Updated: Aug 25, 2019
By Shwu Huey
Post-partum depression (PPD) was something I only read about. I cruised through my first pregnancy in a blissful bubble, consciously blocking out anything that would upset me – traumatising news especially those regarding children, negative birth stories, sad and scary movies, and naturally, the thought of possibly experiencing PPD. Needless to say, I was ill-prepared when PPD hit me, hard.
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
It all started with the birth. During my pregnancy, I read extensively about birth, and I had envisioned how I wanted my birth to be. Riding on my stubborn determination to have that birth, I wasn’t prepared for when it did not go as planned. Even though I was blessed with a complication-free birth and more importantly, a beautiful, healthy baby, I felt robbed. The shock of what should have been an “easy birth” that turned into a 3-hour scream fest, was further compounded by the sustaining of third degree tears which made me feel raw and violated. It made me spiral into self-hate as I felt I had failed to gift my baby the gentle birth I had so desperately wanted for him.
I was also utterly bone-tired from the birth, and faced with a new baby who, despite my best efforts to soothe, rock, breastfeed and babywear, hardly slept and instead screamed most of his waking hours, I was at a loss for what to do. As a first time mother, I felt everything so intensely – I remember feeling that I had a direct connection with my baby’s emotions so every time he cried, it was from immense frustration due to having an incompetent mother. I also received news that an aunt of mine, the same aunt who cared for me in my early childhood, had suddenly passed away in my home country the day before I gave birth. Perhaps it was partly the exhaustion and partly the grieving, I felt confronted by the thought of death. There were many nights when I stayed up weeping in utmost sorrow, at first mourning for my aunt, and then feeling paralysed with the thought of dying and abandoning my baby, and then aching remorse for bringing this precious being to this world, only to subject him down the path of mortality.
The lack of sleep made me foul-tempered and irascible; unleashing an ugly side I never knew I had. At the slightest trigger, I would pounce with hostility resulting in an increasingly tensed relationship with my husband. I was also obsessed with my baby’s sleep to the point I recorded every detail of his nap time, shushing and rocking him to sleep at the first sight of any imaginary sleep cues.
This went on for months. I felt like an abject failure and was overwhelmed by fatigue. My baby would not sleep and would scream most of the time if I did not carry him. I looked ragged at best and because I had gained a whooping 30kg during my pregnancy, I could only fit into shabby maternity clothes. My self-image was at its lowest. I also felt completely isolated as I could not leave the house. I was dreadful company with my aggressive temperament and inability to string together a coherent sentence. I felt immensely pressured having to put another’s interest well before my own and I felt a great loss of identity. I was grappling with this sudden change in my life and blamed myself for feeling miserable. “When will I start to enjoy motherhood?” I remember asking myself. It was an unforgiving spiral that sent me deeper and deeper into a very dark, lonely and at times, dangerous place.
HOW IT TURNED AROUND
I started speaking to people I could trust, reading and participating in mothers forums, and researching on PPD. The first thing that broke the cycle of despair was when I managed to breastfeed my baby in the side-lying position. It improved my sleep as I was able to let him nurse with minimal interruption to his and my own sleep. When I felt more rested, things started falling into place. I began to better understand his cues and made a conscious effort to stop any obsessive behaviour on my part.
I convinced myself to accept that I am not a faultless human being, and to let go of the perfect mom ideal. I realised I was trying to meet my baby’s needs at the expense of my own. So I started allowing myself to recognise, and have, my own needs. I made my motto “You can’t be a good mother if you keep playing the martyr”. I reached out to family for help with the baby so that I could have a quick nap, a shower, a hot meal. To this day, I remember the warm gush of love I felt when I had thanked my sister-in-law for her help and she replied “that’s what family is for”.
I learnt to breastfeed with baby in the ring sling and found that he napped quite well when I wore him. That gave me mobility, so I started going out again and meeting friends. I learnt that when baby cried, he was communicating with me, not judging me. That helped control my anxiety and changed my attitude and response to his crying, leading to more effectively figuring out and answering his needs. I began to see a pattern in his day and from there, things fell into a natural routine. It helped me feel less lost in the chaos because there was more predictability to the day.
Above all, what helped most was when I learnt to see my husband as part of my team. I consciously stopped feeding my resentment from thinking that he wasn’t doing enough. Instead, I made a point to ask for his help clearly, and kindly. I never realised that when I had been stewing in resentment and anger all that time, I was shutting him out with my attitude and behaviour, which made it impossible for him to do anything right in my eyes. I checked myself and started being completely open and honest confiding in him so that he understood my struggles, instead of seeing me as one. I like to believe that because of what we experienced together from that episode, our love and connection is deeper than ever, and that has flowed over to our relationship with our children.
When I had my second baby, I thought I had PPD all figured out. Like an old friend, it came to visit again, although in a different form. I was no longer obsessed with baby’s sleep but this time it was nursing agitation and managing how my older child adjusted to having a new sibling. There was lots of crying and screaming, from the children and myself, but with the support of my husband who started taking over more and more responsibilities with the older one, it started getting better. Yet there was always a lingering sense of loss that hovered over me. I felt listless and depressed most days and it would get so bad that I had suicidal thoughts. I spoke to a close friend whose sister had gone through a similar experience. Something snapped in me when she asked me, “I can see how much you love your family; you are constantly doing things for your son, your daughter, your husband. But what about loving yourself? When was the last time you did something for you?” I couldn’t answer that question at that time. I had forgotten what it was that made me-me, and not just mom-me, happy.
I made a decision that I need to be disciplined to set up time to nourish my own needs and revive my sense of self. I signed up for a twice-weekly one-hour fitness program near my place, and when the kids were in bed, I rekindled my love for sewing and started making unicorns for friends. I felt better physically from the regular exercise, and upon the encouragement from my friends, I set up a small online business for the unicorns I made, with the hope to spread the same magic that led me out of the darkness.
WHAT I’VE LEARNT FROM PPD
From these experiences, I’ve learnt that post-partum depression is real and it can happen to anyone. It can be the result of so many things and it can be different for everyone - hormonal imbalance from pregnancy and birth, physical and emotional changes, or the many challenges of managing a new life coming into your own, or just adjusting to a new life so different from the one prior to having children. Whatever the cause, just remember that you are not alone. There is no shame in having PPD, and there is certainly no shame in reaching out for help. Fill up your own love tank, get help when you can, and keep believing that it will get better with every passing day.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Shwu Huey’s former job as a Communications Specialist would put her in good stead when she became a mum, or so she had hoped. Her job remained the same but her role (and waistline) drastically changed. At first, motherhood was a journey of perpetual guilt trips, self-doubt and chaos, filled with much crying and late-night chocolate binges. Only when she realised the need to mother with kindness, respect, and loving connection did she become a happier mum to happier kids. When she is not busy un-learning and re-learning the art of parenting, she takes a breather to watch TED talks, sew toy unicorns, and practise ignoring pesky chocolate bars who have learnt her name (she is mostly unsuccessful at the last).