It may be ironic that I write this at a time when nurturing our mental health has never been more important: we are just entering the third phase of lockdown during the worldwide pandemic of a novel coronavirus, having spent the last six weeks in practical isolation with the rest of the country. Our little world has been completely turned upside down. I’m lucky enough to still be on maternity leave, my husband is now working at home, my biggest girl is being home-schooled ahead of her transition to Primary One and my littlest girl is seemingly oblivious to it all. Like most other families, our routine and structure (not to mention the toilet roll supplies!) were whipped away from us with next to no notice. The strength and comfort we received from our everyday norm was gone and...BAM! My mind went into complete overdrive and I was reaching for all the coping mechanisms I could lay my hands on, trying to steady our ship caught in a COVID-19 thunderstorm.
Over the last four and a half years, since becoming a first-time mum, I have become closely attuned to my emotional wellbeing and I’m now much more aware of what I need to do to strengthen and nurture my mental health. I suppose, in some ways, I’ve maybe subconsciously trained myself to do it whilst also working in a profession and sector where I’ve had to grow a thick skin. It’s perhaps become second nature. Even so, there’s something quite peculiar about becoming a mum: regardless of how strong your mind is pre-baby, it has a habit of playing tricks on you and your abilities to care for yourself and your little bundle of joy.
I’m probably very much in the minority here but I was not visited by the baby blues and I didn’t get the overwhelming rush of emotion I was told to expect following the arrival of my first baby. I don’t know if this is because I was living on the adrenaline of a long and complex labour or whether my ‘take each day as it comes’ attitude kept me on an even keel. The very early weeks of having a newborn all seemed to go without a hitch (that is, aside from her projectile vomiting and the most-disorganised-Christmas-ever being only days away!)
Then, one day, out of nowhere, I can remember suddenly finding everything overwhelming. I was sitting in the nursery with my husband on Christmas Day morning with our little baby girl dressed in her Christmas pudding pyjamas feeling like we were doing everything wrong. We hadn’t found our parenting rhythm yet and we were walking on egg-shells around each other. That day, it was like the reality of becoming parents had hit us smack, bang, right in the face, and we were confronted with the realness of this tiny, sickly human who relied on us for her every need.
As the next few weeks went on we’d found out that the cause of our daughter’s reflux was a Cow’s Milk Protein Allergy and with her medication in place and changes made to my diet, we started to find our feet. My husband had returned to work, my postnatal recovery was going well and our baby was meeting her developmental milestones. All seemed well on the surface. I’m not sure I can exactly put my finger on the moment when things started getting on top of me but I can clearly remember one night when I reached breaking point. I had been up all night feeding and was just returning to bed at the exact same time my husband was getting up for work. We bumped into each other in the dark hallway, taking each other by surprise. In that moment, and probably on the back of a well intended “didn’t she sleep well” remark, I was utterly distraught that he hadn’t even realised I’d been up since midnight! In my sleep-deprived state and full of resentment at his full night’s sleep, I believed I couldn’t do it anymore. I was utterly broken: the lack of sleep, the long, lonely nights, the exhaustion and ‘physicalness’ of breastfeeding, and the monotony of caring for an infant had all taken its toll on my wellbeing and mental health.
Looking back, I realise now that sleep deprivation and exhaustion triggers in me a downward spiral in my mental health. Sleep was always going to be my point of weakness, given it was my number one hobby pre-child. I wholeheartedly appreciate that this cannot be compared to a condition such as Post-Natal Depression or anxiety and I don’t wish to belittle anyone’s mental health condition, but for me it serves to highlight how fragile even the strongest mind is in the perinatal period.
Since then, the saying ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’ has rang loud and true for me. I knew then that I needed to make some changes to support me achieving those basic needs of having enough sleep and enough energy so I could fulfill my new role as best as I could. My husband and I worked out when I could schedule in some much needed ‘Me Time’, and he could also enjoy some daddy-daughter bonding time. Although it feels like yesterday, that was over four years ago and our oldest daughter has not long begun to sleep through the night in her own bedroom.
Whilst I definitely can’t say we’ve perfected the balance (especially now with another little girl in the equation), some days I feel that I walk a very fine line on that emotional wellness tight-rope, especially if sleep has been lacking. I do try to prioritise time each day to re-group, gather my thoughts and ‘fill my cup’ so that I can handle whatever the next day has to offer me.
Here are some of the ways I support and nurture my emotional well-being:-
• Accept that there will be highs and lows (and that there can’t be one without the other);
• Check-in with my mama tribe;
• Ask for help (which is not always easy for me to do);
• Attend a weekly yoga class;
• Bake a cake;
• Go for a hot bath;
• Listen to a podcast or relaxation;
• Sing loudly to a favourite playlist; and
• Read a book when everyone else is asleep and the house is quiet.