‘Any other first-time mums out there losing their minds?’ asked Nicky D.C, in her first post in the Inner West Mums group after the birth of her son. ‘I have a four week old, had a very traumatic labour, and am extremely sleep deprived. My baby boy fights his sleep during the day so much … Don’t get me wrong. I love that he needs me. But I’m slowly losing my mind.’
In a series of posts throughout this year, Nicky D.C reached out to the group time and again, seeking advice and empathy. While often lighthearted, sometimes even humorous in tone, her posts revealed great physical and mental suffering. Her son’s complicated delivery left Nicky with post-traumatic stress disorder, and later postnatal depression too.
Nicky’s very first post, and each one thereafter, resonated deeply with me. I followed her progress over the year, posting comments occasionally to offer words of support. Eventually I decided to contact Nicky to ask if she’d be willing to discuss her experience of birth and motherhood with me for an article on perinatal mental health for Postnatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week. She agreed right away. ‘I think it could really help others,’ she wrote to me. ‘And help me too.’ Two weeks later, on a hot November day, we met in a cafe.
As we sip our iced drinks, Nicky’s face is emotionless while she tells me the story – a truly horrific tale – of her son’s birth in January. It’s the story of a three-day labour at 42 weeks pregnant, which resulted in being induced, a failed vaginal delivery, an epidural that didn’t work, an emergency C-section, a ruptured uterus, a postpartum haemorrhage and nerve damage. She speaks about the enormous pain she underwent, during the delivery process and for a long time afterwards. The fog of the early months, nursing her wounds as she nursed her son around the clock. About the exhaustion. Anaemia. Significant weight loss. An inability to bond with her son for many weeks after his birth. And as she speaks, there’s not a single pause, not a sigh or a sharp intake of breath, not a single tear. ‘I still can’t really connect with what happened to me,’ she says.
At her son’s six-week check, Nicky was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She returned to her doctor two months later, and bravely said the words, ‘I think I might have postnatal depression.’ Her doctor replied, ‘I’ve been waiting for you to return.’
Nicky’s doctor prescribed antidepressants and sent her to a clinical psychologist. More than six months on, Nicky continues to see her doctor and psychologist regularly. Eventually Nicky’s partner realised the birth and parenthood had taken a toll on him too and began seeing a psychologist himself.
It is well known that a traumatic labour is a risk factor for postnatal depression. Nicky knew she was at risk. But part of the struggle for her had nothing to do with the labour at all. At just 30 years of age, Nicky had a strong feeling that in becoming a mother, she’d lost her sense of self. Her new life consisted of constant feeding and settling, of feeling confined in a small one-bedroom apartment or mindlessly pushing a pram through the streets. ‘Every day was Groundhog Day,’ she says. ‘I just felt so stuck with this baby – a gorgeous healthy baby boy. And ashamed to complain about it,’ she says. ‘I thought I wanted a large family. Now I don’t know if I could even have another. I don’t know if I could go through it all again.’
‘It’s so hard to lose your identity as an individual. You die. You’re reborn as a mother and that’s it! No funeral for the old you,’ Nicky wrote memorably in one of her posts in the group earlier this year. Meeting her in person, I can see why she would feel this way. She chats fondly about her life before kids. About a fulfilling job, fun nights out with friends, and the humour and energy she once had. ‘I used to be entertaining. I used to be hilarious!’
In addition, Nicky was, and still is, very isolated, which is another risk factor for PND. With both sides of the family living outside of Sydney, there is no one to offer practical help other than her partner, who works full time. None of her Sydney friends have children. She attended one mothers’ group meeting but never returned – she simply could not relate to the other mothers’ experiences in that setting. ‘I have never felt so alone in my life,’ she says.
Last week Nicky learned she had been made redundant along with a large number of her colleagues. It was a huge setback. She had been so looking forward to her return to work – which she saw as a chance to reclaim some of the identity she feels she has lost and connect with others again. And now she has the added worries of securing a new role. Her GP is currently trying to help Nicky source child care for her son to allow her the time she needs to breathe and recover, and to seek work.
I ask Nicky what her posts in Inner West Mums brought to her at a very dark time. She says: ‘Everyone has been so wonderful – a lifeline. I couldn’t believe the responses I got from the group – advice and recommendations, offers of coffee and a listening ear, some even offered to mind my boy for an hour so I could have a break … I didn’t engage with those replies – I just couldn’t at the time – but still they meant so much to me. They lifted my mood, sometimes just for an hour, but it would be the best hour of my day.’
As she continues to heal physically and mentally, Nicky has discovered a new passion. She tells me that she is determined to increase awareness of birth complications, post-traumatic stress disorder and postnatal depression. In sharing her story, she wants people to understand that birth complications can and do happen, and that postnatal depression can affect anyone, including dads. She wants those who are suffering to know they are not alone and to encourage them to talk. And as she speaks this time, I can see it there – a soft glimmer in her eyes of the old entertaining, hilarious Nicky. And she is fabulous.
If you feel you are not coping, please seek help. Your GP is an excellent starting point.
Photo credit: Nicky D.C, supplied