By Esra Shahab
I’m a 30-year-old mum to a toddler boy, and my name is Esra, but sometimes post-birth, you feel like you have to say you’re a mum before anything else… or at least that’s how I felt - any other way would induce waves of mum guilt! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and let me first tell you a little bit more about how my story began.
The year I turned 27, I thought I should start trying for a baby. It was never really a question of if I wanted to but, when. I wanted a big family (5 kids, but I’d settle for 3) and I wanted to get a move on. I was blessed to have fallen pregnant with my son, who I had at 28, as I suffer from PCOS (Polycystic ovarian syndrome) which can impact your fertility. Due to this, I kept telling myself, guilting myself, about how I was so lucky and couldn’t let anything cause me losing my baby – in hindsight I can see that this is where my anxiety started.
My pregnancy was a tough one. In my 8th week, the nausea and vomiting started, and it was hardcore. I would throw up 10-15 times a day, even when I had nothing inside of me, I’d expel bile and water; simultaneously I experienced sciatic pain, in both my legs, which meant it was a pain to even move to the bathroom to throw up. Again, the anxiety kicked in – if I can’t keep anything down, how will my little one get their required nutrition? I’d force myself to eat food, hoping that some nutrients would absorb before I threw it all back up. Later on in my pregnancy, I also developed carpel tunnel in both hands, so I used to feel like a beached whale half of the time. Useless and immobile. It didn’t help that I was in Australia, thousands of miles away from any family or friends, in a time zone that left me incapable of communicating with loved ones. The only real form of communication I had was from my in laws, who were supportive but didn’t realise that telling me how normal this all was would actually send me into a bigger spiral - ‘If it’s so normal, why am I struggling? Why can’t I do it? Everyone else manages fine’.
If anyone reading this is pregnant and feels any guilt or shame about the pressure, I just want to stop and tell you: you’re a damn lioness! You’re strong, amazing and beautiful.
If anyone reading this is pregnant and feels any guilt or shame about the pressure, I just want to stop and tell you: you’re a damn lioness! You’re strong, amazing and beautiful. Don’t let your brain, or anyone else, fool you into thinking otherwise. This is such a hard time, and I promise you, you’re not alone.
When it was time to give birth, I had to be induced and was in active labour for about 14 hours, and they had meconium present. It was nerve wrecking, hearing staff come in and contemplate whether I needed to be taken to have an emergency c-section as baby wasn’t moving well. In the end, after hours worth of pushing, my little one was born.
Oh the relief, right? Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to feel that way, after 14 hours of stress, a little crying bundle was thrust into my arms and I was told to get him to latch. I remember I had read so much about how important the first touch and first latch is for bonding – I tried my hardest, but he just wouldn’t stop crying. It’s like he didn’t actually like me? I remember watching the clock and after 55 minutes of me trying to feed my little one, he was still sniffling and I got more and more stressed over why I couldn’t feed him, why I couldn’t make him stop crying, why I couldn’t do this and why I couldn’t understand how happy everyone else was. Could they not see all the responsibility we now had, to make sure our little one got the best start in life?
"Make sure you delay cord clamping, make sure to have skin on skin BEFORE the baby is cleaned, make sure you hold them tight and make shushing noises so they think of the womb"… it didn’t help that my maternity ward staff were unsupportive and discriminated against me, as I would ask for help and just be told that it was normal for my baby to cry non-stop and that I just had to feed him and cuddle him. I was so stressed out that I couldn’t even get help to go to the bathroom, even though I had asked the midwives if they could watch over him while I just went to the bathroom. I was told, that they were busy and I should just leave my 1 day old son in the bay, alone. This completely contrasted the lovely and caring treatment that the mum next to me was getting, and just made me feel like even more of a failure. Like I didn’t deserve help if I couldn’t manage without it. Sounds so silly doesn’t it, but those are the kind of tricks depression and anxiety play on you.
POST-BIRTH AT HOME
When I got home, things just seemed to get worse. I’d constantly watch over my little one - make sure he was breathing, run at any whimper and cry because it was all too much. I was adamant I wanted to breastfeed, I felt like it was his right, but my milk hadn’t come in. I was so stressed that it made it harder to produce adequate amounts of milk. My parents came to visit for the birth, but I refused any help from them. I was so consumed over how I couldn’t do it myself while everyone else seemed able to. Mum guilt is an unfortunate new-born companion.
I knew something was wrong, but it wasn’t an acknowledgement of having Postpartum depression or anxiety (PPD/PPA); more of an inability to be a mother. I was constantly consumed by thoughts of how unlucky my little one was for having a mum who couldn’t cope, who couldn’t understand his needs and fulfil his requirements. People did not help. I was one of the last to fall pregnant in my friendship group, so everyone had plenty to say, and I had a lot to compare myself to. I know you shouldn’t care about what others have to say about how you raise YOUR child, but when it’s people you love and trust? I remember one of the first things I heard from a family friend when I came out of the hospital was, “Esra, you need to eat and sleep otherwise you’ll become depressed like all the goray (white people)”. I know this was meant well (isn’t it always), but all it did was cement my own feelings of inadequacy and incompetency. Why do I feel like this? Why don’t other desi mums struggle like I do?
