It was a great honour to speak at Dr Raja Gangopadhyay’s committee event in the House of Commons today with some of the world’s most pioneering thought leaders and experts on maternal mental health, as well as MPs to an audience of 170.
Below is a list of the esteemed speakers:
It was an incredibly powerful and empowering event which moved me to tears, with a huge emphasis on naturalising and removing the stigma of mental health issues and supporting both mothers and fathers pre and post-natally. Below is my speech (I was in tears by the end of the post so didn’t get to finish it fully but gave included it in full here). #hopedec10
‘Thank you for inviting me to speak here, today. It’s both an honour and a privilege to return to share my experience and thoughts on maternal mental health.
Dr Raja Gangopadhaya had read my bestselling book MUMBOSS-The Honest Mum’s Guide to Surviving and Thriving at Work and At Home and asked that I focus on my own personal experience of pregnancy and motherhood and on whether I’d felt prepared for my new role when I had my first child in 2010 and the affect children have had on my life and work.
I will be reading a viral blog post Being Honest: Having a Traumatic Birth first published on honestmum.com in August 2015, 5 years on from experiencing a traumatic birth before touching on areas I feel need to change to inform and support women like myself who have, and are suffering.
The post has been read by thousands to date and I’ve received many messages stating women reached out for help after reading it. I’m sad that like so many women, I too entered pregnancy and motherhood with rose tinted glasses firmly on, misinformed and disempowered thanks to the limited depiction and representation of pregnancy and motherhood on the TV and the movies, as well as from those I depended on guidance from: the front of line practitioners who frankly let me down on many occasions. I was a first time mum-to-be, and later a mother, clueless as we all are who became voiceless, broken and powerless post-birth for so very long when it came to accessing support.
It’s hard to reach out when you feel you are failing at the one job you’ve been told you were born to do well.
So many feel the same as I did then, today and this is why event such as these which denaturalise, myth-bust and encourage change are so vital.
To offer some context, pre children I was a filmmaker and TV Director after garnering a distinction in my MA in Filmmaking at 22. I’d won several industry awards, one from Channel 4 for Best Director and was only one of just 7% of female filmmakers in the industry at that time. It’s now an even more dismal 4%.
I started my blog honestmum.com in 2010 during maternity leave as a means to rediscover my voice after a traumatic pregnancy and birth and had no idea I would pivot into this accidental career blogging and vlogging (something which became my full time job in 2012 after I’d had my second child). I was one of the very first to blog in the UK and am now kindly deemed as pioneering within this field.
This is my blog post:
‘My eldest son Oliver is now 5, my bambi eyed firstborn son, a boy that if I’m honest, I only got to properly go to enjoy when he turned 10 months old.
I had a traumatic birth post induction and a crash section, or emergency as it’s more commonly known although ‘crash’ is far more accurate-that manic rush to theatre in deep panic, the not knowing, the overwhelming sense of, ‘this isn’t how it was meant to be’, the loss of control, the trauma… The pain, physical and emotional, the speed and then relief. For some.
It has taken me five years from starting my blog to finally find the courage to write about my experience of birth trauma, to be able to process and share the pain from a place of renewed strength and understanding.
I was diagnosed with the pregnancy liver condition ICP at 8 months pregnant, a mostly baffling pregnancy condition in dire need of further research, which meant constant blood tests, ambiguous advice and overwhelming worry towards the end of my pregnancy.
Healing of trauma arose with a house move closer to my family, starting my blog Honest Mum and CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) which helped me regain control and happiness once more. The calm pregnancy and birth of my second son inevitably helped heal me too yet sometimes even now, I catch myself watching Oliver asleep, his spidery lashes fluttering with every breath, and I weep for that lost time. Of feeling like I was drowning at his birth, rather than the movie like promise of motherhood I’d been fed my whole life.
I still mourn that lost year of his life, the one I felt I should have relished, the one I thought I’d prepared for (the nurturer in me has always wanted to be a mum). I mourn that stolen time, where I operated in survival mode, an empty shell of a mother who should have felt more joy.
Day to day, mostly at my lowest ebb, scared to admit how dark those times felt or how alone and lonely I was, all rolled into one. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt worse, particularly when my husband two weeks on, returned to work.
