asking me if I had had surgery, was all upsetting. I kept it in my mind, thinking “this too shall pass and it will get easier”. I left the hospital five days later with a ‘plan’ to breastfeed. My plan was: Feed for 10-15 mins each side with a nipple guard, then feed my baby the milk I had last pumped. Then if he finished that and was still hungry, I was to top him up with formula and then pump for the next feeding session - The whole process took just over an hour. As soon as I got in the car to go home, I said to my husband, “I am never feeding in front of anyone, especially another male”.
The tears I had first shed over the lasagne at the hospital hadn’t gone away. I cried without notice, multiple times a day, and I would dread each time I would have to start feeding. This was when I started reading and looking things up on the internet. Surely it wasn’t meant to feel this hard? What was I doing wrong? I kept reading about other women’s experiences, what their babies did, I thought I was doing everything wrong.
I am not sure when it started, but I became obsessed with my son’s feeding and sleeping. I loved this little boy so much that I constantly thought I was failing him. I needed something to tell me I was being successful, that I was a good mum. I started recording every time he fed and how much he drank (time spent breast feeding on each side, amount of expressed milk drank, amount of formula drank), then the amount of time he would sleep. I would add it all up at the end of the day with some arbitrary goal in mind to see if I had been a good mum that day.
I did this for months- it became an obsession. I would follow wake windows to a tee and forward plan my day. If my son woke up at X time then he would need a first nap at Y, then if he sleeps for X time, I should be able to go to this appointment and he will be ok. Or maybe I will need to leave early so he can sleep in the car so I am not late to my appointment. I cancelled so many appointments and catch-ups with friends and family because I couldn’t even consider the idea of leaving the house and messing up his sleeping and eating.
The stress started causing anxiety and depression. I was unable to sleep properly because in addition to the wake ups to feed my son, I was also waking 8+ times a night thinking I had taken him to bed with me and smothered him in the sheets. I would wake in a panic trying to find him.
It was my sister who identified my depression and took me to a GP. We had been out for a walk with our two babies (6 month apart) and I asked her, “When do you start to feel the joy”. The stress had also built to a point where I couldn’t make a decision. I would call my sister multiple times a day asking what I should do if my son only slept for 40 minutes, what time should he take his next nap.
I first got in touch with CaFHS after visiting my GP. My GP had referred me to a psychologist who worked in the same medical centre while I was on a waiting list to see a perinatal psychologist (it was going to be a 3-4 month wait). After visiting the psychologist in absolute despair, they told me after two visits that they wouldn’t be able to help me. I wasn’t in a great place and unfortunately, they didn’t feel their experience or specialty could give me the support I needed. While I appreciated their honesty, I felt lost and abandoned. After a couple of days, I called CaFHS in tears. I couldn’t go through the next 12-16 weeks without support, before I could see a psychologist. The CaFHS nurse on the phone spoke to me for about an hour. She was really thorough and supportive. She organised a time for me to come into my local CaFHS office, gave me resources and contacts in case I needed some urgent help.
Kristen was the first person I saw at the CaFHS Salisbury clinic and she was incredible. I was a mess, I had hardly slept, I couldn’t think straight. I felt like a failure. Kristen spent time with me and just listened. I felt like I could be more open with her than anyone before. She cuddled and fed my little boy while I talked to her and completed the Depression and Anxiety Scale Assessment. Kristen contacted the Northern Mental Health Services that day to organise some ongoing support for me. I had an initial phone conversation with them and then they called me every 2-3 days to check in and they setup an appointment with a psychiatrist. Kristen also called me every couple of days until I was assigned a nurse.
The psychiatrist I connected with was great. I spoke to him for an hour and then he spoke with me and my husband for another half an hour. I was diagnosed with postnatal depression and anxiety and he suggested I take medication. He talked me through how the medication worked, how I will feel, how to slowly increase my dose and any side effects. I had been hesitant to start medication, but my anxiety symptoms had been relentless; I experienced panic attacks whenever my son cried, I would hallucinate during the night that I had bought him to bed with me and lost him in the covers, I would wake up walking around the house nursing a pillow and I would be patting my husband to sleep in my sleep all through the night. I couldn’t turn it off.
After two to three months of being on my medication and slowly increasing to my prescribed dose I felt a significant difference. I felt like a completely different person - my old self. I could make sense of my day, my feelings, my son’s feelings and behaviours. I didn’t feel as panicked about leaving the house. I was sleeping better and the dreams and sleep walking had stopped.
My CaFHS nurse, Maria, contacted me shortly after my meeting with Kristen. Kristen had told me she was going to talk about my case with her peers to see if I could be involved in a program where I could get assistance from both a nurse and a social worker. Maria took the time to understand what was going on and what was troubling me. She was empathetic and would talk me through what I was doing and confirm what was going well and what I could try differently. She gave me some resources and also suggestions for things I could try to help with sleeping and feeding. I met with Maria regularly for close to 12 months. She supported me through my son’s key milestones, helped me when he was sick and helped me gain my confidence through her positive support and conversations.
Annalise was my social worker. She is incredible and probably the main reason I am happy to be the mum I am today. She was so approachable, honest and caring. She never made me feel silly and always helped me understand what I was experiencing and feeling with compassion and empathy. We met regularly for a year. We would talk through my last week/fortnight, what was going on, how I was feeling, how I dealt with it. She talked me through these responses without judgement and made suggestions to help me reframe my thoughts or consider them in a different way. She showed me the kindness I was unable to give myself at times and helped to grow my confidence. She understood my triggers and made sure she was there to support me through key events like, letting go of control and allowing my husband to look after our son while I went out, being okay with grandparents taking care of him and going back to work and transitioning my son (and myself) to childcare. It took a long time, and I had some setbacks; but she was so patient and caring.
I am now a working mum, with a beautiful family who love each other. I look forward to family time, work time, dates with my husband while he is babysat with his loving grandparents. I have an incredibly supportive family, but they could never fully understand what I was feeling and going through. I am so proud of the mum I am and so incredibly thankful to Kristen, Maria and Annalise for helping me.
We love our little boy. He is a happy, curious, cheeky adventurer. We love watching him grow up and we are always amazed how quickly he is learning new words and how to do new things. We couldn’t ask for a better family.
My advice for new parents is to trust that you know the parent you want to be. Trust that you know the relationships you want to have with your children and your family and focus on this, not on everyone else. Be proud of the decisions you make as a parent.
When you feel like it’s really hard, it’s okay to ask for help. If you feel like your baby seems a little off, talk to a different GP, a specialist or a CaFHS nurse.
For perinatal mental health support, contact:
*Name changed and stock image used to protect identity
^ Perinatal is the period of time when you become pregnant and up to a year after giving birth.