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Dublin: 5 °C Monday 9 December, 2019
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Column: Some talk about the ‘magic’ of childbirth. To me, it was horrific.

For new mothers, the pressure can be so overwhelming it makes you ill. Lynn McDonald Byrne describes her experience of postnatal depression.

Lynn McDonald Byrne

I HAD MY first baby the day before my 25th birthday. He’s eight now.

I’d always heard stories about how madly in love you are with your baby from the second you lay eyes on them. I still feel like that’s Disney’s version of events. It wasn’t so for me.

He was a fine healthy baby and we were soon home; we lived in my mam’s back then. I did everything he needed – feeding, washing, soothing – but I felt very detached. If he cried I’d pick him up, but once he was OK it was back to the bouncer. Same for all his needs; once they were tended to I’d put him back down.

You hear these mums talking about their “magical” experience of childbirth. To me it was horrific. When baby was finally placed on my chest, my immediate reaction was ‘ew’. And then my body went into shock – he had to be lifted off me in a hurry so I could vomit! There was no denying, he was a beautiful baby and for the first few weeks I thought I was coping fine, but I was like a robot, doing what I had to. There was no bond that I could feel.

All these stories from other mums only went towards making me feel less capable. I wouldn’t go out with him in case he’d start crying and people would think I was a bad mum. Sure I know now that all babies cry – no child ever died from crying – and it doesn’t make anyone bad! I guess I was still quite immature. I expected to be super yummy-mummy extraordinaire, but the truth was I could barely get off the sofa.

Days would go by without getting showered or dressed – baby always looked great, but I was exhausted and couldn’t be bothered! At one point I thought I was invisible, people would call in to see the baby, but I thought nobody gave a toss about me and I felt put out by that. I know how selfish that sounds now, but I want to be honest about how I was feeling.

‘I had always been very in control of my life’

Yes, I would hold and soothe the baby if he was crying but real affection was somehow lacking. I can’t explain why – maybe I had too high an expectation of it all and when it didn’t happen like that I thought I was failing.

I had always been very in control of my life and having a baby was like losing the control. I felt inside like I was in free-fall. And so I got steadily angrier with the people around me. My boyfriend – his dad – would get it in the throat over nothing. My mam was great, and yet she’d get shouted at regularly too.

It all came to a head one morning when I was home alone with the baby and I couldn’t find his soother. I rang my mam in work and went bananas down the phone – like she had taken it with her or hidden it on me! I didn’t get the response I wanted, so when I hung up I threw the phone against the living room wall in temper. I remember clearly, even as I was throwing it, thinking to myself “What are you doing?”

I went to my GP the next morning and described how I felt. I told him that much as I wouldn’t lay a hand on my child, I could literally see myself in my minds eye physically hurting the others around me. The doctor was great, he was so calm – as if it wasn’t a big deal at all. He prescribed me tablets: one a day (“whether you feel like you need it or not”) to “ground me”. Anti-depressants aren’t the crazy mind-altering things they were years ago. Sure I felt a bit dodgy for a couple of days but I didn’t turn into a catatonic happy-head or anything like it! It took two weeks for the tablets to steady me but I was still me – sometimes happy, sometimes cranky.

I knew I was going to be on these tablets for about a year, and I was OK with that. A year isn’t a long time, especially when you have kids! After a little over nine months the tablets started to make me nauseous so I went back to the GP. He gave me a lower dose but they made me even sicker. So after a quick phone call to him I stopped taking them. No side effects, no DTs, nothing – I was fine.

‘He was so funny and smart, I was so proud’

The doctor told me that real affection for my baby would come in time and eventually it did. Not while I was taking the tablets – not in fact until long after, when he started talking (he was so funny and smart, I was so proud!). But the support of my GP taught me that it was OK to feel like I did, and my trust in my doctor meant that I was OK with it too.

It wasn’t until five years later that I fell pregnant again. The GP assured me I wouldn’t necessarily end up ill again, and thank God I didn’t. My second boy was born after complications and spent a little time in special care, and still I was fine. The hospital sent a mental health nurse to assess me after the second baby and it was only then that I found out just how seriously ill I had been before! They call it puerperal psychosis. The hospital nurse was so concerned about me, I nearly started to doubt myself, but I was fine. It just went to show me that the GP’s calm and gentle demeanour went so far to reassuring me that I wasn’t crazy. It’s much more common than anyone would realise – especially in these testing times.

It’s important to me to stress that this is my experience. I was very lucky to have enough lucidity to recognise that smashing up the house wasn’t going to make me feel any better – it was just going to cost me a fortune in replacing broken stuff! There are some women who don’t recognise their symptoms and don’t seek help. My heart goes out to those women and their families, their suffering could go on and on.

My boys are eight and two now and we’re all doing great. I’m a very lucky mam. I hope my story reaches out. There’s no shame in getting help. After all, you’d take flu medicine for a flu.

Anyone looking for information on or support with post-natal depression can contact Aware or the Post Natal Distress Support Group.

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About the author:

Lynn McDonald Byrne

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