It is coming to the end of #MaternalMentalHealthAwarenessWeek. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and have read some really inspiring posts. I realised that perhaps it would be good to share my own story, as too often we sit in silence letting everyone think we are ok, when what we really need to be saying is #ItsOkayToNotBeOkay. I am lucky enough to have two wonderful, healthy children. We struggled to conceive with my first born, Rafael, and so admitting things weren’t always rosy made me feel guilty, as I knew how lucky I was to have him. I remember the envy and loneliness I felt as others fell pregnant around me when that was what I wanted most in the world too. When Rafa was born it was a wonderful moment. I had the home birth I wanted, surrounded by people I loved. It was magical. But at the same time I was high on gas and air and I held my new tiny human and felt strange and disconnected. I was happy, of course, and I instantly knew I would protect and care for this person. But I didn’t have that ‘rush of love’ that the movies tell you will happen. I felt deeply ashamed that I didn’t have that. I came to realise that perhaps this was normal for some people. It didn’t make me a bad mum, just normal. Over time I fell deeply in love with my son, and I would go to the ends of the earth for him. But I wish I had felt able to talk about my feelings without feeling ashamed.
At first my maternity leave was wonderful. I went from holding down several jobs and doing a doctorate, to just having one job – caring for my son. Life was good. But slowly things got harder. The money worries kicked in, the tiredness, the bickering with my partner, the constant mum guilt, the reality of going back to work and juggling that with childcare. But the hardest thing for me was the loneliness. I had a fantastic NCT group who were a great support and who I still see now, 3 years on. Yet I didn’t have many close friends around me, nor my family, and that was very isolating. I hated going to baby groups as it instantly pulled me back to how I felt at school. On the sidelines, waiting to be asked to join in, not feeling good enough. Looking back I’m sure there were lots of parents feeling exactly the same, but we all put on a front. How different life might have been if I had been able to admit I needed a friend, if I had allowed myself to feel vulnerable. Or if I had gone up to another mum and shown her my support. Instead we stood with forced smiles, eyes on the children to hide our reality. Now I realise we need to be a village for one another (thank you, @mumologist), and support the parents we see around us- let them in.
One other thing I wish I had been told was how much I might struggle with my identity during that first year. I went from being a career woman to a mum overnight. I didn’t know how to reconcile those two parts of myself. I mourned for who I had once been as I struggled with the lack of direction and certainty I was now faced with. I loved being a mum but it wasn’t the whole of me. Sometimes I felt judged for admitting that, even by my partner. Now I have come to terms with it, and I like that my identity as a mum has started to shape who I am in my career as well as at home. But how I wish I had had someone to talk about this with.
During my pregnancy with my second child, Zola, I was struggling with a number of things in my personal life. I felt everyone expected me to be happy (which I was) but it also meant I felt alone with my worries. I was anxious about how I would cope with two children, and we had worries at home that were bringing me down. I finally went to an incredible organisation, #MothersToMothers and spoke to a counsellor about how I was feeling. Admitting I was not okay, and having someone to talk to, gave me the strength to get back on track. I worried that how I was feeling might be affecting my unborn baby. In reality this was just another way to pile myself with mum guilt and try to bury my feelings. Zola is one of the happiest babies I know, so my fears were unfounded!
My second maternity leave has been much more positive. I feel stronger, more confident in who I am and not afraid to speak out. Plus I now have some great friends to talk to when it all gets too much. With my village around me I can survive even the darkest of days. Knowing it’s okay to admit when things are hard, and knowing I can help others through those hard times, makes life that little bit easier, that little bit less lonely. That’s why it is so important that we look out for one another.