Reality Bites – Joni’s Story
When I was a kid I thought I knew exactly how my life would pan out. I’d have a happy marriage, beautiful kids, a nice house and I’d be permanently skinny and tanned. Just like the TV ad families.
When I got married just after I turned 18, I was sure that I was on-track to having the life I’d planned. And 15 months later, when a bubbly blonde little girl made us a family of three I expected her arrival to be the next step towards our perfect life. But I knew something wasn’t right when as a 19 year old having just given birth, I sat there holding my darling little human, feeling empty and confused. Still warm and wet, she snuggled into my bosom. “I’m a mum!” I said. “I can’t believe it, I’m a mum!” I remember saying it over and over in that hazy moment. But I didn’t – couldn’t – feel it. I couldn’t feel the truth of the fact that I was a mum and she was my daughter. I couldn’t feel the warmth and the love they’d said I’d feel.
I could only feel the emptiness.
Days passed into weeks and as our baby entered her second month and my milk still hadn’t come in, we returned to the hospital. I’d retained product and was booked in for a D&C right away. My baby stayed at home with my husband. Things still didn’t feel right.
And when my milk still refused to come, we started feeding her formula. That was when I started to believe that I’d ‘failed’ at being a mum. I had started taking notice of what I considered were my failures. I was a harsh critic.
My memories of this early motherhood season are selective – selected by me – a person who judged herself so very harshly. I was 19 years old; a new wife, a new mum doing her best to make her way in the world and for her child. But all I saw was a failure, someone who didn’t try hard enough or work hard enough. I saw someone who simply wasn’t enough.
I remember clearly my failings from that time. Taking her to the bathroom of the shopping centre to change her nappy, I’d placed her back in her carrier but when I lifted it up, I only grabbed one handle so it tipped over and she slid onto the ground. She wasn’t hurt but it was a fright for us both so the trip ended with tears running down both our faces and that dreaded feeling that I’d failed as a mother; again.
Each day I walked and exercised and barely ate, thinking I’d be able to fix how I felt, if I fixed how I looked. I’d walk around the block and she’d cry in the pram, her squeals echoing off the perfect homes with their perfect lawns and perfect cars. I was sure that the perfect families inside those homes must be judging me. Imperfect me, with her crying baby.
My mum knew that something wasn’t right. “You need to go to the doctor,” she’d say gently. Eventually I went along and told the doctor how I was feeling. I couldn’t tell her everything though. I felt sure that if she or even worse the government, knew how I really felt and the thoughts that went through my mind, that they’d take my baby away from me. I was living terrified of myself and of anyone who might find out the truth about me: that I was a terrible mother and that despite having a beautiful, well-sleeping baby girl, that I was utterly miserable.
There wasn’t much help available for Postnatal Depression back then but the doctor was lovely and empathetic and helped in whatever ways she could. I began taking anti-depressants, so the pain was softened for now. Without any counsellors available I muddled along, maintaining my skinny body and trying desperately to eke out an existence as a mother – for the precious daughter who relied on me so heavily.
I’d cry through the night, begging God to help me find a way to be a better mum – a better wife – a better person.
I remember one night when she was sleeping peacefully and I went into her room, lifting her from her bed. I took her back to bed with me, determined to keep her safe and to find ways to bond with her – even if it meant having her by my side always. And we cried together in the big old queen-sized bed that night while my husband looked on, unsure of how to respond but doing his best all the same.
And some days I’d beg him not to go to work – not to leave me alone with this beautiful child. Begging him not to ask me why – how could I ever explain the thoughts in my mind? The depression was torturing my mind with terrible thoughts and violent scenarios. I’ve since learned that these thoughts are often par for the course, with depression and are reason to seek serious help and support. Back then though, I thought I was the only one. That there was something seriously wrong with me. I thought I was a danger to my child.
When our second daughter came along, I was terrified. Would I be the same miserable failure I’d been with our first? Would I again show the world what a terrible mother I was? After she was born, I felt a bit better than I’d remembered feeling the first time around. I was excited to be breastfeeding and it was special watching the sisters interact. She was four months old when again, I realised that something wasn’t right.
She was crying so much throughout the night. I’d feed her and put her back to bed and I’d lay in my bed while she’d cry and cry. I thought she was just fussy. Until the nurse came for her checkup and we realised that she hadn’t put on any weight in 6 weeks. She wasn’t fussy, she was hungry. And my excitement at being able to feed her disappeared when I realised that she’d actually been starving – pawing at my breasts for milk which just wasn’t coming. We ended up in hospital – my second daughter and I. I remember feeding her the bottle in the nursery and crying and crying and crying. The nurses and new mums didn’t know what to say. I’d just cry while I held my precious baby.
Somehow we muddled through the next couple of years and when our son was born I noticed that I was more confident in my mothering than I had been before. I noticed the happy moments and that I was holding my baby so much more, enjoying his softness and his smiles; the quiet moments of a new baby.
I realised that I’d survived the terrible shadow of Postnatal Depression and that my babies were actually fine.
They’d been raised by parents who loved them and cared for them the best way they knew how. And isn’t that all we can ever ask of anyone?
Those first years were tough. By the time I was 22 I had three children, lived far away from family and our marriage was really struggling. But you know what? Those years, they eventually and slowly got easier. The joyful moments became more common. Somewhere along the way I stopped taking account of my ‘failures’, realising that I was human and that we all fail. Somewhere along the way I began sharing my struggles with new mums. I was the mum saying, “Don’t worry about it. You’re doing great. I struggled with this too. It’s completely normal,” the relief on their faces helped with my own healing.
Those difficult years have given our family so much. They gave us three precious children who actually did ok, despite my perceived ‘epic failures’. They are growing into empathetic young people who understand that life isn’t always perfect. They’ve grown up with a mother who has her own struggles with mental health and they’ve had just enough insight into my battles for them to understand the importance of grace, kindness and the importance of asking, “Are you okay?”. They’ve seen and experienced just enough that they’ll hopefully have empathy and understanding for themselves, should they ever find themselves suffering from depression.
And have the years changed me and made me a perfect mum? Have they wiped away all traces of mental illness? Absolutely not. I still battle with depression and am currently taking antidepressants and seeing a therapist regularly. But I’m no longer ashamed of this. To anyone who asks, I aim to give an honest answer. I’m so thankful that these days I have hope for the future. I’m excited by life and inspired to push harder and climb higher.
Motherhood was really, really tough for a long time. I was young, I had no confidence and I was my own harshest critic. We were newly married and we had no money and our marriage was really suffering. I’d had a tough time as a kid and so had my husband and we’d both brought so much baggage into our marriage. We’d fallen pregnant six months into our marriage so hadn’t taken the time to deal with any of it. And you know what? I’m not ashamed of any of it and I wouldn’t change any of it.
When I look back on those early years, at the young mum bumbling about doing her best, I refuse to judge her.
I refuse to echo the taunting voices which for so long caused so much pain. In fact, I’m proud of her. I’m proud of what she’s achieved. I’m proud of the story she’s embraced and I’m proud that she’s made the decision to no longer be ashamed of her story. Because you know what? Without the hardships – there is no story.
My entry into motherhood was nothing like what I’d hoped for, planned for and expected. But my life now? It’s everything I’ve ever wanted. It’s not perfect – nor anywhere near perfect. But I love my life – I’ve embraced my unfolding story and I love my kids. And I actually do think I’m a pretty good mum. The best that God chose for these kids anyway!
For support or resources concerning post-natal depression go to www.panda.org.au