Becoming a mother, a parent, is supposed to be magical. We all know the picture perfect image of a mother and child and with luck, we get that moment filled with waves of love.
I knew very well, as most of us do, that having a child is hard work. It’s 24/7, there’s no opt out, exchange or return. Knowing is one thing. Preparing can be useful. But knowledge and preparation can seem of zilch value when you have this gorgeous, pooping, vomiting, gassy, tiny bundle that wakes at god-forsaken hours, all the worse when they are sick or have colic. What happens when your favoured guru’s suggestions fail you? Who else can help you out?
I’m sure at one point or another every parent has been struck by the enormity of bringing a unique life into the world and becoming responsible for loving, guiding and supporting them. Why else are there so many books on the subject so avidly read and debated?
Let’s face it – parenthood is an enormous task. In earlier generations, extended families and communities supported young families. While it may well still take a village to raise a child, a village usually isn’t there and parenting has become high-intensity care, usually undertaken primarily by the mother who may be juggling work as well. Feeling overwhelmed seems inevitable.
For some of us we enter a horror movie, with even greater depths of terror. When Gracie was eight weeks old I believed she would be better off without me and I rejected her. My siblings and my mum would raise her better than I could. Everyone hated me and would agree she had a lucky escape.
At that stage I hadn’t formulated a specific suicide plan, but I knew life was worthless without my baby.
Mum and a cousin took me to the emergency department at 2am because I certainly had no insight into what was happening.
This week is Australia’s National Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Week and in this post, I want to highlight the difficulties of those who experience the relatively rare condition of perinatal (or puerperal) psychosis which affects 1 or 2 in every 1, 000 women in the first few weeks of giving birth.
I was among the fortunate. Although we had separated, Gracie’s father continued to pay the premium health insurance so that I could attend the only mother and baby unit in the state.
Yet before I could be admitted to the private hospital my condition had to be stabilised somewhat – I had to no longer be a risk to abscond.
In the locked ward of the public hospital, I was again fortunate to use a small room for hours on end, to see my tiny baby in the company of either my ex or mother. I cherished the time with my baby and missed her over the weekends when she went to mum’s place.
As much as I am grateful to have had that opportunity to bond with my baby, it was an artificial environment to stay cooped up in one room all the time. Other patients were also upset that one of the scarce family rooms was in use for so long.
After about three weeks I stabilised to the extent I was able to walk the hospital ground with my ex or mum. I reveled in the fresh air, walking, playing on the grass. It felt a much more relaxed way to interact with my baby.
By this time, when the mother and baby unit had space, I could be admitted by them. Partners were welcome at the facility and could pay to stay overnight.
Here I resumed as much care of my daughter as I was capable of. I loved bathing Gracie once again, holding her close to bottle feed her, even changing her nappy. Over time I learned how to prepare her milk, wrap her for bed, put her to sleep and play with her. I started to feel like a real mum again.
The nurses were wonderful, providing help with both mental health and baby issues. All patients had to engage in a course that involved Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and our babies would be in the care of the nurses during that time. I enjoyed the course as it distracted my mind from my chaotic thoughts.
One day I had an image in my head of hurting Gracie. Even though I didn’t think I’d do anything in the image I was so shocked I told a nurse. Gracie slept with the nurses for a few nights while I slept upstairs in another ward. But I had time with Gracie during the day. I felt reassured that my baby was being looked after so well.
Being psychotic can be incredibly frightening and disorienting. Allowing bonding between a mother and baby is still essential for the wellbeing of both. More mothers should be able to access the treatment I had access to in the private hospital. It is Western Australia that has set the standard of care with a state-of-the-art public mother and baby mental health unit in Australia.
Catatonic, My Decision, Reunited, Becoming Non-Psychotic are posts of mine that tell my postnatal psychosis story in greater detail and include issues such as how I became psychotic, the “decision” to stop breastfeeding, hyper-religiosity, and ECT.
For further information:
Experts warn of ‘psychiatric emergency’ for hundreds of Australian women with post-natal psychosis, ABC News, updated 20 November 2014.
National Perinatal Depression Initiative loses federal funding; states, territories ‘hard-pressed’ to cover costs, updated 20 June 2015, ABC News.
Women and Newborn Health Service Services A – Z, King Edward Memorial Hospital Mother Baby Unit.
Post-partum Psychosis, Panda.
Post-partum psychosis, The Royal Women’s Hospital.
Postnatal psychosis, beyondblue.
This piece was subsequently published in The Mighty under the title “How I Still Bonded With My Baby During Post Partum Psychosis”