I found it really hard to tell people how much I was struggling, any time I mentioned it I was always met with ‘oh everyone’s done it, you’ll be fine’
People would come and visit, not to offer support but to see the little one and pass judgement (or at least that’s what the paranoia makes you think). “Oh, so you need a nipple shield?”, “You can’t feed normally?”, “You need to stop holding him, that’s why he doesn’t sleep well”, “You need to sleep when he does”, “Of course he’s still breathing don’t be silly”. I found it really hard to tell people how much I was struggling, any time I mentioned it I was always met with ‘oh everyone’s done it, you’ll be fine’; or I once mentioned to my mother-in-law that I was finding it hard to eat and she responded by telling me how lucky I was to lose the weight so quickly. If it wasn’t for my Aboo (dad), I don’t think I would have been able to get through it.
My Aboo flew out for two weeks after I had my little one, mostly because he saw I wasn’t coping well. He would come and help change nappies and look after the baby so I could sleep. He did this all while listening to me cry my eyes out for hours on end and would console me when I told him how hard I was finding it. I should preface this by saying that he’s a surgeon, so compassion is somewhat inbuilt into his DNA. He was the one that told me I needed to go and see a doctor (to ask for antidepressants, something I was ardently against). He didn’t push me, but he gently reminded me that this was completely normal; that most mothers struggle. No one knows how to do this instinctively - even if that’s what they portray. Furthermore, he gave me the one piece of advice that has been my saving grace to this day - ‘One feed at a time’.
My Aboo told me that I was being silly for not taking the help because I was worried about what I’d do when they were gone. He told me to not focus on the future and to just focus on one feed at a time. If this feed is a struggle, it doesn’t mean that the next one will be. This little sentiment, and that one person understanding my struggle, was what made me feel like I deserved support. It may have seemed like I was the only one struggling which is unlikely, but even if it’s true, so what? I deserved help and support, so I needed to stop comparing myself or allowing others to as well.
MY MENTAL HEALTH PROGRESS
It’s easy to say all of this now, two years on, but it wasn’t a linear progression at the time. It took me multiple visits and check ups before I was able to admit to my GP that I was really struggling. I know she could sense it, but when you’re validation comes from your ‘strength’, admitting failure is one of the hardest things you can imagine. Because to me that’s what it was, failure. It was the first thing in my life I had ever failed at, and that really compounded my shame and inability to seek help.
My GP suggested that I start some anti-depressants, but I was against them as I had read that they can be transmitted through your breastmilk. We decided to try some talking therapy. To this day, I remember going home and telling my husband, only for him to remark. “I mean if you think you need to then sure, but it doesn’t work, therapy is fake”. It’s not entirely his fault, he’s grown up in a very desi environment where mental health is just a lack of faith. This was a very strong undercurrent I found when talking to other desis about getting help, it wasn’t an actual illness but just a lack of faith. This was my first barrier to help. I put off getting help, until the next time I felt like I just couldn’t cope with something because I was inadequate.
The next time was when my midwife came for the 2 month check. She was asking me questions about how I was finding it, and I can only assume she could tell something was up, because she gently probed until I broke down. It was a shamefully cathartic experience. I felt seen but also like I had again failed. Fiona was my light in the darkness. She instantly put me on the early intervention plan, which revolved around gentle CBT techniques. She would come visit fortnightly and just ask how things were going. We’d look into why I felt like I was incapable and helped me address the thoughts behind those feelings. To this day, I think of how much she helped me and how grateful I am. We implemented coping strategies and fail-safes to help acknowledge and address the thoughts surrounding post-natal depression and anxiety.
Loneliness and isolation are one of the key contributors. When you feel inadequate and constantly compare your journey, it can be quite easy to just shy away from others and lock yourself away. WhatsApp really helped me with this. I created a mum’s group with people I trusted and asked for honesty. I was too scared to attend play groups, out of fear of being the only one who couldn’t control her crying newborn, so I asked for weekly meetups with friends just so I could leave the house. This was truly what helped me acclimatise to motherhood the quickest. It was through mutual help and assurance from other new mums.
I used this time to be honest about how hard I found everything; to implement boundaries with ‘aunties’ who had never ending opinions about my mothering. I also used this time to reflect on my own prejudices about motherhood. All those opinions you have before birth, I promise you they don’t need to be the noose around your sanity. It’s alright if the baby doesn’t sleep well and you co sleep. It’s okay if weaning doesn’t go as smoothly as it does on Instagram. The best thing you can do for yourself is to be authentic, acknowledge the struggle and distance yourself from people who are triggering you.
I wouldn't say that as you learn and grow everything disappears – I wish it was that simple. However, it does get easier, the more you open up and ask for help. It does get easier once you stop catastrophically obsessing about the future and concentrate on the here and now. Take it one day at a time, mama. Everyone’s journey and experience is different: bond over shared trials and try to avoid comparing. Every child is different, every pregnancy is different, and you are strong enough to get through it all!
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