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I looked at my child and I thought he was a stranger: My experience with postnatal depression

May is Postnatal Depression Awareness Month. We’ll be sharing stories by mothers around New Zealand about their journeys with postnatal depression. If you need help, there is help. Please ask for help, because you matter.

Content warning: This post contains a descriptions of mental illness. It may be upsetting to people who are struggling with their own mental health. There are helplines at the bottom of the piece – if you are in urgent need please call the Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO). If you think you may have post-natal depression you can fill in the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale here.

I’ve read so many brave mothers’ stories about their battles with postnatal depression and even though they’ve resonated with me, I’ve never really discussed mine for fear of being judged. But that’s the problem in itself, isn’t it? No one talks about it which makes it seem like no one else is going through it and you’re all alone. So here’s postnatal depression story.

When I had my first child, I was 27-years-old and couldn’t wait to be a mum. My husband and I had been through the heartache of a miscarriage and we wanted this baby more than anything. We knew he was a boy and had nicknamed him Ludwig (or Luddy for short). We both talked to Luddy and loved feeling him kick around and move in my belly. Unfortunately as I had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes the obstetrician decided that I needed to be induced at 39 weeks, just to be safe. So off we went, hubby and I, to the hospital one Sunday morning, thrilled that we would be meeting Luddy later that day. I still remember clutching the folder with my birth notes in my hand. The birth plan that stated I wanted a natural, drug-free birth. I had even included notes (for hubby of course) detailing my hypno-birthing breathing techniques which would get me through the pain.

But nothing could prepare me for the absolute shock that was an induction. From there, things escalated quickly and just four hours later, my birth notes were tossed in a heap and I was wheeled in for an emergency c-section. I was glad of course because I just wanted Luddy to be safe! When I finally heard his first cry I had tears as I was so happy – he was here. And safe! And when the midwife finally brought him over to me, I looked at him and felt…. nothing!

Wasn’t I meant to feel an instant connection, a bond, a warm, fuzzy feeling of overwhelming love? I felt overwhelmed, but overwhelmed with fear. What had I done? I don’t know how to be a mum? And who was this tiny little bundle, staring at me with his big, alert blue eyes? He wasn’t Luddy, he seemed like a stranger.

Posed photo via Getty Images

Over the next few weeks, I struggled with breastfeeding. My son was born with a tongue tie and had difficulty latching which meant he wasn’t getting fed, my nipples were ravaged, he was hungry and not sleeping and I was exhausted and in pain due to recovering from the c-section and from the constant feeding which didn’t seem to appease his voracious appetite at all. Everyone suggested formula, but I was determined to do this. Eventually after his tongue tie was released, my milk supply increased which was great. But then the reflux began! And his sleeping still never improved.

I was lucky enough to have a supportive family which meant my parents came over everyday to help out with him while I was recovering from my c-section. I was so grateful, not only for their help, but so I didn’t have to hold him. I used every excuse I could think of not to hold him. I felt like a horrible mother, but I just couldn’t hold him because I was terrified that everyone would be able to see that I didn’t love him and that I wasn’t fit to be a mother. That I was a monster.

I cried all the time, but I refused to talk to anyone, even my husband, about how I was feeling. I googled “Postnatal depression” and I knew that I was suffering, but I didn’t want to seek help because that would mean that I was an unfit mother. That I wasn’t coping. People would judge me.

Eventually, after nearly three months, I started to feel better. I could feel my affection for him growing and one day while I was feeding him, I looked into his beautiful eyes and said, “I love you!” I remember that day clearly, because I burst into tears and realised that I truly loved him. I had finally bonded with him and knew that I loved him more than anything else in the world. It had taken three months, but it happened.

When my son was a year old, I got pregnant and this time I told myself that things would be completely different. I had an elective c-section this time and the birth was incredible. I cried when I saw him and was in a complete euphoria of happiness for the first few hours after the birth. But then the drugs wore off and I felt an overwhelming sadness. I looked at my baby and felt… nothing.

