I thought I was totally prepared for motherhood. I luckily got pregnant with my first daughter very easily and sailed through my pregnancy, relishing pretty much every moment. I am one of those “weirdos” who love exercise, and even though 8 years ago I wasn’t then teaching fitness classes I was participating in them religiously and being pregnant didn’t stop me! Nope, I wanted to continue throughout my pregnancy and even the funny comments I used to get “Shouldn’t you be swimming instead of spinning?” didn’t stop me. I was newly qualified in the fitness industry and amazed by the lack of knowledge of pregnancy exercise so started to do my own research into what was safe and what wasn’t… sowing the seeds which would later become Mama on the Move.
So, I kept up my fitness routine, embraced pregnancy, scoffed when people told me I looked so well. How stupid, I thought, I’m just PREGNANT, I’m not ill for goodness sake! I read the pregnancy books, and booked me and OH onto an Antenatal course. I decided I was going to have a “natural birth” and breastfeed my baby exclusively for at least the first 6 months. I had an image of maternity leave being a bit like a holiday (YES I KNOW, what was I thinking?!) where I would sit around being all cosy playing with a cute baby whilst watching This Morning.
I remember as the D date got nearer I read some more books about labour and birth, I listened to a hypnobirthing CD in the car on my daily commute (yes,not really ideal, especially when they told you to close your eyes and relax” – I didn’t by the way) and dismissed everyone’s birth horror stories, putting my hands over my ears “tra la la not listening, not going to happen to me”. I nodded sagely when a work colleague who had recently had a baby tried to tell me about the terrible sleep deprivation. Yes, yes I get it, I’m going to be TIRED for a little bit…
I was fit, young and strong, this baby was coming out no problem and I was going to be a great mum.
Hmmmmm, cue a 3 day labour ordeal, back to back baby (even though I literally did not sit on a sofa for at least the last 4 weeks but bounced on the sodding ball), labour did not “progress”, induction, EVERY drug going, ending in episiotomy and forceps in theatre and THEN a 3rd degree tear….
My daughter’s birth left me feeling utterly exhausted, battered and bruised and I could barely walk. I was also mentally very traumatised from the whole experience. This was NOT how it should have happened.. Oh yes, and then I had a newborn to look after and feed which, is NOT as easy as whipping a boob out and offering it to your baby(like I thought). My baby, it seemed, was also not feeling great about the birth and being “earthside” and proceeded to cry for the next 5 months solid. She cried pretty much all the time, except when a boob was in her mouth and even then she would fight and cry.
Ok, so it turned out I wasn’t much good at being a mummy after all. My baby hated me because she cried ALL THE TIME. I hated myself too – or specifically my body. It had failed at giving birth (it hadn’t by the way) and it was failing at breastfeeding. My body also felt pretty broken. I felt great in pregnancy but afterwards I just felt like my body belonged to someone else. Actually with the stress and constant walking (my daughter, when not feeding, had to be outside, in the sling to even consider pausing in her screams) I lost my baby weight pretty quickly, but it wasn’t about the weight loss, it was about how weak and achy I felt, like a little old lady AND the pelvic floor damage from the brutal forcep delivery.
So I cried every day alongside my daughter, the two of us howling together. I had deep dark thoughts, I hated being a mum, I wasn’t any good at it and it was like a “prison sentence”. I was stuck with this screaming baby forever and I was FAILING her. How could I tell anyone these thoughts, when so many new mums that I met seemed to have babies who didn’t cry ALL THE TIME and who somehow were ENJOYING this experience. It only added to me feeling like there was something wrong with me. I remember vividly listening to my mum friends talking “baby talk” to their little ones, calling them adorable pet names and generally acting like I thought I should be. I stared at my screaming baby during a nappy change and tried for the life of me to think up a cute “nick name” to call her so I could be like my friends… but my mind was blank and I felt completely empty and emotionless towards this little bawling creature. I knew I had to look after her, because that was now my job, which only exacerbated those feelings of suffocation and panic that I had ruined my life…
I am by no means alone in my experience; around 1 in 8 mums will suffer from either antenatal or postnatal depression and anxiety. Becoming a mother for everyone is a massive life change, probably the biggest change a woman can go through, and I think every new mums goes through periods of feeling down and feelings of anxiety because a) it’s bloody hard work and there is NO guidebook b) in a way parts of your old life does end and you start a new one as mother and need to find your feet. But for those suffering from PND, these feelings are amplified and you need help to get through it. And you will get through it and out the otherside, even though at the time you don’t believe there is any light at the end of the tunnel.
