Everyone tells you pregnancy should be a joyous time, but one mother details how grief and guilt were emotions she wasn’t prepared for, and how perinatal mental illness crept in so gradually she didn’t notice it at the time.
I’m someone who went through my first pregnancy with a kind of unbridled glee about eating cakes, growing enormous and watching my feet get nearly as wide as they were long. No joke, I actually broke a couch when I was trying (unsuccessfully) to do some weird upside-down yoga moves to shift my stubbornly breech baby. So during that pregnancy I put on 25 delicious kilograms and a lot of those nine months were a glorious blur.
But the second time around was a whole different story. I was sick for the entire nine months. I distinctly remember brushing my teeth on the morning my daughter was born, and the taste of the toothpaste in my mouth making me vomit. Again.
What I most looked forward to about the birth was not being fucking pregnant anymore. It was like during those nine months someone had taken a vacuum cleaner to my soul, and just sucked me dry.
My light dimmed and I just couldn’t get the energy to change things for myself. But nausea is so strange to describe, isn’t it? It consumes you when it’s happening to you, but it sounds kind of minor from the outside. But it really flattens you, draws the joy out of you. You read about waves of nausea, but to me it often felt like being awash in the sickness; a constant, listless sea of blurgh.
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A vacuum cleaner to my soul
It took me half of my second pregnancy to be able to hear the word, “Congratulations,” and not feel somehow ashamed or irritable or embarrassed. To be able to look someone in the eye when they were wishing me well, with delight on their faces, waiting for me to respond in kind. I couldn’t feel excited, no matter how much I tried. And the guilt for feeling that was awful. I hate to write that and to admit it, because my daughter is undoubtedly one of the best humans I have ever met.
I can’t believe that I was the one who got to carry her into this world. She is a powerful and precious little person, and she is so very loved and wanted. But as she was growing inside of me, I was for a long time absolutely overwhelmed with nausea, debilitating tiredness and a kind of inarticulate grief about the tsunami of changes that were coming for our little family. And I felt guilty that this was her experience of being in utero. That I was already fucking it up, right from the start of our journey together.
“That’s pregnancy second time around”, everyone said. And in some ways they were right. It really is hard work. Your body is growing a human and you are simultaneously responsible for another little person who utterly depends on you, who thrives on your love and attention. Throw in work and trying to keep your partnership together and, of course, you are heading for at least a low-key shit storm. Each morning feels like another wretched hangover, seeping into a day of tiredness like you have never known.
I look back now and see that the seeds of perinatal mental illness were really burrowing in during this time, I was just too tired to recognise it. I told myself that I felt so tired and unmotivated because I felt so sick. And in large part, that was true. But that exhaustion and listlessness and fear also opened up some negative thinking in me that I had to fight quite hard in the first years of my daughter’s life to overcome.
Something I didn’t entirely expect: grief
As I moved into my second and third trimester, I continued to feel unwell but I was able to feel quietly excited about holding a beautiful new baby soon. I could finally accept congratulations, although I felt scared that I wouldn’t be able to cope with two. And I was also enjoying that sacred private connection with the little kicking co-host of my expanding body. But a new feeling started to overwhelm me during the final trimester of pregnancy, and this was something I didn’t entirely expect: grief.
It was a hollow, tremulous sadness that my son was growing up and no longer my baby. A certainty that the new baby would change our relationship forever, and that he’d never be able to forgive me. That I’d never be able to forgive myself. That perhaps we were somehow making a terrible mistake. Oh, the hot tears I cried on my son’s sleeping head each night. I wept at the thought of losing him. That’s really how I felt – that I would lose him, and that even worse, he would lose me. And that grief felt very real to me. I was twisted into a ball of fear, anguish, worry and guilt that we would be changing his world beyond his comprehension. It sounds so melodramatic, and of course it is, but it was absolutely overwhelming and the feeling grew as the due date grew closer.
