They are the strangest and most uncomfortable bedfellows. For some; motherhood heralds the beginning of mental health struggles, for some an improvement and for others motherhood entangles itself in a pre-existing mental health condition.
For me, my mental health was the best it’s been since I was thirteen. Pregnancy seemed to soothe the anxious waters of my mind and, despite a traumatic birth and my son arriving with a chest infection, the calm and contentment continued.
Motherhood is everything I hoped, quite a bit like I expected but more demanding than I could have imagined. My son has so far been what some might call “an easy baby”; we escaped the newborn phase without colic and he generally eats, poops and sleeps as one might expect.
What I’ve discovered however, is that an “easy” baby doesn’t mean that parenting is easy!
There are shades of difficulty; I for example was an objectively difficult baby for my poor parents (I didn’t sleep through the night until I was nine), others seem to breeze through babyhood as if they got an instruction manual in utero. Most are somewhere toward the middle of the spectrum, but wherever on that spectrum you find yourself in, there is the uncertainty, less sleep, recovery from a child’s arrival (however that happens) and general “winging it”!
For my little family, learning to navigate parenthood alongside pre-existing depression and anxiety has been the steepest of learning curves. For whilst I’ve been better than I can remember over the past year, I constantly feel as if I’m walking a tightrope. I want to be the best Mum I can be – but I don’t want to get unwell.
The things I have done for the last decade to manage my conditions are exponentially harder with a baby. You can’t be a freelance Mum, for starters! Whilst I would usually protect my sleep at all costs to prevent my mind going into free fall, it’s almost impossible to ensure a solid nine hours a night every night, but I am beginning to navigate this new normal.
And my new normal wouldn’t be possible without my village – not my actual village, although I do live in one, – but the people who step in and step up.
A few weeks back, I found myself stumbling (I’m mixing my metaphors quite spectacularly, aren’t I?!) I started to sleep less, laying awake for hours after getting up to do a night feed. My mind began to spin with anxiety and I felt shame shroud me like a dementor’s cloak.
And then the tears started to fall.
This is a well worn path for, a scarily predictable descent into what we euphemism as “a dip”.
Usually, I would hide; cry and sleep for a couple of days and re-emerge slowly into the world when I felt stronger.
Instead, I had a six month old baby who needed me to feed, play and care for him.
The curious thing is, that this responsibility made the situation simultaneously harder and easier.
Harder because when I could barely think straight, I had to think on behalf of a helpless baby. But it also made me take care of myself and take action in a way I don’t think I’ve been able to before. I rang my husband, we arranged for my best friend to take my son for a day long play date so I could get some rest, and I took a break from trying to be both full time Mum and full time freelancer, working out a new rhythm that wouldn’t completely exhaust me.
Motherhood and mental illness are the strangest and most uncomfortable bedfellows, but they can and do co-exist.
The bright side, if there is one, is that it has already taught me that taking care of myself is not an optional extra of parenthood – but vital. It doesn’t mean candles and massages (although I do quite like the both) but getting enough rest, food, exercise and fresh air. It means allowing people to help out without feeling guilty and being honest about how I’m coping.
For some, mental illness is a far more disruptive and difficult bedfellow, but taking care and being taken care of are universal needs- even for those without any mental health conditions!