I could barely walk post-op, let alone think or ask for help, a colicky baby attached to me 24/7 who’d often cry for 6 hours straight and hated sleep, meant I had no time to inhale, to pause or ask for help.
Understandably, but frustratingly, I found myself in a body I no longer recognised, bruised from surgery, wobbly from pregnancy, tired and aching.
My confidence had gone..
I know of course, you don’t need to have suffered a traumatic birth to feel as I did, that any birth, and the fog of newborn days (and months) are tough enough.
A first child will always be a shock to the system with many of us undergoing a period of mourning for our former life: the sleep, the freedom, the you that came before, because motherhood defines you when it happens, it cannot, not. Suddenly, and as Miranda in Sex and the City so eloquently put, ‘ Life comes in and things begin to change. It’s weird. It’s like suddenly there’s a giraffe in the room. Hello’. In that moment your life transforms. Your new baby depends on you to be your best so it can survive, and thrive. You.
But what if you don’t feel strong? What if you feel weak and exhausted? What if you’ve lost all strength and self-belief? Your shoulders, weary, weighed down, crushed by the enormity of responsibility makes asking for help a near impossible feat. To admit that you need help. That you simply can’t. Not today. Not tomorrow. You need a break. A chance to take it all in.
Yet your pride prevents you for reaching out, you feel a failure, the biggest failure of all in fact, you question why motherhood, the most natural thing in the world, could feel so hard. You blame yourself, for it must be you. A million other women nailed it.
To say you don’t feel well when all around you, and by all, I mean the picture in your head you painted of this time before the birth, the stories, the many stories the media told you and re-tell of how life is meant to be with baby, means that whilst you feel like you’re free-falling, you fail to find the words to speak up, to hold your hands out and ask to be caught, and held and helped.
I have the most loving and supportive husband, Peter, and parents who would do anything for me but living in London whilst they were in Leeds meant more than a few days together was all we had. Plus I self-silenced. Not once, during the bleakest of times, my head spinning, the countdown of hours until my husband was home from work, the identity-loss, fear and lack of stimulation, did I speak up. Did I ask for help.
I didn’t articulate a word.
I feared I would just worry others, that I would be deemed an unfit mother…Furthermore whilst trying to discuss my concerns with my doctor, she told me it wasn’t PND, that I looked and seemed fine to her, yet now I know I was reeling in the aftermath of my son’s traumatic birth (PTSD) and needed love, support and therapy to heal.
Going from directing sets of hundreds to just baby and I, and a baby I loved just felt odd. I was structureless, a mile of days and weeks ahead of me, without plans or rituals. A full stop, it felt. No goals, a simple hope I’d might direct again more buried beneath a crushing fear of what my previously unstable freelance life might bring.
It didn’t help that my friends were mostly single
and without babies of their own and whilst I made new mum-mates, the pressure to perform around new people, to put on a brave face and be your best self made me withdraw even more.
Eventually I admitted defeat. The turmoil could not continue. The pretence that all was well had to STOP. I cried for help and thankfully, I found it.
Moving back to Leeds, I immersed myself in a blanket of unconditional love and care, my Mum was able to help me with the day-to-day care of my baby which meant soon enough, I started to improve.
If only I’d known opening up would help so much.
With renewed strength (oh the irony of needing to feel strong to admit weakness) I asked my new GP if I could be referred to a therapist (you can now self-refer) and I was forced to politely demand (if demanding can be polite) to see someone, as again I was brushed off initially.
Perhaps I appeared stronger than I was. Perhaps I always did.
With the help of a therapist, a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, we created an emotional first aid kit together, chatting in depth about my past, my fears, my goals and the tools to help me when worries took over and the trauma felt too much. I learned the skills to pause, meditate and rest my busy mind. To cope. Mostly, he asked me questions I finally faced and answered, and slowly with his help, with everyone’s help, I began to feel more like my old self.
I eventually faced up and accepted that sh** happens and moved onwards with my life. I’d gotten over, for the most part, the sadness of being cheated of the birth I’d longed for and I recovered from the melancholy of it all.
I started my blog around that time, although my first posts were lighthearted and funny, a form of escapism for me as I was far from ready to share the sadness.
