Motherhood, Mental Health and finding ‘Me’ again

“It’s not the load that breaks you down, it’s the way you carry it.”
– Lou Holtz

The thing with depression is that most of the time you don’t know when it will hit you, or how. However, what you do recognise are the signs and symptoms. And as much as you try to suppress them, inevitably they rise to the surface in some sort of breakdown…or two, or three in my case.

I debated for a long time, much like with My Fertility Story, whether to share what I’ve been going through publicly. But since the feedback was so overwhelmingly positive the first time around, and the process of writing so cathartic for me, I wanted to share my experience of PND and the mental health challenges I’ve been going through, in the hope that some may be able to relate, and perhaps to chip in to breaking down the stigma of mental health challenges for new mums.

It can be hard to admit that you are struggling after having a baby. Having a baby is a huge life event that has the power to alter absolutely everything you know about yourself, your body, your relationships, and your hormones. You become a bit lost and it’s easy to forget looking after yourself when you get caught up in the juggle of motherhood.

Of course, it’s entirely natural to have big emotions during pregnancy and in the year after birth, and for me and my Type A personality I certainly felt that life shift! Though the pressures of doing a good job and to be ‘bossing motherhood’ didn’t really phase me until a few months after I had Lana. In fact, I didn’t have the time or energy to notice that some of the signs and symptoms were already there.

For those of you that aren’t aware of my history, I have experienced waves of anxiety, depression and chronic stress since my early twenties. I’ve sought different types of therapy during those various phases (but never medication), practised different coping mechanisms and practices, and most of the time I’ve come out of the ‘fog’ of these situations with a weight lifted from my shoulders.

When Lana hit 4.5 months and was about to go into childcare, I started to feel very low. But I dismissed it initially. I blamed the ‘mum guilt’ of putting Lana into childcare so early on at the same time as returning to work, as well as the postpartum hormone changes, the increase in cortisol (stress hormone) and mostly the horrendous sleep deprivation by that point. It is known that lack of sleep also leads to decreased levels of melatonin (and, as a result, serotonin). All these postpartum hormone changes can sometimes be the reason for negative emotions.

Whether I could label it as Post Natal Depression or more generally depressive/anxious thoughts at that point, I was being overwhelmed by emotions. The juggle hit me immediately ­­– the mental load of motherhood engulfing me on top of being in a job that is GIVE, GIVE, GIVE. I was losing control of my autonomous self and it all became a little too much too quickly.

I threw myself back into work head-first like I always do when I’ve taken a break (my typical ‘all or nothing’ approach). However, I had never taken more than 2.5 weeks off at a time before. As the depressive thoughts surfaced as Christmas approached, I still didn’t go to the doctors because I didn’t feel worthy enough and felt that I would be told I was overreacting, and it was very ‘normal’ to feel the way I was feeling. Approaching 8 months of sleep deprivation by this point, my nervous system had gone into overdrive, and it culminated in extremely self-destructive behaviour and a couple of major breakdowns over the course of a month.

For the many times I had heard ‘you’re doing great, mama’ and ‘you’ve got this mama’, ‘you’re totally nailing motherhood’, I felt like my self-belief and capabilities of having a hold on everything was waning. I was being driven down this dark rabbit hole of losing my own identity. I could handle this new job of motherhood, despite the turbulent moments, but my self-care and mental well-being were being pushed further and further down my priority list. With no family support apart from my husband, I held myself together the only way I know how to — I carry the weight of my problems internally.

I often can become so consumed by my thoughts. Sometimes I feel guilty for having the feelings I do and complaining about how my situation is — whether it’s the lack of family support, resenting my job, resenting Lana for me not being able to do my job. But I allow myself to have these thoughts (the positive ones, too), because motherhood is a double-edged sword and it will show how you that you’re not alone in your feelings — and that it’s perfectly possible, and maybe even normal, to love your child with all your heart while also feeling lost, alone, and resentful.

I’ve realised more recently that you can be both — struggling and exceptional. You can be sad and loving. I now accept that no mum is perfect and has it all together all the time.

The title of ‘working mum’ has always been something I’ve aspired to. I knew I would embrace it (because I love my job) and I believe I’ve made a good start with what I have achieved already in my business over the last 6 months (whilst trying to keep my expectations low). Tackling motherhood for me is nothing to do with me missing my ‘old life’, and I’m aware people might think that because I waited longer to have a child (not out of choice). It is rather missing the rhyme and rhythm of your past life, and parenthood certainly does not go hand in hand with that rhyme and rhythm.

