I’m a corporate partner at an international law firm, and my career is hugely important to me. I’m driven, but also a bit of a perfectionist, and while I believe this has gone some way towards enabling my professional success, I was soon to learn that it wouldn’t help at all when it came to motherhood.
The beginning of emotional trauma
While my story relates to the postnatal depression I experienced after the birth of my daughter four years ago, I think my story actually begins when I first became pregnant, almost six years ago. It happened while on honeymoon, when I was 40 years old, and my husband and I couldn’t believe our luck.
At the 12-week scan however, we discovered the baby had died at seven weeks, and I’d had what was known as a ‘missed miscarriage’. I had the baby surgically removed the next day, and my husband and I were devastated.
Falling pregnant a second time took longer, but when we were finally successful, we were absolutely delighted, although of course fairly nervous. However, as the pregnancy progressed, while I had absolutely no physical side effects, I felt thoroughly miserable. In fairness, I hated being pregnant and I have since discovered that I am very susceptible to hormonal changes and the significant effect that they have on my mood.
A pressure to prove myself
My low mood was compounded by my experience at work. My field of expertise was very male-dominated and when I announced my pregnancy, the main reaction seemed to be shock, perhaps because I was 41 by this point. Almost immediately, I felt this huge weight of responsibility – I was the only female partner, and no woman had ever successfully returned to our firm after having a baby. I was therefore driven by this desire to prove that I could manage it, and that nothing in my working life would change as a consequence of becoming a mother. In fact, I once joined a meeting at 10pm, worked all through the night and returned home the next morning, all while heavily pregnant.
My plan was to work up until I was 38 weeks pregnant, but my waters broke at 36 weeks, and after a traumatic 56-hour birth, my little girl arrived. However, she was very ill with suspected sepsis, severe jaundice and hypoglycaemia. As a result, she was in the special care unit in the hospital for four days, punctured by tubes and wires.
Nothing up until this point had gone to plan. I hadn’t wrapped things up at work, I hadn’t had this picture-perfect water birth, and my baby wasn’t well. Fortunately, her health quickly improved and we were able to take her home after a week. But even then, I couldn’t breastfeed her as she was severely tongue-tied – and I wasn’t turning out to be the ‘perfect’ mother I’d envisaged.
Noticing a problem
Around this time a health visitor was coming to our house, and each time it was as if she became my therapist. I would complain about anything and everything, particularly my husband, although he was there supporting me the whole time. But as far as I was concerned, nobody was doing enough. In hindsight, the more out of control I felt, the more controlling I became. The house had to be perfect, the beds had to be made, I had to be dressed. Obviously, none of that stuff matters, but I think it mattered to me as I felt like I was able to control something while everything around me fell apart.
During one of these health visitor sessions however, the penny suddenly dropped and I said, ‘It’s not everyone else is it, it’s me?’ And she nodded. I totally broke down. I’m not sure if I already knew it subconsciously, but I saw clearly then that I had a problem.
The next day I spoke to my GP, who confirmed I had all the symptoms of postnatal depression. We discussed both therapy and medication, but I was vehemently against taking any drugs, so we agreed that I would take time to chat to my husband and go back the following week to talk more about other options.
The darkest points
That weekend however, things got even worse. At one point, my husband was bathing my daughter and I was sitting outside the bathroom, at the top of the stairs. I felt I couldn’t be in the bathroom with them, as I wasn’t needed. In fact, I felt that I wasn’t ‘needed’ in general - I had nothing to contribute to my daughter’s life, or my husband’s. I looked at the tiled floor at the bottom of the stairs, and started to think about throwing myself down them to crack my head on the tiles below, wondering if that would be enough to finish it.
Of course, I didn’t – my logical brain kicked in, but things did get worse and my world rapidly turned totally black. I couldn’t see colour, or joy in anything. I didn’t feel anything when my daughter smiled. I couldn’t communicate with people. I spent hours staring out of a window. It was as if my cognitive function had been cut off from my physical being, which was quite terrifying for someone who was previously so capable.
I realised that I was seriously unwell and was unlikely to be able to recover by myself so I went back to the doctors and asked for medication, and was prescribed an anti-depressant. Whilst I may have been hoping for a miraculous speedy recovery, the reality is that it just doesn’t happen that way and I had to accept that my recovery would take a long time. In the short term I told people to stop asking ‘how I was feeling’, as my answer would be consistently ‘bad’. One night, my husband woke to find me sitting in bed with a knife against my wrists.
The colour returning
After a couple of weeks the drugs did start to kick in and I slowly started to feel more like myself. I saw a psychiatrist and engaged in an intensive course of psychotherapy to try and help me though. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is often recommended for PND, but my therapist felt that wouldn’t work for me because of my perfectionist tendencies. She identified that I was consistently too hard on myself and other people, and recommended that we should pursue acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) instead, which doesn’t try to change how you think, but helps you accept how you are, become comfortable with it and value it accordingly.
The combination of medication, therapy and enormous support from family and friends had a big impact and eventually I became much more comfortable – I became the mum I wanted to be and was able to enjoy my daughter and family life.
Returning to work after PND
I decided to return to work after six months in an attempt to aid my recovery – work was somewhere I felt comfortable and knew what I was doing. Instead of returning to my regular job I was offered a secondment position heading up the in-house legal team with a client. I had a staggered return, so worked four days a week, and had my therapy sessions on Friday.
When I was due to return to work full-time, I felt I had no option but to ‘confess’ to my senior that I would need to leave early on a Friday for therapy, and explained why. That was the first time I opened up about my experience in the workplace, and she was amazing. She had experienced something similar with her first child, so offered huge amounts of support, which was so helpful.
While I wouldn’t wish my experience on anyone, I have come out the other side stronger. I’m more confident, I know I have more capabilities than I ever realised, and I have learned that if you’re prepared to open yourself up and show vulnerability, then you become more relatable as a human being.
This has certainly impacted my working life, for the better. After returning to my original workplace, post-secondment, I soon realised I wasn’t happy there and moved on somewhere else. Interestingly, during the interview process for my new role I actually talked in detail about my postnatal depression, and the impact it had on my life.
However, I never discussed my illness openly at my former role. Not because I’m in anyway ashamed of what happened, but I just didn’t feel confident that it would be taken in the right manner; the culture there was one that said ‘all the right things’, but I don’t think ever really believed it. Inclusion has to come from the top and at my new place, it’s in their DNA. Straight away, I felt I wouldn’t be judged.
That’s one of the reasons I am so open about my experience now – I don’t think it’s talked about enough. In fact, I almost feel a moral obligation to be honest – if I can help one person to better cope with going through what I did, then great.
Looking back now, what happened to me could happen to anyone, but if I were to have my time again I would do things differently. I would have been much kinder to myself, wouldn’t have tried to work until the end of my pregnancy and would have simply accepted the fact I was pregnant. My advice to others suffering PND would be – don’t cut yourself off and don’t reject help. You can get through this, but it’s almost impossible to do so by yourself.