Did I still function? Pretty much. From the outside it probably just looked like I was a tired, pregnant mumma. My partner copped the worst of it, and had to subsist on the crumbs of my love. But could I still take pleasure in all of the small moments of playing with my son? Oh my goodness, yes. Everyone I knew who had two kids kind of laughed about how different it was once you had two, but I was genuinely stressed that I hadn’t made any room for her clothes or organised to get my son out of his cot. I knew change was coming, I knew I was unprepared, but it felt so scary and that fear just kind of paralysed me.
From “tired mum” into somewhere else
At some point these normal “real talk” human emotions morphed into actual mental illness for me. I just couldn’t tell at the time, because instead of waking up one day and thinking, “I am not well”, I would wake up thinking, “I am not up to this task. I’m failing my son and I am going to fail this new baby.” It didn’t strike me as depression at the time. It just seemed like an irrefutable truth.
That’s exactly why, with the beauty of retrospect, I want to talk about it. Because sometimes these things are weirdly hard to recognise in ourselves. Being someone with a history of mild depression and anxiety, I thought I would be all over this. But unfortunately, one shitty thing that happens when you’ve had bouts of depression or anxiety in the past is that the very familiarity is what makes these voices so powerful. And besides, the hormonal mess of insanity during my second pregnancy felt like something else. And that’s the thing that is so hard with motherhood. The actual base level of “normality” includes so much more suffering and sacrifice and isolation and sadness and worry than you would ever have thought possible.
So that drift from “tired mum” into somewhere else, somewhere unhealthy; it didn’t feel like much. The burnout you feel from sleepless nights and the hyper-vigilance of looking out for another person’s emotional wellbeing, and the rage that you feel at your partner over every tiny thing… it exhausts you. It exhausted me. I just thought that the exhaustion was something I had to reckon with, because I had a small person to care for and a little bun to incubate. But I think now that the exhaustion was a sign of something else.
The happy ending to all this is that when my daughter was born I loved her instantly. How could I not? She was and is the most glorious creature we could ever have dreamed up. Her wise dark eyes stared up at me and my heart opened up even more than I thought it ever could. How had I been worried that I wouldn’t be able to love her as much as my first? Suddenly I was just overflowing with love, for both of them. She was ours and she was beautiful.
Learning to be softer with myself
The changes came, sure, and some of them were hard. And the overwhelming fear that having our daughter would change our family forever? It was true. She did. I just couldn’t see before I met her that those changes would be so incredible. That she would complete our family in a way that makes my heart skip when I watch our kids playing together. I could only sense the loss, and had not yet fathomed the profound gifts that she would bring.
My son is now five and my daughter is two and a half. The relationship that they have is an extraordinary gift for both of them. They talk and laugh and play together, and sometimes they even comfort each other in their sadness. Do they fight? Of course they do. Am I able to simultaneously meet both their needs at all times? Fuck no. But I try my best and I am slowly learning to become softer with myself. And for me, the darkness of the journey to get to the place I am now hasn’t taken away the beauty of it. It has simply made me more aware of the incredible pain, fragility, rawness and strength that exists – all at once – within a mother’s love.
It’s hard to write this story without acknowledging that it comes from a place of privilege. I have two very beautiful children, and both of my pregnancies, though well into my thirties, came easily and quickly, without the stress and medical intervention and uncertainty that so many of my friends have faced. I haven’t lost a child. I haven’t suffered a miscarriage. I haven’t struggled with infertility.
My body was healthy and strong enough to carry two pregnancies. I had a partner to go through these experiences with. This is a list of blessings I am very aware of, and I shared this story to shed light on the particular experience that happened to me and because I didn’t really hear many versions of it before it happened to me. I hope that it doesn’t cause more pain for people who haven’t been able to be in this position.
Mental health professionals are available 24/7 at the beyondblue Support Service – 1300 22 46 36 or via beyondblue.org.au/get-support for online chat (3pm-12am AEST) or email response.
This article originally appeared on The Wayward and is republished here with permission.