My blog was a lifeline, another form of therapy if you like. It helped me rediscover my voice at a time I felt I had none and connected me to like-minded women (and men) online who simply ‘got me’ and many too who’d been through what I had.
My blog offered me a space, a platform to create and reach a like-minded audience, and later a business, an accidental career I loved.
I was a finalist in the BritMums Brilliance in Blogging Awards in the Fresh Voice category surprisingly four weeks after going live on my first post. So unexpected I danced around the living room, tears streaming down my face. My voice somehow seemed to resonate with others, my stories of our move to Leeds from London and crazy tales of my Big Fat Greek family seemed to entertain. The voice I thought had gone, was back and that award nomination gave me the much-needed boost I to return on set, to direct again.
When Oliver turned 2, I discovered I was pregnant again, and despite the odds of developing ICP and potentially experiencing another traumatic birth, neither occurred.
Thanks to the vital care of my consultant (thank you, the NHS), my elective was tranquil, a joy I wasn’t sure I’d ever have, but did.
Big haired, almond eyed Alexander looked just like his older brother at birth and this time, I felt empowered, in control and incredibly content.
I wanted to finally write my experience down on digital paper (!) as I’d hoped to many times before but couldn’t find the words, to share the light that came after the palpable, paralysing darkness.
My concern then was that one day my son would look back on this post and be saddened by it all. I worry he will now but he was loved so much (and still is) and he never knew the pain I felt in his first 10 months.
We have photos of his plump, happy face full of yogurt, his gummy grin smiling back at me, his mama, his world. We have phone videos of his contagious little laughter, walks across my favourite bridges both in London then in Bristol where we lived a while, music classes I took him to when I felt I could, photos of his first swimming lesson and holiday…and in every one, he’s staring back wide-eyed and smiling right at me.
A happy child who adored his mum, and still does, my only wish is that I’d asked for help far sooner than I did. That despite being a perfectionist in my work, I wish I’d known that determined approach would not work in real life.
I’ve cried many times writing this but I know it’s time to share that troubled part of my life, to potentially help others who might well feel the same as me, all those years ago, right now, today, to offer some strength to them so they can reach out, seek help and know they’re not alone.
So that’s my story, it’s certainly not pretty but it’s honest and from my heart and I hope it might support someone struggling from a post traumatic birth themselves.
If that’s you, please know that this too shall pass, that life can and will improve, that with time and help, and love, you, like me, can heal as well.
I feel when it comes to pregnancy and post birth, there are 3 vital nuts to crack if you like which exist:
The inequality of the workplace:
The inequalities of the workforce need to be addressed and rectified, flexible working needs to become the norm across the board as so many brilliant women are lost due to it, the gender pay gap needs to close, and women and men’s desire to have children and take shared parental leave needs to become normalised.
Women currently and rightly fear maternity leave will place them on a back footing when it comes to careers.
Equally, we require greater insight, information and pastoral and physical support from our GPs, midwives, specialists and beyond.
There was little talk of pregnancy symptoms or complications, trauma, PND and the many forms this might manifest when I had my children which leads to the silencing of those suffering, and equally a lack of empathy from employers and fellow employees. This ‘business as usual’ stance is damaging mentally to mothers, and only serves to provide a barrier to support.
There is a greater need for aftercare with a focus on support for the mother, and father. Mums like I often fear that their children will be taken from them if they admit to worries, OCD, panic etc. Spiralling mums due to sleep deprivation, hormonal upheaval and a crisis in identity felt by many, again needs greater discussion, understanding and vitally information to those who need it as well as their support networks so they can access talking therapies and medication where appropriate.
The Royal College of Psychiatry estimates that between 10 and 15 percent of women in the UK will experience a mental health issue either during pregnancy or within 12 months of their child’s birth. Those women are at their lowest ebb yet as with me, are relied upon to reach out at their 6 week check when they often feel unable to speak up.
The post pregnancy pressures to bounce into shape and feel themselves again is stifling. The media play a huge role in this with little coverage on how identity changes, shifts and evolves over time post motherhood.
We require a culture shift to support and buoy parents up.
I hope we see the number of women suffering diminish, with the right support, constructive intervention and change in policy so mothers, and fathers are no longer receiving the short straw.
Photo by Michael D Beckwith.