Maternal Mental Health: What I Wish I’d Known

As with every pregnancy, every birth story, and every child – every mother’s mental health journey is unique. When Danielle Wilkins asked a group of mums what they wish they’d known before becoming a parent, she received an overwhelming response. Here are just some of them…
Maternal mental health is still an area that’s largely unexplored. It’s readily accepted that a new mum will experience the ‘baby blues’, with hormones being the most common explanation. But how do we know if it’s something more than that – and why is it still so difficult to talk about?

According to the Maternal Mental Health Alliance, around one in 10 will experience mental health difficulties during pregnancy or in the year after giving birth. These can range from perinatal anxiety and/or depression to PTSD and even psychosis.

I remember the health visitor asking me how I was feeling after I had my son. “And how are you feeling?” “Oh, fine,” I lied. And I remember thinking, “Please ask me again. Please ask me how I’m really feeling because I’m not sure I am fine.” Though I still wonder what I would have told her. Even though I had the support of my partner, family, and friends, I felt alone. Like no one could really understand what I was going through. I loved my baby more than anything, but I missed my old self. I mourned my old life. And that sense of loss combined with the isolation of caregiving and struggling to breastfeed made me feel really alone. I wanted more help but felt too scared to ask for it because that felt like I was admitting to failure. I would often paint a good picture that I was coping, when the reality was sometimes very different.

It’s that lingering stigma. The fear of being stereotyped. The fear of what might happen if we confess that we’re not doing so well… but there is help out there and admitting that you need it is a sign of strength, not weakness. Being open with a health professional like your GP, midwife or health visitor is a good place to start, but if you don’t feel comfortable or happy with the advice you’re given, you can find free support from the Samaritans, and charities like Tommy’s, PANDAS and Wellbeing of Women. In short, talking helps.

Perhaps the best thing we can do right now is speak up and support each other. The hope is that with further research and analysis, we can shake off the stigma for good. In the meantime, I wanted to share the experience of other mothers, so anyone else who’s struggling right now can take courage and strength from these words and understand that they’re not alone.

I wish I’d known…

About the realities of the fourth trimester

“After a pretty breezy pregnancy and labour, I definitely wasn’t ready for what happened next. I struggled to bond with my baby, really struggled to breastfeed, and – well, just struggled. I had friends with newborns who didn’t seem to be having the same problems I was having, and that made me feel worse. I wish I’d known it was normal – and probably PND – and to have pushed my GP for help.”

That it’s OK if breastfeeding doesn’t come naturally

“Or if you’ve had a c-section, your milk may take a little while to come in. You’re still doing everything right and caring for your baby in the best way. I feel like no one talks about how hard it can actually be. Talking about it with other mums helped me, and now, nine months in, we’re finally enjoying it.”

You’ll be tired like you’ve never known

“And it’ll hit you square in the face, but you’ll get through it. It’s remarkable the kind of resilience you have. It’ll be tough and you’ll have days when it’ll feel too much, but you’ll get through it.”

How much hair I would lose

“…and how quickly it would happen. Around six months after giving birth, I went from having really thick locks to a receding hairline in a matter of weeks. I didn’t want to wear my hair down because baby would pull it, but I couldn't wear it up because I was embarrassed. It’s growing back – but it means I have mental hair right now!”

To have zero expectations

“And I mean ZERO. It’s good to inform yourself by going to NCT, hypnobirthing classes, reading, and by talking with friends and family, and let that give you reassurance, comfort and knowledge – but not expectations.”

More about slings

“We were given a bog-standard sling, which I used for about a year, but I never really took to it. However, a couple of mums I know went to a sling café and tried all sorts of different ones before making an informed decision about what felt best for them and their baby.”

To stay in hospital a little longer after my c-section

“I was desperate to get home and left after one night, but I should have stayed longer. My bed at home was difficult to get in and out of, and I longed for that up-and-down mechanism of the hospital bed. I also had problems with breastfeeding initially and would have had more help with latching if I’d stayed longer than one night.”

Self-care is important

“Accept help so you can rest (sleep, having a warm bath, just being alone for a little while, etc). It’s vital to look after yourself so you can look after your baby.”

NCT is quite PG

“It’s wonderful to meet other mums-to-be and there are some interesting elements that reaffirm what you probably already know, but actually reading other frank birth stories teaches you more. I found it skirted over induction and c-sections, presenting a very vanilla presentation of birth.”

That the second time won’t necessarily be like the first

“I had such a horrendous labour first time round, I had nightmares for weeks leading up to my second baby, but it was completely different and easier physically. Then crept in the mum guilt, because I also found breastfeeding easier the second time around, and was able to do it much longer for my second. I felt awful being able to do it for one child and not the other.”

That it’s OK to give your baby a dummy

“There’s still a stigma around giving your baby a dummy but actually they can be so helpful in relieving the pain caused by wind.”

How lonely that first year can be

“I had visions of rolling around London meeting people for lovely lunches, but a lot of the time I was at home, looking and feeling exhausted with a baby that wouldn’t sleep during the day and I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing.”

That everyone would have an opinion

“Even people who don’t know you! I learnt that every baby is different and what works for one, doesn’t necessarily work for another.”

That mum guilt is real

“After my first born, I gave birth to twins and the guilt I felt having to spend most of my day with not one, but two demanding newborns was real. I had such an amazing bond with my eldest and was terrified it would impact our relationship.”

That none of your previous life experience really matters

“It can be a massive shock going from a got-it-together professional able to make most things in life better with effort and organisation… to a new mum with an utterly different type of challenge.”

I’d eventually feel incredibly powerful

“It takes a while to appreciate that your body HAS GROWN A PERSON, but you’ll get there!”

To trust my instincts

“My child was diagnosed with reflux after four months of not feeding or sleeping properly, and crying constantly. Everyone told me, ‘babies cry, babies don’t sleep…’ but in hindsight I should have trusted my gut and not allowed it to be brushed off. It’s hard to find strength when you’re exhausted, but don’t doubt yourself.”

Everything baby goes through is a phase

“This was the best piece of advice we were given, and even now, when it feels really hard, I remind myself she’ll get through it eventually and that makes it all feel more manageable.”