Hi Im Natalie! Founder of maternity brand Go Mama and 1 in 4 Mamas who experience Perinatal Depression or Anxiety.
Part 1 – My story
Prior to falling pregnant with my first child, I had never knowingly experienced mental health issues. Other than the usual morning sickness symptoms in the first trimester, I had an amazing first pregnancy and felt fit, healthy, strong and comfortable throughout.
Looking back I think the onset of my mental health decline may have been triggered by a number of concurrent events. Firstly my Dad suffered an unexpected medical incident shortly before I was due to give birth and permanently lost his mobility and communication. A few days later my waters broke, followed by a 35-hour labour and a birth experience that felt somewhat traumatic and nothing at all like what I had planned! I also had really high expectations of how fun and easy motherhood would be but nothing could have prepared me for the sleep deprivation. Ohhh, the sleep deprivation…
I began a gradual downward spiral. Each day being harder and less fun than the one before with those early days of motherhood becoming a blur of breastfeeding, nappies and not a lot of sleep. There were so many days where I didn’t want to leave the house. I felt like a failure, coupled with guilt and shame for not loving every single minute of motherhood. I missed my independence; I loved my gorgeous boy but I also missed so much of my ‘old life’ too and found some of my new routine mundane. I thought I was capable of coping and I did not recognise any of the signs. I now know these are all normal and valid feelings but I didn’t know that at the time and it only compounded how low I was feeling.
The pivotal moment came when my son was about five months old (it was my first Mother’s Day of all days). We were planning to head north to visit family and I physically could not get out of bed. My legs wouldn’t work. My arms wouldn’t work. My head felt like it weighed a tonne on the pillow and my words were starting to slur. I was so sleep deprived. It was the prompt I needed to get help but it’s so crazy to think it got to that stage before I thought I needed some professional support?! And even then, I thought it was lack of sleep that was the issue so we booked in with a Sleep Consultant. She was amazing and taught us so many useful tips and tricks and although we started to get sleep again, my mental health didn’t recover and I continued for months and months assuming this was just #mumlife and my ‘new normal’.
During this experience I was also plagued with what I now know were intrusive thoughts and urges. Not directly with harming myself or anyone else, but visualising danger everywhere I went. It was debilitating and prevented me from wanting to go far or do much. It was only then that I really knew something was wrong and I sought help. I had several visits to a Clinical Psychologist where I felt safe to open up about how I was feeling. Working in the military, I was in a privileged position where my employer covered this medical support but I still wonder and worry for those who require these services but are unable to access them.
I was also pregnant with our second child by this stage and feeling the lowest I have ever felt. I didn’t enjoy my second pregnancy like I had my first. I felt riddled with anxiety that something would go wrong. My body ached, I was exhausted and all those dreamy hormones from my first pregnancy were long gone.
I started to force myself out for some fresh air and a walk, no matter how gentle it was. I noticed that every time I did a bit of movement, I felt a little better. Often I would set off on a walk crying, but by the end of it I was feeling in a much better head space.
When I was six weeks post partum with my second child, I visited a pre- and post-natal exercise specialist. After being cleared to exercise, I signed up to online exercise program Birth2Fit which I was able to do from home and I felt myself feeling better and getting stronger by the day. At around 12 weeks post partum I started including group fitness classes and running in my exercise routine and I just loved the buzz I was getting from working out. Managing a toddler and a new baby at home had it’s challenges, but I always tried to prioritise physical activity to give myself a boost and I believe it helped with my ability to cope when feeling overwhelmed. It gave me more energy, generally offered me a more positive mindset and I felt able to enjoy motherhood.
Exercise isn’t the only solution to feeling well but it definitely helps, with the connection between physical activity and mental wellbeing being well documented. I feel fortunate that through exercise and the love and support of my husband I was able to recover. And if I can take anything positive from the experience it was that I became far more in tune with my mind and body and better equipped and able to recognise early if I was starting to feel down. I have also become aware of the mental challenges mothers face and am proud to be in a position now with Go Mama that we can support others on their maternity journeys. My hope is for Go Mama to advocate for perinatal mental health and help improve the statistics by inspiring movement, breaking down some of the barriers to exercising when pregnancy or breastfeeding, opening the mental health conversations and eliminating the stigma.
Motherhood is hard. If you are not feeling 100% that is completely normal. We are sending love and strength to all those who are in the trenches right now. It is not a chosen battle, nor an easy one, but please keep talking and keep moving if you can. Start small, Mama. Baby steps. You will feel better, we promise.
If you think you are suffering from Perinatal Anxiety or Depression, please see your GP. There is also helpful resources available on the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Aotearoa website which we will discuss further in Part 2 of this blog.
We also have a list of Helpful Resources on our website that you may like to check out.