Did you know that one in three South African women experience postnatal depression after giving birth, an alarming statistic when comparing one in five in the rest of the world? That means of one three women you know who have given birth have experienced postnatal depression. Despite how common postnatal and perinatal depression and anxiety may be, there is still a massive stigma associated with perinatal mental disorders, especially in communities of colour.
Three months after having my son I was diagnosed with postnatal depression. Warning signs had started through my pregnancy where I suffered a series of panic attacks and bouts of severe depression. I had spent days in bed in the dark and lied my way out of work and social commitments saying I felt sick. I did feel sick, but not physically. For some reason, I felt a lot of shame attached to this process during my pregnancy. I felt ungrateful, I felt like something must have been wrong with me or somehow I was being punished by God. I was really concerned about my baby’s health through it all, but by the grace of God the pregnancy went well even though Khalid was born three weeks earlier than expected.
My birthing experience was traumatic. Losing lots of blood and passing out shortly after giving birth. Although I had that short bit of stress on my body, I still felt utterly connected and in love with my little baby boy instantly! It was only until I got home from the hospital that the anxiety of being a new mom and having someone’s entire life relying on me being good enough hit me. I had been struggling with breastfeeding from day one. It had been a harrowing and strenuous experience for me but I was determined to push through. We hired a lactation consultant who came highly recommended by my friend Lara who had given birth the day before me. Lara and I had met in the hospital and became friends without evening speaking. We had both been struggling with breastfeeding and offered unspoken support by a gentle touch on a shoulder as a show of support. We actually only exchanged names and numbers after our hospital check up! The lactation consultant was great and assured me that once we got the hang of breastfeeding I would begin to settle in and not feel so blue. She assured me that this was a normal process and the first couple of weeks are rough for a new mother.
Shortly after returning home Parny and I had the worst experience we could have ever imagined. Our son had choked on some milk we had syringe fed to him and stopped breathing. We had to rush him to the ER in peak hour traffic, although everything turned out okay we had to stay overnight in the pediatric ward. Being surrounded by really sick babies and having nearly lost mine was a traumatizing experience for both my husband and I. It brings tears to my eyes to even write about this. Our pediatrician strongly advised switching to formula milk or he feared Khalid might not gain weight but mostly that I would fall into a depression due to how much I had been struggling with breastfeeding. I was still keen to persevere. After returning home from the hospital I became really paranoid about losing my son. I barely slept and struggled with my nutrition. My husband returned to work six weeks after I had given birth. His work, unfortunately, meant he had to travel to Canada. I was, unknowingly, buried in the thick of postnatal depression with no physical help or support from my partner. I decided to move in with my parents again but was still struggling. I always felt as though there was nothing entirely wrong with me, that perhaps I just had the baby blues. My very close friends noticed that I struggled to leave my parents home. Whenever they’d come over I was in pajamas and barely lifted my feet when I walked. I spent most of my days crying, trying to sleep or nursing and cuddling my baby.
With the stress of being a new mum I had the extra pressure to lose weight. The pressure I put on myself, pressure by my impending work commitments and pressure by some of my family, who felt if I lost weight, I might feel better sooner. It was all just so much to be going through and thinking back on it now I was definitely in over my head in terms of my mental space.
When my friend mentioned to me that she thought I had PND I burst into laughter. I explained that I couldn’t have it, I was obsessed with my son and I didn’t ever want to leave him. She explained to me that PND was not that simple and I should consider getting help. When she left that day, nightfall came, and I got ready for my night as usual. My son was asleep and I needed to get to bed ASAP so I could be rested enough for the next feed. I struggled to close my eyes and fall asleep. I was overcome with anxiety and panic and could not seem to calm down. I went into my dads walk-in closet, closed the door and sat on the floor sobbing. I sobbed because I wanted to die and I was confused as to how I would want to die so badly when I love my son and my family so much. I felt selfish for hurting so badly inside. I sobbed and tried to breathe until my baby woke up for his feed. It could have easily been 4 hours later but I wasn’t aware of the time that had passed. I quickly snapped out of it and went to do what I had to do. It was then that I decided I needed help.
After seeking out a psychologist and psychiatrist to help me I discovered that PND was a little more than not bonding with baby. Albeit I had a great bond with my little boy, I could not get a grip on my own personal wellbeing. I lost the desire to do anything I had done before – let alone leave the house. I began to overeat to try to feel a little better. My psychiatrist explained how PND came in different forms for different women and much like depression and anxiety as a whole, it is a process to overcome. I spoke to her about not wanting to leave the house, struggling with my nutrition and sleep as well as how my relationships with friends and family had fallen at the wayside because I no longer had the patience or desire to prioritize them. I decided to go on a treatment plan with my mental health team and within 6 weeks I started to feel an improvement in my well being. At the time I stopped everything dead in its tracks. I gave up on work completely, I left my management agency and undid all the commitments I had, including a once in a lifetime opportunity to go to Monaco and Paris for work! It was really challenging, but I decided to focus on me and my mental space first. If not for me, for my baby. I was blessed to be privileged enough to be able to have financial and emotional support through this. Had I not had that I’m not sure how I would have coped.
I was never ashamed of my story but I did not want to share it until I was ready. Partly because I was experiencing a lot of mom-shaming from people online who felt uncomfortable about me sharing the ugly side of motherhood. I didn’t want to get any more negative feedback while I was trying to heal my heart and mind.
I am still on my journey to healing but I am so much better now. I am back at work and able to enjoy my baby, my husband, my friends and working out. Motherhood is still challenging as my husband travels a lot and we are often just the two of us making it work but every time I look at my son and his incredibly sensational smile – every hardship is worth it. Khalid is the most charismatic and charming little boy, just like his mum. He is not afraid to try new things and he is so determined to complete a task. He gets that from his dad. I feel like he is a bright shining light in my life, always making me laugh, smile, dance and sing! I cannot think of a better experience than the one I have now. I feel blessed beyond measure and I thank God every day for my little miracle. I can’t believe how far I have come in just a year and I look forward to the journey ahead. I have always been a brave girl but now I have become a fearless woman.
I am Khalid’s mother.
I encourage any moms reading this to please share their story in the comments. You could be helping a lonely mother out there who is lost as to where to start.
If you are experiencing Postnatal Depression or any of these symptoms sound familiar to you please seek out help as soon as you can. Untreated PND can lead to psychosis and a whole host of other issues. Here are some links that helped me:
The New Normal