I experienced a very long and difficult labour with the birth of my baby. It was nothing like I’d hoped or expected and was in no way natural or enjoyable. This whole negative experience was then confounded by my baby experiencing multiple episodes of apnoea which required resuscitation and a stay in special care. It was the most difficult week of my life and I didn’t leave their side for the whole time meaning I was absolutely exhausted, sleep deprived and not eating or showering myself. I was also left incontinent and taking morphine after an episiotomy.
When I finally got home motherhood was not the joyous, affirming life experience I always imagined it to be. I was left an anxious wreck and was crying constantly, not helped by my inability to breastfeed and the associated gult that left me with. I became obsessive with checking the wellbeing of my baby, focusing on checking their breathing constantly. I wouldn’t let them out of my sight and would pull the car over repeatedly just to check they were OK in the car seat. Heaven forbid I would ever actually leave them with someone else and, of course, this inevitably lead to a strain in my relationship with the baby’s father.
It was a health visitor that managed to ask me the right questions when she saw me alone at home. She asked how I really was and her gentle questioning lead me to feel able to disclose to her that I had experienced “flashbacks” to being in labour when I was trying to go the toilet (not helped by the morphine making me constipated!) and to feel able to explain the levels of anxiety and worry I was really experiencing as a result of repeated intrusive images of horrific things happening to my baby. She explained to me that she would refer me to the perinatal mental health team for support and several months later I finally heard from them and attended an assessment.
By that time I thought I was feeling better and I thought I would be diagnosed with post-natal depression and not offered any support. I knew I wasn’t really depressed however as I didn’t feel sad, hopeless or unmotivated. I was incredibly surprised when it was explained to me that I was experiencing a post-traumatic stress reaction to both the labour and my baby’s time in special care. It was also a huge relief to feel understood and believed and not to be made to feel stupid for my worry and the associated checking I was carrying out.
I engaged in over 20 one to one sessions with the psychology team for support with my anxiety. The work was intense and really difficult at times but it made so much difference to my life. I practiced mindfulness in most sessions; I listened to a recording of my account of the labour on a daily basis so that I became desensitised to the horror of it; I carried out exposure to situations that I was terrified of, including being escorted back onto the labour ward and to SCBU; and I had my beliefs about being a bad mother and being responsible for my baby’s apnoea episodes gently challenged.
With the support of the team I was able to start to build a more meaningful life as a new mother. I was able to reduce my obsessive checking and to be able to go out and leave my baby with close family. I was even able to return to work eventually, something I had never envisaged being able to do. The service was absolutely invaluable and I would probably have never accessed any support had I not been asked how I was really doing when I was struggling the most. The experience has made me view motherhood in a completely new way and be able to feel so much more empathy for the struggles that some new mums (and dads) go through at this amazing (but sometimes incredibly difficult) time.