This article is yet another one in our series on mental health that gives a very poignant account of the writer’s experiences after childbirth. As with the others, this piece gives a personal account and narrates what has felt true to the writer. Motherhood and parenthood in general is a major milestone in life and it comes with trials requiring a tremendous amount of patience. It is therefore not surprising the respect and elevation the status of parenthood is given in Islam, and in particular to the mother.
It is mentioned that post natal or post partum depression affects up to 15 per cent of mothers at any time in the first year of having given birth, and as you may have understood from our previous article on depression, it is not simply feeling severely low. Depression after childbirth can also affect fathers as well as mothers; however this narration is from the perspective of a mother.
Post-natal depression (PND) and post-natal anxiety (PNA) can cause a myriad of confusing and conflicting emotions within the self and result in great misunderstanding from others who are unaware of what the person is fully experiencing. There is often an extremely negative stigmatising culture and blame, which may even come from the sufferer themselves directed towards themselves. It is important to bear in mind that pregnancy, childbirth and post partum bleeding (for those who experience it) are not only tiring processes emotionally but also involve enormous and sudden physical and hormonal changes which have significant effects.
PND and/or PNA is not something that happens only with a first born but it can be repeated or occur in subsequent births. And of course, the impact leaves traces on the whole family, including the new-born. Support in its many forms is instrumental in preventing and abating PND and/or PNA.
The following is the narration of a new mother on her experiences of both post natal depression and post natal anxiety:
By the Grace of God, I had a very easy pregnancy, but it was my due day that brought about a turn of events. I thought I knew what to look out for, that I was somewhat informed. The thing is, those around you also need to know what to look out for, and most importantly they need to understand. Mental health struggles are not necessarily visible like a broken leg and I have found that there is no sympathy from those that do not understand.
The birth of my child came during a very difficult time in my life. Someone beloved to me passed away suddenly. I was in mourning, trying to come to terms with what had happened. He was like a father to me, a friend, a confidant, and a spiritual adviser. Amidst all of this, I was required to go back and forth from the hospital for daily checks as I was refusing an induction for almost a week.
Three days after a death, I was induced; forced to give birth when I was not mentally nor emotionally ready. My child was born after a traumatic experience, so how was I now to celebrate? We only informed our immediate family. There was no big announcement: no WhatsApp status, no declaration of the birth of my child; complete hush. For how do I celebrate this new life when I have not yet mourned the loss of another?
The one person I wanted to do the tahniq for my child was no longer here. I was not able to go to the janazah; I was a mother now, stuck with my child in hospital, feeling numb to what was happening. I hadn’t adjusted to my new life and it all felt surreal.
I wish more women in our community spoke about the difficulties concerning breastfeeding. Childbirth was nothing in comparison to the breastfeeding that followed. I knew I had to be prepared for soreness but had no idea to what extent. Cracked skin that would bleed, to then have an infant latch on every hour for as long as they wanted while you bore the pain because ‘breast is best’, right? Breast is also free. I know some give up on it because of the pain. Someone advised me to push through to five weeks, and she was right; all of a sudden, the pain is relieved. There was also another side of breastfeeding that I had been completely oblivious to and disliked the entire year I spent doing it, which was that once you master the latch and become a professional feeder of infants, it seems that you spend almost your entire time doing this: sitting, lying down, one arm held in the air, on the go, in the car, crossing the road. I felt like a machine, running on automatic, and the act of breastfeeding was something only I could provide for my child.
I opened up a little about my struggles regarding my emotional and mental well-being, and a wonderful friend mentioned that her doctor informed her that her depression was linked to breastfeeding, and it clicked; there were words to what I felt. Nevertheless, the cry for help grew.
The urge to walk out the house and continue walking in any direction grew every day, with every sleepless night, with every cry for help.
So I asked for help to get my daughter on to the bottle and in other matters too and the typical messages I was being told were: “No, she wants you” and “Other women do it”, implying so why couldn’t I?
There are normal levels of anxiety that come with a new-born. The sleeplessness exasperates the anxiety. New-borns, while sedentary for most part, can’t speak for themselves, can’t tell you what’s wrong and ‘sudden cot death’ was enough to make me hardly sleep a wink, constantly checking if she was breathing. To check if she was too hot or too cold, because infant death from overheating is very much a possibility, and then constantly flipping the blanket on and off her throughout the night. Lifting my head to see her chest rise and fall, then lying down only to do the whole thing again after a few minutes. I found myself anticipating the night that is to come every day at 7 PM, as shortly after this my support system would retire to slumber, leaving me completely alone with this small and fragile human being. If she were ever asleep before fajr was in, I’d have to anticipate and make sure I was in the state of wudu’ before prayer came in. My eyes would shoot right open as she would start to stir. So I would run to perform my purification. But, because my mind was on my child upstairs, thinking of the 101 ways in which she could possibly die without any adult supervision, this would result in me performing ablution in a compulsive manner, such that I was there longer than needed or wanted. Often, I would return to the bedroom to find one of my siblings with my child, because she did indeed wake up in that time. However, now I was far away from my family and friends, and so I had lost this vital support network.
