As Amy Corderoy reported earlier in the week, a new survey commissioned by the Mental Health Association NSW revealed that 42 per cent of mothers found the experience of parenthood much more stressful than they expected. And the twist in the tale? It’s the younger mothers who are most likely to be affected, with nearly a third reporting that they felt like other people were coping better than them, or experienced excessive worry and sadness.
I’m not going to rehash the study. Instead, I’m going to rehash my own experience as a young mum that found parenthood much harder and more stressful than expected – so much so that by the time my first son was 15 months old, I was hospitalized with severe anxiety and depression. Before you switch off, it has a happy ending – perhaps the happiest part being that with baby number two, everything I learned from my experiences with number one made for a more enjoyable and relaxed ride.
The first few months as a new mum were okay. But I remember that when my hubby went to pick up takeaway on our first night back home, I ran away from my son as the thought ran through my mind that I could ‘squash him like a bug’. There was another moment, months later, where Max bounced face first off a coffee table in his bouncer, and I was terrified that if I told anyone they would take him away from me. But they were the only standout negative moments.
Then, when Max was about 10 months old, I stopped sleeping. I would have maybe two hours a night on a good night, but often I had none. After a month of this passed, I was a zombie. I was terrified and unhappy, and my mum and mother-in-law had to take it in shifts to take me to my doctor each day to report the same thing: still no change. I went on antidepressants, but I couldn’t shake the black dog.
At 2am, four weeks into the no-sleep regime, I called a cab, left a note for my husband, then set off for the emergency room to check myself in. My mum told me later how terrified she was to find out I was in the psych ward, and how brave she thought I was. But I wasn’t brave, I was determined – I had a son I’d previously adored who I was now afraid to be near, scared I’d become the star of one of those stories of a mum ‘flipping’ and hurting her kid.
Nothing is going to make you feel as normal as another mum hooting, ‘Oh my god, I thought it was just me!’
With the support I had, I was able to be admitted as an outpatient, so I could go in and be checked out by day, see the counselors, and then go home to my parents’ house at night. I started to sleep again and the world slowly took on colour as my mum and I went for walks and talks. My husband bought my son to visit, and it makes me cry to say he barely felt like part of me – this is a kid I now consider a soul mate, we’re so in tune and alike.
One of the main things that moved my life forward was when my mum took Max and I to Ngala, a support service for families. I spilled my guts on the anxieties, the worries, the fears … everything that was becoming a new parent. I was the first of my friends to have a baby, so I had no one else to look and to see that what I was going through was all normal, and not at all the way I thought it would be. Without being too glib, the counsellor looked at me, almost puzzled, and said, “Well, all mums feel that way. It’s normal and it’s going to be okay.” And she helped me see how distorted my view of what parenthood ‘should’ look like really was.
Recalling that session reminds me of the funny photo doing the rounds at the moment. Snap one shows a mum and baby sleeping serenely side by side, captioned ‘perception’. Snap two, aptly captioned ‘reality’, shows a mum asleep with her toddler stretched across the bed, one foot planted over her mum’s face. The universal appeal of that meme tells us something – we all identify with having whole heartedly believed the top picture was what we were going to get, only to realize, after biting the apple, that picture two was the real deal.
So this is the happy part of my tale – the stuff that if I’d known then would have helped me enjoy little Max so much more (and why my experience with my second son, Sam, was light-years apart). The funny thing is that it has been almost seven years ago to the day that I first stopped sleeping, and therefore a month off the day I went to hospital. It goes to show that a lot can happen in seven years when you have lots of support!
Here’s my cheat sheet:
- Get as much professional advice and support as you can as a new parent, especially if you don’t have a huge and happy haven of girlfriends going through the same journey.
- Don’t ever feel afraid that what you’re going through is too weird, or too ‘not-fixable’ to share. Nothing is going to make you feel as normal (or as sheepish at your own anxieties/expectations) as another mum whacking you on the arm and hooting, ‘Oh my god, I thought it was just me!’
- Accept help. Even if your sister, friend, mum or mother-in-law dish out unsolicited advice, or want to do things differently to you, grab their offers of help with both hands. You should have seen me go with baby number two – he was palmed off all over the place, even with his bachelor uncle. The kid is now confident, happy and sociable. You are not, as your mummy guilt might tell you, letting the team down by accepting a hand.
- If you are feeling like things are getting on top of you, visit your GP. Early intervention makes a difference – talking to them doesn’t mean you’ll ‘have’ to take medication, but they may refer you to a psychologist and set you up on the Medicare rebate plan.
- If you don’t have peers with pint-sized spit-bubble blowers, make mates that do. If at first your mothers’ group does not succeed, do try again with another. If your friend has a friend with a new bub, ignore any shyness or ‘can’t be bothered’-ness and catch up with her. Sharing war stories, poo jokes and special moments with someone going through the same thing is very reassuring. And if their house seems more pristine and ordered than yours … demand the house cleaner’s phone number.