“That’s not my mum, her smile is too small”. A child’s view of postnatal depression.

It has been no coincidence why I have chosen the career I have. Often we stick to what we know, and I am no exception. An MA dissertation on maternal mental health and the impact upon attachment, a social worker within children’s mental health, a career working with pregnant and new mums. This path started when I was 9 years old, the day my baby sister first came home.

It wasn’t quite my mum who brought her home from hospital that day. Physically it was, but something did not feel right.

Mum seemed preoccupied, agitated, tired. But she tried her best to look like she was enjoying her welcome home lunch. And then,  being the excited child I was that day, I knocked over a simple, non-staining glass of water on the carpet. Mum snapped. How stupid of me, careless. How to ruin the occasion. Party over. Something was so very different.

I had no idea what just happened. It literally felt like the fun loving mum I had giggled and danced with only months earlier had been swapped in the hospital. She had been replaced by a lady who was upset, angry, annoyed. For a 9 year old little girl, a very sad and confusing time was to follow.

I remember mum being visited by different professionals (mental health nurses, I now realise) but she never really gelled with them, and she didn’t always like the advice or strategies they offered. People sometimes say to me, “what a shame she didn’t get offered help”, but she did. Unfortunately her emotions and mind were probably not in the right place to engage beneficially. Medication was her support route, and 28 years later, it still is.

Family life really changed. She was poorly. My dad, 2 brothers and I were treading on egg shells most of the time. I became very attuned and heightened to her body language, tone of voice, choice of language. It would predict whether she was in for an ok day or not, and whether we would be able to avoid being snapped at or feel as though we were ruining her life.  Even now, I am really heightened to other people’s behaviour and emotions, and I often don’t miss a trick!

Luckily, the baby sister was an amazing distraction. We all loved her. She was cute, funny and very loving. Mum was fab with her, I never remember mum struggling to care and respond to her. I suppose that was even harder for the rest of us though, perhaps we internalised the situation more, felt like we were the problem? Heavy stuff for an 11, 9 and 6 year old to process.

Mum’s postnatal depression just snowballed into depression and anxiety. It never shifted, just had different stages over the years. There have been the angry and agitated phases, the tearful and quiet stages, the seemingly happy  but  anxious  stages.

It was a family secret too. Mum was very strict with us that we could not tell people how poorly she was. I had to fluff my way through reasons why friends couldn’t come for tea, or why mum couldn’t make occasions, why impromptu visits to our house was a no-go. I would see her talk to other mums on the school run, and she laughed, smiled, chatted. She could hold it together, and maybe people didn’t know for a long while. But close friends, neighbours and family picked up on it, but we would have to down play it for fear of mum’s reaction if she knew  there had been conversations about her.

Of course, it affected us all greatly, each sibling in different ways. I can also guarantee we have stronger memories of mum’s illness than she does. She is not able to recall the same detail or intensity as we can, which is why this blog will have been a tough read for her (one I prepared her for).

Mum’s depression has been a dark cloud over our family for many years. Even now, her physical health is greatly affected and I am positive this is a result of a vulnerable mind. A poor immune system just opens the flood gates to illness, and at times it is hard for her to have the positive mental attitude to will herself better. I guess she has been ill for so long, it is what she knows.

For many years, I was anxious when friends or relatives had a baby. I would give them space, assuming my presence would increase their risk of a break down. Irrational, I know, but that is how I felt. I was anxious to have children myself, and it took a long time for me to realise that I had protective factors that would reduce my chances. 

When I became a mum, I had total admiration for mine. 4 kids? How the hell? So I asked her, how did you cope? “Well, I didn’t did I, I  got postnatal depression” and she kind of laughed. True, she did get PND . Away from family, 4 tricky births and a poorly first born, constant financial struggles, rarely had help with child care,  just a small network of friends and she was too busy as a mum to have “me time”.

I remember chatting with my little sister a few years ago, reminiscing about family life. I spoke of memories of mum before she was ill, and my sister said, “I wouldn’t know, she has always been ill since I was born”. I had never thought of it from my sister’s perspective before. I had memories of the energetic and fun mum; my sister, only snippets of such a mum and that felt heart breaking to me.  It’s a sad situation, PND has been no barrel of laughs for our family.

Yes, I have many sad memories thanks to the bitch that is PND, and it really stole a mum I used to have. However, a family with 4 children – it goes without saying we still had many laughs and giggles, and yes,  with my mum. I clearly remember pancake day one year – trusted to toss the pancake and I decide to put the hot pan on the kitchen floor to readjust my technique. A huge burn in the centre of the kitchen – I held my breath, how would she react? She left the room, came back smiling with a plant pot, placed it over the burnt hole and said, “don’t worry, no one will ever know!”. Phew, a situation that ended in laughter and unconditional love.

There were many times like that, it was not always doom and gloom. Also, mum and dad gave me a great stable start to life that helped to protect me. Those early significant years with my “well” mum did me good. I have many loving and fun early memories that are not tainted by the PND.

Now, she is a different mum again. Very placid, will giggle a lot, can still get upset about things but not to the same extent she used to. I guess her medication really sets her on a level; never too high, never too low. But meds for so long are surely not good for anyone, and part of the physical difficulties she has now are possibly due to long term use and side effects.

Mum is one of the kindest people I know, she would literally give you her last penny. She doesn’t judge us, doesn’t question us, just supports us. Her strengths certainly outweigh the crap sides of her depression, and she is just so lovely to be around.

If anyone reading this can relate, then I feel for you, although I guess your story will be different to mine. Each family is unique with their own story.  I read a great deal about PND and how it affects the individual, but there is little from the child’s perspective. I am not sure why – maybe for fear of upsetting the mum? Fear of dragging up the past?  Not feeling we have the right to say how crap it was for us, too? I suppose I never spoke out as I didn’t think I had the outlet to do so; just spoke to my siblings and dad about it.

And if any mum out there is struggling with PND, please just keep trying to find the energy to put yourself first. Yes, you are a busy mum but don’t let the bitch win. It can take hold of families, not just mum’s and there are so many ways to manage it – talking about it for a start.

Thanks, mum, for agreeing to this; you hoped it may help others, and fingers crossed it will.