It does take a village, or at least one other set of hands willing to sacrifice some sleep for you and your child. That village support is not just for the early stages either.
Many months later, I was still in physical pain from the labour, which resulted in temper fluctuations. I was all alone, stuck with a child, and I was in pain, screaming on the inside.
Every night I cried, wanting someone to help me, to hold me, to see my pain, and see it without judgment. Never had I felt so alone, so unloved, but I had no choice but to continue. This was the first time though that the thought ‘Maybe death would be better’ crossed my mind. The seed that was planted at that moment only grew. But I ignored it. Life as a mother, a wife and the other roles that I was juggling kept me busy but the sadness occupied my every breath.
I was failing … in almost everything. My cup was running empty; it was emptying faster than I could refill it: work, marriage, house, in-laws, assignments, infant.
I was just about keeping my head above water, with one hand tied behind my back and the other carrying my child. I was drowning and fast.
I was hardly speaking to my family at this point. My family would message asking how I was, and I would joke about things or state how I was busy with things and so on. I would try to say a little more but was told: “It’s normal, everyone goes through it” or “Take it on the chin” and “It happens.” So I stopped reaching out and I stopped asking. And tried with every fibre of my being to keep paddling, to not give up and not allow myself to drown. This child needed me, she needed my milk, she needed her mother: so what would happen if she lost me?
As the days passed, I loathed myself a little more. I began to hate the skin I lived in and I began to hate the responsibility of having a child. I was no longer my own person anymore, and in my plight there were those who looked at me, saw my pain and struggles but did nothing to help me.
I know there are women who will read this, and it will hurt them, because they would do anything to have a child.
I wish being a mother came easier to me. I hated that it didn’t. I helped raised many nieces and nephews. I thought it was going to be easier for me than for those who have never been around children.
The nappy changing and clothing was something I could do with my eyes closed. Why was I not attached to my child? Why was I filled with regret as the days passed?
Work was never a priority and I was blessed enough to take a year out to grow and birth a child without the need for me to work. Even after, there was no need; however, I needed it more than I initially realised. Being busy and doing what I loved was the much-needed bandage to my seeping wound.
There are women who crave to hold a child of their own; yet here I was wanting to spend as little time with my child as possible. I just felt like a milking cow, like a machine, no emotions allowed, just do what is expected. I knew she was safe; she was well taken care of. Some days I’d let her stay a little longer in the nursery. Not because I needed it, but because she was with adults who smiled at her, called her name with joy; she would make them laugh, and she would laugh herself.
I was blessed with the ability to bear and birth a child, a child that was healthy, beautiful and easy, yet why was I so miserable? I kept thinking that I should not be finding my work to be a refuge, but it was.
I knew when depression hit; it hit me like a train. It was when all she did was want to feed. And the sudden urge to rip her off me and throw her across the room made me shake. I grabbed my phone once and told her father to come home. I did not trust to be left alone with her. As soon he walked through the door, I handed him his child, I went to the bedroom, closed the door and cried. I was terrified of letting my guard down, in case in a moment I blacked out and dropped her, threw her, smacked her, maybe even killed her. I was exhausted. I was daydreaming most of the time, especially while she fed. Who is to say I wouldn’t be capable of breaking this fragile human? So I became hyper-focused and very controlling. It was the only way to ensure my child was kept alive and safe. This control however took over everything related to her.
I needed help. I wasn’t getting it. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. I felt like an utter failure. I’m someone who has learned the Islamic knowledge for many years, yet why was I feeling this bad? Why could I not pull myself out of this with the reliance upon Allah? I’m sure others had done it, so why was I still spiralling? I hoped for the best and hoped that time would heal me and would allow me to be a mother to my child, the loving mother that I so desired to be. I busied myself with the role of a mother, wife, teacher and student. I continued to paddle for my life, while the pressure continued to mount instead of lessening.
The second part of this piece is available here.
Please note: If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned here, please do speak to loved ones or seek professional help.