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Jane's story

A powerful story of not letting postnatal depression define your role as a mother.

For me, the magic of motherhood didn't come the first time I held my baby or in those first few weeks when life as I knew it disappeared and my new life began. The magic came from the hard work in the ensuing months, or even years, as I moulded myself, sometimes against my will, into the mother my child needed me to be.

“And it came once the grieving for my old life, a life of agency and freedom, finally ended.”

For those of us who have postnatal depression, the ramifications of motherhood are far greater and take longer to recover from, adjust to and finally embrace. After reaching crisis point, I was diagnosed with severe postnatal depression when my son Ned was 3.5 months old. I couldn't stop throwing up, my body wasn't producing milk, my hair was falling out in handfuls, I never slept and I found it difficult to leave the house.

I was terrified to be alone with my baby. My inner voice told me every minute of every hour that I was incapable of keeping this baby I had so longed for alive. Ashamedly, I asked my sister to adopt Ned. Not because I didn't love him, but because I loved him so much I thought this was the only option to keep him alive.

I was lucky that my paediatrician -- having watched me cope with Ned in special care and with being discharged without my baby -- fast tracked me into a sleep school at a private hospital. I was also lucky that we could afford the $5000 it cost for my three-week stay once I was admitted as a mental health patient to the mother and baby unit.

Although the staff were professional and kind, it was a frightening experience and I was ashamed to be there. I kept thinking: "things like this don't happen to people like me." By "like me" I meant highly capable, professional, and privileged, with none of the disadvantage others endure.

The hospital was a long way from home and no one regularly visited except my husband, who must have felt equal measures of shame and hopelessness that his wife wasn't able to cope.

My mother drove 2.5 hours to visit the morning after I had been medicated for the first time. As anyone with a mental illness will attest to, finding the right medication is trial and error. Unfortunately, my first experience was horrific. That first tablet brought on such anxiety that I lay paralysed in my bed convinced I was going to die. My heart felt like it was coming through my chest, I could see the call button but my hand wouldn't move and when the night shift midwife shone her torch through my door every two hours for the routine check, my mouth wouldn't let the scream out.

The next day, the day my mother visited, when the midwives came to wake me I had wet and soiled the bed and was catatonic. I drifted in and out of awareness wanting to call out for Ned but knowing I could barely lift my head. I remember the midwives laying my baby against my body to try and bring me back. The midwives cared for Ned for two days while the drug ebbed out of my system.

“But with time, care and a determination to recover, things got better. ”

I had to accept that my stay in hospital was not a punishment for my failings but a chance to learn to be mother.I was brave enough to try another medication. It was a newer drug, not yet available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, and because it sedated you to sleep, tricky to use with a newborn. Thankfully it worked, and quickly. Within days, the rawness, depression and paranoia began to go and within two weeks, I was ready to go home. To re-enter my life.

Recovery wasn't easy or linear but I found things that helped. Certainly the medication helped. Over the weeks it re-balanced my brain, and I became more rational and could feel the little but momentous rays of joy that only a newborn -- your newborn -- can bring.

I accepted that I couldn't breastfeed. Having had a breast reduction in my early twenties, I felt tremendous guilt that my vanity meant my milk ducts didn't work. Ned responded to the bottle and I accepted that 'baby knows best' and that he would decide how much milk he needed.

I went back to mothers' group and instead of explaining my absence with stories of a glamorous overseas holiday, I was honest. And the response from these women I barely knew was overwhelming and comforting. They didn't judge -- in fact, they sympathised and told me of their own struggles adjusting.

I started mums and bubs yoga. The end-of-practice ritual gave thanks for the gift of motherhood. I would bend my head down with thanks and each week a well of emotion was released from deep within me. It was as if, in that old church, surrounded by new mothers and babies, the depression was being purged from me -- one class at a time.

My mother stayed for a month before I got strong enough to be weaned off her presence. When Ned slept, I would lay in my bed, unable to sleep but listening to her push the iron back and forth. Counting the strokes comforted and stilled my mind. To be dependent on your 68-year-old mother to care for you and feed your baby at night was a necessary but bruising experience.

When Ned was 11 months old, I came back to work. Although it was hard to leave Ned when I felt postnatal depression had robbed me of time with him, it helped me regain a sense of identity outside of being a mother. I was lucky to have a boss (a man, may I note) who supported flexible working arrangements. To get by, I slept on the toilet in 20-minute intervals throughout the day until Ned slept through the night at 15 months.

After 16 months, with my psychiatrist's help, I weaned myself off my medication. It wasn't because I had let go of the old Jane and that medication and time had made a new one.

“It was because I had grown a new skin, the tough-yet-soft skin of a mother.”

Although postnatal depression is behind me, I work hard to keep it away. On my first visit to my psychologist she told me to fight with everything I had to not to let postnatal depression define me as a mother. And it hasn't.

But I remain thankful that it taught me there is much to be grateful for. I live in a country where I got help. I felt the embrace of the extended motherhood (new mothers and old). Recovery was possible. Uncompromised love for my child did come and came with strength and clarity.

At two years in, every time Ned says "That's my mummy," it's an affirmation that postnatal depression has not defined me. It just made me a better mother.

Helpful Information

Postnatal anxiety and depression: Signs and symptoms
Read More
Connecting with your baby
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Caring for loved ones at risk of perinatal mental illness
Read More
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Everyone’s experience of pregnancy, birth and parenting is unique and brings different rewards and challenges. Our mental health checklist can help you to see if what you’re experiencing or observing in a loved one could be a reason to seek help.