I won’t suddenly be well: On the pain of not being the mother you want to be

An essay by Linda Jane Keegan about postnatal depression, coming out the other side, and the knowledge that you’ll forever be changed.

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.

Maybe it’s all the rain – the seemingly constant torrential downpour – that made me think of this, but it feels like I’ve been eroding away. Losing who I am, the very essence of myself. Leaving bare rock beneath. Or perhaps leaving nothing save the vestiges of a landslide. Once the soil is gone it takes a long time to build up again. Even when the rain stops and the sun comes out, there isn’t suddenly a hillside of trees again. Just a featureless relief, stark and gloomy under a greenish grey sky.

Or maybe it’s more like an earthquake. Shuddering tremors as your life flies off bookshelves into chaos on the floor around you. An earth-shattering moment, moments, ongoing aftershocks. You’re trying to rebuild but you live under the shadow of fear, of not knowing. Not knowing if or when you might crumble again. If your infrastructure will be strong enough to hold you.

How heavily and for how long can you lean on your main support before they too will break?

Even when I stop getting worse – if I haven’t already – I won’t suddenly be well. There will still be rain, there will still be slips, and unexpected aftershocks. Today I threw a suitcase and it dented the closet door. I sobbed on the floor while my child wandered about with no pants, flailing and flapping and surely imminently about to piss on something that would be impossible to wash. But I didn’t even care. I just lay on the humidity-dampened carpet, deadened by the weight of my own failure – failure to stay calm, failure to be the parent I want to be – watching numbly as my beautiful kid traipsed around the room, pausing to trace his finger along the jagged crack in the closet door.

I don’t want this to be him. Him to be me, I mean. I know he sees me, senses my anger in the air. I’m gentle with him; I place him softly on the floor, and then heave my frustration onto inanimate objects. I cry at my own weakness. I always cuddle him and tell him I’m sorry, a hundred, a thousand, a million times. That I love him but I’m just having a hard time. I don’t expect him to understand, but I must make sure he knows I love him. How deeply, how wholly, how unfathomably I love him.

I think he knows, because he puts kisses on my face and giggles when I squeeze him tight. But sometimes when he’s tired or frustrated, he’s rough, he waves his hands haphazardly and forcefully into my face, he bites. These I know are not unusual kid things. But I can’t help but feel like he’s getting it from me. This is not what I want to give to my child. I want to give him kindness. I want to give him patience. I want to give him love. I want to show him how to be calm in the face of difficulty. How to move mountains.

But how can I, when my mountain has crumbled away? How can I, when the clouds are black and it’s too dark to find the way? When all the soil has washed out to sea?

Where will we stand when the very earth beneath us is gone?

I know that when I get through this I will be different. Growth and regrowth will happen, the forest floor will build up once more, the pōhutukawa will flower again. We will forge a new landscape and it will be different and it won’t always be easy underfoot but it will be me. I’ll find myself among the ferns, smelling the damp earth, and staring up through the canopy as if seeing the world for the first time.

Linda Jane Keegan is currently preoccupied with parenting, ecology, and exploring the outdoors. She has been known to subsist on chocolate biscuits, hike long distances, and correct punctuation on billboards. And sometimes, she writes.

Where to get help

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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