“Shit!” I thought. “Not this again!”

Over the next couple of weeks, I was determined I was not going to be depressed this time around. After all, what did I have to be depressed about? I had two beautiful and healthy boys, a loving husband and a supportive family. I was determined to bond with my new son and I held him all the time! Breastfeeding was easier this time and supply wasn’t an issue! But still, I struggled. I wasn’t coping. I was angry and crying all the time. I loved my oldest baby and constantly felt guilty that I didn’t love my second as much as I loved first. “I am a horrible monster!” I thought.

One night, after my youngest had been screaming his head off for about three hours straight, I was exhausted and frustrated and had a brief and fleeting vision of shaking him vigorously. “No!” I thought. “I am a monster! How could I even think of doing that to this vulnerable child?” Instantly I put him down in the cot and ran to the bathroom. “I am a terrible person! I don’t deserve to be alive. Those boys don’t need me. They will be better off without me!”

As I stood there, I looked in the mirror and was disgusted at my reflection. “I am a monster!” I picked up a razor and considered my options, but then thought, “No! I can’t do this here. I don’t want my husband or my child to find me and constantly be reminded of what happened in this house! Plus, it will make too much of a mess and I hate making a mess!” As silly as it sounds, my OCD tendencies around cleanliness saved my life. The thought of making a mess stopped me from making one of the biggest mistakes of my life.

As I crawled back into bed, I said to my husband, “I just thought about killing myself.”

I’m glad I told him what I was thinking because it was the best thing I could’ve done. He gave me a hug, he picked up our baby and rocked him back to sleep. He spoke to our families who rallied around in support. I text my midwife and she was incredible. She recommended me to Maternal Mental Health and from there I received so much support from, doctors, occupational therapists, psychologists, mental health nurses and social workers who helped me realise that I wasn’t a monster and that I was one of a large number of mums who felt the same way.

Once I had opened up about how I was feeling and started to accept help, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted off my chest. I knew that I would be okay. That it would get better.

And then, it did. One day, I looked at my baby and felt the same overwhelming surge of love for him that I did for his brother. This was it. It had finally happened. I had bonded with him.

As for the postnatal depression, it took a long time for me to finally start feeling normal again. I’m still recovering, but the support of family and friends has been paramount.

There’s so much pressure on mothers to be happy and grateful. To instantly feel that connection and bond with your baby the very first moment you lay eyes on him.

But that doesn’t happen for everyone. And that’s okay. Postnatal depression happens to more women that we realise. But it’s so important for women to share our stories, to admit that we need help, or to accept the help that is offered.

It’s been hard for me to talk about my postnatal depression. Especially discussing my lowest point, that night in my bathroom where I saw no way out. But if I hadn’t talked about it and admitted that I wasn’t coping and that I needed help, I probably wouldn’t be here today.

If sharing my story makes even just one mum realise that you’re not alone in this, then it’s been worth it. You’ve got this Mumma. It’s bloody hard and even though it feels like things will never get better, they can and they will. Reach out and ask for help.

Together we can get through this.

Althea Lovell is a West Auckland 30-year-old Mum of two boys who juggles working full time, studying, motherhood and running a household on little or no sleep. You can read her blog here.

Where to get help

Perinatal Depression and Awareness Aotearoa family support services directory.

Lifeline – 0800 543 354

Suicide Crisis Helpline (open 24/7) – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO)

Depression Helpline (open 24/7) – 0800 111 757

Samaritans  – 0800 726 666

Youthline (open 24/7) – 0800 376 633. Text 234 for free between 8am and midnight, or email talk@youthline.co.nz.

0800 WHATSUP (0800 9428 787) – Open between 1pm and 10pm on weekdays and from 3pm to 10pm on weekends. Online chat is available from 7pm to 10pm every day at whatsup.co.nz.

Healthline – 0800 611 116

For more information about support and services available to you, contact the Mental Health Foundation’s free Resource and Information Service on 09 623 4812 during office hours or email info@mentalhealth.org.nz.

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