Clare blogs about motherhood, and the challenges of juggling being a parent with looking after your mental health.
My dark thoughts look for my most vulnerable spot – and now that’s my amazing and exhausting little boy.
The last two years have been exhausting and emotional
My son Oaklan is 18 months old next week. His favourite place is in my arms. His hair is like a dandelion clock and after his bath it sticks up like a fluffy baby owl. This morning he posted his toothbrush down a hole in the floor and let us all know by shouting ‘uh oh’ over and over again. He’s gorgeous, lovable, wakeful, frustrating, friendly, snotty and smiley. I can’t believe how lucky I am to have him.
But the last two years have been exhausting and emotional. Parenting has interacted with my mental health in lots of different ways – some expected and some more surprising.
The birth was more empowering
I hoped that pregnancy would improve my muddled relationship with eating and exercise. It didn’t. The whole nine months was an uncomfortable struggle with my changing body.
The birth was more empowering. He came so fast I had to deliver him myself at home. My husband was in the next room trying to get through to an ambulance.
Since then my body and I have been on slightly better terms. It’s helping me with the hardest job I’ve ever had. Getting through sleepless nights and challenging days has given me a different kind of confidence. And sometimes there’s been no headspace for anything but survival.
Unfortunately things went downhill
But looking after a newborn also meant I had to think flexibly and be calmer, slower and more accepting. In those early months I felt lucky to have avoided any serious postnatal mental health problems.
Unfortunately things went downhill when Oaklan was ten months old. He was never a good sleeper and three hours unbroken sleep was a rare gift. Until six months he would only nap when walked in the sling, pushed in the buggy or driven in the car. At eight months he would nap in bed - but only if I was right next to him. He hated being put down or sitting still and needed constant attention and interaction. He cried a lot. We managed until he started to wake every 45 minutes or so at night.
Bedtime and naptime made me panic
I developed insomnia and couldn’t sleep even when I had the opportunity. Bedtime and naptime made me panic. The conflicting advice we received made me question all my instincts. I lost a lot of confidence.
Eventually I spoke to the doctor and increased my Sertraline to 100mg/day (the highest it’s ever been). My anxiety reduced but I felt very low with lots of intrusive suicidal images. I numbly went through the motions of parenthood. After a bad night I would be terrified that the awful sleep times were returning.
These feelings faded slowly. For a while I was coping on a daily basis but my resilience was really low. I struggled to manage when he was difficult or if something else went wrong. Then I felt guilty for relying on other people and useless as a mother.
I blame myself for his tears and worries
Six months later and things feel easier. I’m more resilient and less anxious. Most days are good ones. But when my dark and anxious thoughts return (often before my period) they know where I’m most vulnerable.
On bad days I question everything about my parenting. I blame myself for his tears and worries. I compare myself to other mums and find myself wanting. Sometimes I can’t see my way through the next ten minutes, let alone the hours until bedtime. And then I feel pathetic – and guilty if he saw me cry.
My love for him is incredible
I hurt for the pain he’s bound to feel, for the upsets and the difficulties I can’t protect him from. Intrusive images of him falling, drowning or burning leave me shaky and tight chested.
My love for him is incredible. When I’m not with him, it’s as if I’m slightly holding my breath until we are back together (even if I’m also desperate for a break). But sometimes this fierce love gets twisted and distorted into guilt, sadness, fear and negativity. The fundamental emotions of parenthood are so strong that their distortions are powerful and destructive too.
I’m strengthening my defences
But I’m strengthening my defences. I’ve finally started some CBT on the NHS and I’m trying hypnotherapy for my insomnia. I’m still on 100mg of Sertraline. I’m working on accepting help without feeling guilty. I’m building a wonderful supportive community – locally and online. I’m writing and talking about how I feel.
I don’t know what the years ahead will bring. No doubt there’ll be tears and frustration, many more sleepless nights and plenty of worry. But I’m confident there’ll also be silliness, chaos, laughter and joy.