I often remind myself that I am much more than a working mum — that there were different roles and challenges I undertook in my professional life and worked hard to achieve the outcomes of those challenges. I hope Lana will be inspired and empowered by the choices her mum has had to make, to help build the best possible life for her.

My work empowers me. I love what I do, and I think I’m very lucky to say that. I also choose to work to get back to the ‘old me’ and to keep my sanity.

Yet, it’s a strange dichotomy that I’m still getting used to as I’ve also been open about my feelings of resentment towards work and running a small business, in that it doesn’t allow me to spend as much time as I’d like with Lana.

And then there are days where I spiral down a rabbit hole of self-sabotage. Constant, nagging thoughts of feeling you’re not good enough, not doing enough, not succeeding enough…in all aspects of your life. Oh, and then there are the household chores to do — the washing, cleaning, tidying. They were all things I managed to slot into my life very easily before. But then everything worked well to a schedule before — MY schedule.

No wonder the heavy load of responsibilities pushes me to the depths of despair at times. I so often end up at the bottom of my priority list. I internalise everything as I never like to relinquish control and be seen as a burden or that I don’t appear to have my shit together. I guess by writing about these feelings I’m wanting to break the stigma that I have created for myself, in being this strong, ‘together’, all-round capable human being.

There are so many unrealistic expectations of mothering that one can get lost in the self-deprecation, because it doesn’t look how you expected or is easy for everyone else. Somehow you are demonised if you struggle.

But then again, I feel my struggles don’t take away from who I am as a mother. Even the ‘perfect mums’ on social media have bad moments, days, and weeks (which is why it’s important to never assume what’s going on in someone’s life when it could be very different behind the scenes).

So, where am I getting to with all of this? Well, I wanted to document my experience because I’ve learnt from sharing my Fertility Story that vulnerability is a strength. And although I’m only just starting to come out of the fog, I hope by opening up the conversation on maternal mental health that we can all continue to normalise mental health issues going forwards.

Below I’ve written down a few of the tools/coping mechanisms that have helped me over the last few months. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s hard asking for help, but from someone who has had therapy before, there is nothing that has helped me more than seeking professional support.

• Liberate yourself from social expectations of what being a ‘good mum’ is like, or a ‘working mum’ or even how you’re supposed to play out parenthood!

• “Comparison is the thief of joy”. Unfollow any social media accounts that you feel portray an unrealistic portrayal of parenthood.

• Stop being so hard on yourself. Remind yourself that you can be both — a good mom and the hurting parts inside of you.

• Protect your boundaries — say ‘no’ more often. The quote, “Those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter” (Dr Seuss), often comes to mind.

• Prioritise YOU. You can’t always control the loads you have to take on. You certainly, however, can control how you carry them. Always bear in mind “please place your oxygen mask on first, before helping others.” Your family needs you to be well to look after them.

• Exercise has profound benefits for your mental wellbeing. And yes, it has helped me immeasurably, but it’s also understanding what type of exercise will serve me best for my mentally ‘down days’.

• Navigate intuitively what works for you. Become more self-aware of the triggers. Only you know when something feels right and when it doesn’t.

• Recently I’ve been enjoying re-connecting with my authentic self, and with that comes being more relaxed about winging all aspects of motherhood! It’s helped me lower my expectations of trying to fit into the perfect ‘mum’ role, and at the same time allow me to enjoy this new set of skills I’m learning of being a parent.

• Just remember that everything is a phase and that you will ‘grow through what you go through’.

• As I’ve mentioned already, share your struggles — it will build you closer friendships and you’ll realise you’re not alone.

• Learning to roll with parenthood and be highly adaptable at short notice is one of the biggest and fastest lessons I’ve learnt in the last year.

• Asking for help is the most valiant thing you can do. Depression is an illness and it manifests in many different forms. We need to talk about it more openly, recognise the signs and symptoms, then we can understand how to get help and to know that there is help available.

Speak to your GP, midwife, or health visitor for a referral. You can also tap into the below charity organisations:

@pandas_uk @tommys @mindcharity

If any of the above resonates, remember you are not alone, even if it sometimes feels like you are. And as much as I tried to put on a brave face for so long, I’d like to thank those who offered me a listening ear over the last few months.

There is always a way out.

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Yasmine Say

Founder of Say Fitness Personal Training. #PersonalTrainer, STOTT Pilates Instructor and Mobility Coach. www.sayfitnesspt.com @sayfitnesspt