Wednesday 7 January 2015

Motherhood and Mental Health

I'm not going to lie, as the new year starts I'll be glad to see the back of the last. It's not that anything really bad has happened as such, other than a burst appendix, and running out of Nutella on one dark Tuesday morning, but that doesn't mean this year hasn't been tough. I write of course as a mother, but essentially that's just something I have become. Underneath the piles of nappies and the endless games of snakes and ladders I'm the same person I've always been, still full of the same hopes and fears. 

When I made the transition into motherhood I was worried I'd become something I wasn't - that I'd change beyond recognition. I've learnt that such change rarely happens, though onlookers may say otherwise. The truth is that under the extreme pressures of parenting, the intensity of caring for others, the lack of sleep and independence, you become more of yourself than you ever have. There's nothing like the challenge of motherhood to bring out true character, often things you would have preferred to keep hidden away.

For me I've found I am more creative than I've ever been, more empathetic towards the needs of others, more able to laugh in the face of adversity. But along with these things, anxiety, perfectionism and fear have reared their heads too. My insatiable desire for perfection may have left people thinking I had it quite together before I had children. I would try my utmost never to let anyone down, to avoid risk of failure, to remain quiet where I needed to speak. My fear came across as being an amenable person, pandering to what others expected of me or avoiding difficult situations where my anxiety would become apparent. 

When you have children it is impossible to keep these aspects hidden. If you always tried not to offend before you became a parent, your children will have no problems with speaking their mind for you. If you always liked things done in a certain way you can now expect your routine to be shattered, or at least expect to work twice as hard to maintain it. Parenting is the ultimate character workout. 

For me, the good thing about motherhood is that clearly these things needed to be dealt with, I just didn't quite realise it yet. I put a lot of my troubles down to what life had thrown at me, rather than how I chose to see it. The sad thing about motherhood is that women often cope with too much and don't admit that they need help or that they find life hard. In my first year of becoming a parent I was surprised by the number of mothers who secretly admitted they were on Prozak, god forbid they made public that they found parenting difficult. I started writing this blog about my experiences because I often felt I was the only one who struggled as much. Funnily enough I started to get private messages from friends and strangers telling me that they felt the same way. 

As many of you who follow this blog will know, I was daunted at the prospect of having another child after my first experience. During my second pregnancy my problems all came to a head and I felt overwhelmed by depression. Negative feelings during pregnancy are difficult to come to terms with, especially when everyone around expects you to be happy, so I put on a face and generally avoided talking about it. I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress from my first birth and referred for help with a clinical psychologist, who I met with over a period of four months. To be honest I found this diagnosis rather amusing more than anything, of course I don't really have a mental illness, I thought, and so I complied with the sessions almost out of curiosity. It turned out that these appointments not only tackled the issues regarding my previous birth but my whole history of anxiety. I remember sitting in the first session thinking I was having a jolly outing to get a couple of hours out of work, only to leave rather shell shocked. Oh shit. I have a mental illness. 

I still think that sounds a bit dramatic: a mental illness. Really? But let's call a spade a spade, mental illness is not just schizophrenia, mental illness affects one in four people. We accept physical problems all the time but mental ones are harder to understand. We cut ourselves some slack if we have a common cold but not if we're feeling a bit down, as though the cold is just one of those things and the mood is our own fault, even though we can help prevent colds by having a healthier lifestyle. Putting things in place to prevent those down days is equally as important too. But telling people you're just off to see your psychologist is about as easy to confess as treading dog turd into someone's house. Awkward. Mental health still seems to be a slightly difficult thing to talk about.

Now please don't get me wrong, I'm not writing this simply to air my dirty laundry in public or get a little bit of sympathy. Far from it. In fact, I'd rather keep up my somewhat 'together' facade and not make myself so vulnerable to you. The thing is, the stigma surrounding mental health needs to be shattered, especially for mothers who are not only expected to deal with their problems but raise small beings into respectable adult ones while they're at it. There's no option of a sabbatical, no time to have a break down. Life carries on and we are still needed by these beautiful yet demanding creatures. It is essential that we are whole people if not for our own sakes but the wellbeing of our children.

Of course I did have a particularly rough experience when I first became a parent but I would question any mother who has not had an aspect of her mental health challenged throughout her ordeal of childbirth and parenting. That's not to take away any of the joy and fulfilment that comes with parenting too, it's about being real that the ups and downs of life will be more extreme. I've become increasingly aware of the lack of emotional and mental support for new mothers, one that I would argue is as important as the physical. There are mothers that I speak to that are still struggling to come to terms with their birth experiences five or ten years later and there are those that battle with raising children in the midst of depression and other mental illnesses. They are expected just to brush their difficulties under the carpet and move on. It is not fair or realistic to expect new mothers to adapt to such a huge life change so easily.

So this past year has been particularly tough for me, admitting that what I've previously labelled as being a 'bit of a worrier' is actually extreme anxiety that affects every aspect of my life. Admitting that coming home from work most evenings and sobbing for two hours is not normal but, yes, it is okay. Admitting that the deep sadness that I have felt in my gut does not mean I'm a misery to hang out with or that I can't have a laugh. Admitting that mental illness has affected me but that doesn't mean I'm weird or that you have to tip toe around me. Admitting that anti natal depression does not mean that I do not want my baby. Admitting that I do indeed need help, and help it has.

As soon as I gave birth I felt so much lighter, and I do not simply mean that in the physical sense. I felt able to treasure every moment instead of being anxious. Now for the first time in my life I feel able to make mistakes. I am able to be honest without worrying if I will offend people. I am able to say no when I need to. I am able to ask for help when I need it too. I am able to cope with chaos and tears and sleepless nights because of all the bear hugs and giggles and love. I am able to look at my beautiful boys and feel like, wow, how lucky am I? Despite all the pain and scars and exhaustion. I am able to be satisfied with who I am instead of longing to be someone funnier or tidier or more successful.

It's ironic that the very thing that has stirred up the most stress and anxiety has actually been my remedy. I am thankful for my children because they've made me deal with things I would still be trying to avoid. So, although this past year has perhaps been the worst, I wouldn't be without it. Because of it, I am able to be a happier; more content. I am able to be mindful about each day, knowing that my troubles won't last a lifetime. I may always have anxiety, but at least I'm not going to let it stop me doing things in the way that it did before. I now have the keys to deal with it instead of trying to brush it under the carpet or pretend I am someone that I am not. I am thankful I've been able to overcome things I thought I never could. I am thankful that my awkward honesty and tears have paid off. And of course I am thankful for you, for reading my ramblings and journeying with me. 

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