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'When the doctor lifted up my baby from my belly, I didn’t think she was mine.'

This post deals with postnatal depression and miscarriage and might be triggering for some readers. 

When I gave birth to my son, I was engulfed in an explosion of absolute joy and love for my baby. I loved this new bubble. It was just me and him. No one else mattered.

I struggled sharing him. I didn’t want anyone holding him. I didn’t want my husband, my son’s father, to take him out for a walk without me. I didn’t want anyone else’s scent on him. 

I had horrific images in my mind of what could happen if I took my son out for a walk, or if I held him, or carried him down the stairs, or didn’t check on him in the cot if he made a noise, or didn’t make a noise. I was active all the time, but only for the purposes of my son.

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One night in the early days, my son slept through the night and didn’t wake for a feed. I woke up thinking he must be dead. 

Rather making the most of the time when he was sleeping, I had to be next to him, making sure that he was breathing. 

I was even hesitant to have a shower because he might need me. If I did have a shower, I would imagine him crying and I would immediately stop what I was doing and check, only to find he was fast asleep.

I couldn’t switch off, and I didn’t want to. I was unable to rest properly, and I don’t recall ever checking in with how I was feeling and considering my own needs. 

During those early stages, I was too exhausted to be able to contribute to the household duties. I would tell myself that what was happening in my mind was "new mum feels". I didn’t seek help and carried on thinking this was what all new mothers felt. 

In addition to the constant worry for the safety of my son, I had this constant buzz of self-criticism for not doing enough, and not being good enough.

It started when I gave birth to my son. I had high expectations for my son’s birth and whilst I was mindful that the birth was something I could never be fully prepared for; I had never expected my body to fail like I felt it had. 

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There was no spontaneous labour. An induction at 42 weeks was deemed "failure to progress", and my son was born through an emergency c-section. 

The love and focus I had for my son disguised this constant thrum of disappointment I felt towards myself. 

I have experienced episodes of depression in the past, so I felt I was aware of what to look out for. But none of what I was experiencing made me feel the way I had when I had struggled in the past. 

At the time, I just thought my approach to parenting was normal. It never occurred to me that my thought patterns and actions were excessive or unusual, and that my lack of self-care and self-worth would have a severe snowball effect on my mental health for years to come.

We later fell pregnant with our second child. But at 11 weeks, we were told that the baby didn’t have a heartbeat. I had been so excited from the moment of seeing that positive pregnancy test. I was so in love with my baby and so excited to be pregnant again. Losing my baby tore a piece from my heart and added fuel to the disappointment I had towards myself. 

When we fell pregnant again, I really tried to distance myself from having those immediate fall-in-love feelings.

I did all I could to distract myself, whilst thoughts of losing the baby were a daily battle. I was working full time, and also enrolled to study a Masters of Business Administration (MBA). On reflection, it seems I was unconsciously set on not experiencing or feeling the growing baby inside me.

I gave birth to my beautiful daughter three years ago. As much as I wanted a vaginal birth, I had a c-section again. I felt I had no choice, but what I really wanted was to feel my body deliver my baby.

When the doctor lifted up my baby from my belly so that my husband and I could meet our little one, I thought someone had brought someone else’s baby in to the room. I didn’t think she was mine. Three days after my daughter’s birth, while I was recovering from the surgery, I whispered this to a midwife.

The hospital staff arranged for me to see a psychiatrist that day. Thereafter I had a weekly session with the psychiatrist until my daughter was eight weeks old.

It’s hard for me to put words to the experience I had in those first eight weeks of my daughter’s life. It’s a shadow-filled blur.

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I do remember pieces. I was functional. I knew how to care for a newborn as I had done just that with my son. But where there was a surge of love for my son when he was born, there was an emptiness where I was supposed to feel love for my daughter. There was an emptiness where I was supposed to feel love for anyone. Even the concept of love for others was out of reach. I was numb. I was hollow.  

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I would have frequent moments of confusion. 

I remember on many occasions I’d be standing in the kitchen holding a fork, not knowing where it was going or what I was doing. Was it going where the forks go, or was I getting something from the fridge?

I still had that hypervigilance, that really strong need to be ever present for my baby and monitor her really closely. But this time, it was about keeping a baby alive and healthy without the strong drive of emotions. And over time that hypervigilance, putting my baby before my own needs, had a huge impact on myself and my family. 

If I had tools from the start of my parenting life for supporting my own needs, and having an identity outside of being a mother – just to be me, Emily – it might have helped slow or even prevent these other things from snowballing. 

In addition to the confusion, I started having thoughts and visual images playing in my mind about me fatally harming my husband.

I had no control over these thoughts, and I was deeply disturbed by them. I began to feel unable to differentiate between thought and action and I felt I was losing control. I was scared about what I would do when the next wave of violent thoughts entered my mind.

One night, in between sobs, I whispered to my husband the scary thoughts I was having. 

My husband is the most incredible person, and he listened to me with such tenderness, care and support. 

I had my weekly session with the psychiatrist at the hospital the following day, and it was there that I asked for help. 

I left the appointment with a prescription for medication and a pending admission to a Mother-Baby Unit, which is a specialist psychiatric unit in a hospital. 

The psychiatrist had also promptly arranged for support in the home through the local crisis assessment team.

I felt like I was drowning in shame. From the moment the crisis assessment team came to our home to the first few days in the Mother-Baby Unit, shame was all I could feel. But without that support from trained professionals, I don’t think I’d be here today.  

I was in the Mother-Baby Unit for six weeks. 

Whilst I was there, I was given an information sheet that explained the idea of "good enough parenting". It’s a theory that comes from a British doctor who found that parents don’t need to be constantly attentive to their baby, and that parents who meet their baby’s needs 30 per cent of the time can indeed raise healthy, resilient children. 

After reading this information sheet, I felt a weight lifting from within me. I had been feeling such shame and guilt for not doing enough, and those feelings had led to my hyper-vigilance.

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That statistic of 30 per cent is 'good enough' helped me realise that I was being a good enough parent. It encouraged me to slow down and be kind to myself. 

I finally felt comfortable having a longer shower and enjoying that hot cup of tea – while it was still hot.

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Although it was challenging emerging from six weeks in the hospital, I was able to walk through the haze and into my identity. I had some clarity again. I started enjoying being a mum, and my love for my daughter was (and is) strong, unwavering and utterly joyful.

My daughter is nearly three years old now, and the love I have for her is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. I am also learning to love myself. 

My motherhood journey tore me and my family to pieces, but it has also provided us with the foundations to build anew.

Over time, I learnt that I didn’t need to meet every single one of my family’s needs to the detriment of my own. I know and see the benefits of self-love, self-worth and the act of self-care. 

It is clear to me that actively working on these means I can give so much more to those I love. And this has been pivotal in our family unit being what we are today. I have more love to share, and I have the most incredible family with my husband and children.

To all the mums who might be looking after the needs of their babies whilst neglecting their own needs – think about all that you do for your baby already. 

Think about their core needs, and that if you’re able to tend to your baby’s needs 30 per cent of the time you will be okay and so will your baby. If you can recognise those times when your baby really needs you as opposed to the times when you 'auto-pilot assume' they do. 

It’s not about neglecting your baby, it’s about looking after your own needs so you can better look after theirs when they really need you.

If you think you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, contact PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306.

If this has raised any issues for you or if you would like to speak with someone, please contact the Sands Australia 24-hour support line on 1300 072 637. 

You can download Never Forgotten: Stories of love, loss and healing after miscarriage, stillbirth, and neonatal death for free here.

Join the community of women, men and families who have lost a child in our private Facebook group.

Feature Image: Supplied.