I was going to use this post to talk about the effect of birth and the postnatal period on my mental health. But The Husband quite rightly pointed out that people may be interested in how I fared during pregnancy too. So instead of glancing over the pregnancy in a couple of paragraphs, I thought it would be better to split up the posts and dedicate one to the antenatal period, then focus on the birth and postnatal goings on. Interestingly, my memories of pregnancy are a bit hazy and it took a conversation with The Husband to remind me of how I really was during that time. I had in my head that, despite a couple of little niggles, I was basically Mother Earth. Apparently, this wasn’t quite the case…
Having OCD and general anxiety issues, as well as episodes of depression, I was always pretty nervous at the thought of having a baby. Would I get postnatal depression? Would I pass on my neuroses to my children? Would I have to stop my medication whilst pregnant and breastfeeding, and how would that take its toll? Would I develop postpartum psychosis, experiencing scary delusions focusing on the baby? It was a pretty exhausting list of questions, with just about every possible scenario under the sun given consideration. I’m surprised I ever decided to give it a go when I read that back.
When we first considered having a baby in July 2014, I was slowly reducing my antidepressant medication, and felt it was going well. I had also been having regular CBT sessions with a community psychiatric nurse, and these had given me range of tools to help manage my anxieties in their various manifestations. I felt stronger than I had in a long time, and it was a case of it’s now or never. Of course I had a lot of worries, but on the flip side I felt I also had a lot to offer a child if we were lucky enough to have a baby.
Unfortunately, I had a relapse of depression in late December 2014, and ended up off work & back on my medication. It was at that point I decided I would be better to take medication for the foreseeable, as I knew it kept me on an even keel and would allow me to investigate other options for managing my mood. I’m convinced that taking the time off and confronting my mood head on helped me bounce back much quicker than I thought possible. And by May 2015 I had the biggest boost imaginable – a positive pregnancy test.
I couldn’t believe it. I was part-thrilled, part-terrified, but mostly made up! I was strangely positive about the whole thing. Of course I had huge nerves, and did the standard thing of Googling every physical symptom to check for underlying problems (doctor who?), but throughout most of my pregnancy I enjoyed better than expected mental health. I’d made the decision to continue my medication throughout pregnancy, and with the support of my midwifery team and GP, this really helped. In fact, I’m convinced it’s how I got through without any major relapses.
That’s not to say it was plain sailing though. I had major issues with food throughout my pregnancy. When I became pregnant I was eating a vegan diet, and I planned to continue this when I found out I was expecting. I did a lot of research and planned my meals so I was getting all the nutrients required (and then some). Then the nausea hit. And I didn’t want to eat anything. Well that’s not strictly true – I didn’t want to eat anything vegan. All I could think about was macaroni cheese, mince and tatties, steak pie…essentially all of the stodge, and all of the meat. So I made the difficult decision to stop the vegan diet and eat what I was craving. So far, so good.
Then my OCD ideas surrounding food started to take over. I was particularly anxious about food preparation and what I was ‘allowed’ to eat. As anyone who’s been pregnant knows, there’s a lot of talk about what is deemed safe to eat/take/do, and being the massive rule follower that I am, I paid close attention to the official advice. Being OCD, I sometimes took it to the next level. For example, I’d often avoid eating meat which hadn’t been cooked by someone I knew & trusted (and sometimes even then I’d have to ask The Husband to double-check it was cooked through). I didn’t feel comfortable being in the kitchen, and would avoid cooking where possible – nothing new there, as The Husband would rightly tell you, but I was particularly anxious about it during a lot of my pregnancy.
My hand washing also ramped up a few notches, especially at work and whenever I felt I was in the food danger zone. This caused the skin on my hands to break down and crack in some places. If you want an easy way to check how stressed I am at any given time, check my hands. They have the tell-tale signs of excessive hand washing and are a dead giveaway that I’m treading the fine line between ok and not-so-ok. I know I am getting particularly wound up if I can’t stop washing my hands despite knowing I don’t have a rational reason for washing them. Despite trying to confront these aspects of my OCD, it was something of a constant battle to quell the fear that I may do something wrong that would impact on my baby. I know everyone to some extent probably feels this sense of responsibility, so I don’t know how far astray I was led by my OCD and how much was a natural desire to protect my baby. And maybe this is part of the problem.
I think I could have been a lot worse though, and The Husband agrees that I coped much better throughout pregnancy than he had thought I would. I needed a lot of reassurance that things were OK, but it wasn’t often I was so wound up about things I got upset. This was a good thing! I was almost chilled on occasion, amongst all the usual nausea, tiredness and snoring. And I loved my bump, feeling immediately calmer whenever I took the time to rub my bump and talk quietly to my baby. I began to play music and get The Husband to read to my bump, and getting kicks in reaction was the best feeling ever. It made me feel I could do it. I wanted my baby to be used to our voices, and listen to music we liked. My Gran passed away early last year, and I played songs I knew she loved, because I wanted my baby to have that connection to her even though they wouldn’t get the chance to meet. Although all these things made me emotional, I felt closer to my baby and connected in a way I hadn’t realised would be possible. It was probably the closest to Mother Earth that I got, and it was amazing.
So despite some hurdles I did make a concerted effort to have a positive pregnancy. I tried to find out as much information about pregnancy and child-birth as possible. I think The Husband and I attended every antenatal class in Edinburgh. We did two different active birthing classes, our local NHS class, and an NCT class. By the third set of classes, The Husband was official class geek and I was considering a home birth…like I said I was trying to be VERY positive. However, this wasn’t to last…
The final few weeks of my pregnancy I grew increasingly in size and tiredness. I was huge. So big people were asking if I was sure it wasn’t twins or if there was some medical reason for me being so large (cheers). I was REALLY uncomfortable, and was getting less and less sleep. We hadn’t long moved house and I was becoming anxious we wouldn’t be unpacked in time for baby’s arrival – I wanted to nest but didn’t have the time or energy. I decided to finish work and go on maternity leave early. We were getting new windows put in at the house, and it would let me unpack and be around for that. I was looking forward to a December of Christmas lunches and festive fun. But I couldn’t get rid of the niggling thought that something was slightly different. I couldn’t put my finger on it but I felt like the baby might come early. Everyone reassured me this was normal and no doubt wishful thinking, but by the end of the first week in December I was convinced something had changed.
Looking back it’s easy to see how things developed over the last few weeks, and quite obvious my body was limbering up for labour. I had a spell of heightened, fraught emotions, where I was snappy and weepy. And I was only 33 weeks when I felt the baby had moved lower down into my pelvis and I started walking like John Wayne. Still, people reassured me this was normal and that I was several weeks away from meeting my baby. I tried to relax and settle in for what should have been the last month & a half of my pregnancy, when I should have been watching box sets and back-to-back Christmas films. But I couldn’t sleep, and one particularly stressful night, I was up and down to the toilet at least once an hour, with increasing pain in my lower back. During one of these trips, and not to go into too much detail, I knew something was wrong. I woke The Husband, phoned the hospital and we were making our way to maternity triage at 2am. I didn’t realise at the time but this was the start of pre-term labour and the longest week & a half of my life. Let’s just say it wasn’t the best preparation for what was to come…
Parenting lesson learnt No. 1: Trust your instincts.