There were many ways I got better from my PND, and there is no “one fit for all” when it comes to recovering from this horrible illness. But for me personally, exercise was an absolute life line in my recovery. It helped lift the fog (even if to start with it was only temporarily) and it cleared my mind so I was able to think straight. It also gave me a break from motherhood and let me feel “free” and more like myself again. There have been many studies done on the benefit of exercise and depression and so even if you weren’t particularly into exercise being having children, it may make all the difference now. It’s great for the MIND and the BODY.
See below my tips on how to Exercise with PND and get the endorphins (happy hormones) going!
- Try and get out and about WALKING as much as possible. Being confined to the house can increase the negative and self destructive feelings and getting some fresh air benefits you and baby. Plus if you have a “Screamer” like I did it’s less condensed in the open than in the house! Walking is also a safe postnatal exercise that everyone can do. Just try and avoid stopping and chatting with any well meaning old ladies - I used to get a lot telling me (loudly, above the piercing screams of my baby) to enjoy this “precious, precious time” as it goes by so fast…. I would have to walk away again very quickly.
- Try a postnatal exercise class such as Buggyfit. You are outside exercising AND meeting other mums in the process. Being a new mum can be isolating, even more so if you are suffering from PND and meeting others and exercising together can be beneficial
- Find a gym that has a CRECHE. That way, you get some time away from your baby and can purely focus on YOU. As soon as my baby was old enough I would go to my local gym pretty much every morning and put my baby in the crèche. The ladies who worked there were SO lovely (to me as well as my baby!) and it meant I got my workout and a shower in peace and then felt ready to take on the rest of the day with my baby. Or, if you have family living nearby, ask them if they are able to mind the baby for an hour or two whilst you go to the gym, take part in an exercise class or just go for a walk without the buggy! It’s amazing how free you will feel!
- I understand that sometimes it can feel like an effort in itself to even leave the house with a baby anyway, but particularly if you have PND. Everything seems to be overwhelming and sometimes you don’t even want to see other people. I found that working out in the safety and privacy of my own home or garden when baby had a (rare!) sleep suited me better sometimes, and actually gave me more confidence to get out and about the next time. I would do my own fitness programme, or you could do a postnatally appropriate fitness DVD.
- Try to avoid running in the early postnatal period. I love running to clear my head, but after such a difficult birth, when I went out for a run (too early postnatally) I thought my insides may fall out! My body was not recovered or strong enough to cope with the impact of running and that made me feel very upset. You can get back to running BUT it’s so important to let your body heal first and to focus on deep core work and non impact exercise until you are strong enough to run. I would advise self-referring to see a women’s health physio who can help enormously by checking your pelvic floor activation. See Tamsin’s blog here on more details on when it’s safe to run after having a baby
- A postnatal Pilates or Yoga class can be very beneficial as both concentrate on the breathing which can help you feel more calm and focused. These types of classes are especially helpful if you don’t feel ready for anything more upbeat. There is also “mindfulness” linked to these forms of exercises where you can “switch off” and be in the moment which has been shown to help alleviate feelings of depression. Please note that many yoga and pilates exercises are actually NOT safe in the postnatal period as they can stop an ab separation from healing or actually make it worse. Try and find a specific class for postnatal women and if you can’t check first that the instructor is qualified and knowledgeable in adapting exercises for you.
Other things that helped me:
- Friends & Family Support. Talking really helped – talk to your partner, family and friends. To start with it may take some time to find those “mum friends” who really “get it”. The ones that can empathise with you, who don’t judge you for your choices and who support you. Having said that sometimes even well meaning family/friends don’t understand what you may be going through and if this is the case, don’t give up. Keep trying until you find someone you can talk to, a GP/health visitor or a try a postnatal depression charity. Avoid those who don’t make you feel good about yourself and/or don’t seem to understand. Most people are fantastic but sadly I have had “but you have a beautiful baby” comment when I confessed to feeling “a bit down”. If family or friends say or do un-helpful things, just for the time being whilst you are getting better, avoid them and spend time with those who do help. You need to protect yourself during this time as you are especially vulnerable
- Get some professional counselling – talking to people who are experienced in dealing with the issues you are facing can be so helpful and make you feel less alone. Speak to your doctor/health visitor or contact a PND charity for further advice
- Good nutrition is key! All new mums need to be eating well, you have been pregnant for 9 months and gone through the labour and birth and now your body needs nutritious food to nourish and heal. Now is not the time for diets, and feeling depressed can either make you lose you appetite or “comfort” eat the wrong foods. Neither is helpful for recovery so please make sure you are eating a healthy balanced diet. Enlist the help of family and friends and ask them to cook a meal for you and drop it round.
- Yes this one’s annoying. How on earth do you sleep with a baby who literally is a SLEEP THIEF. And yes, the old “sleep when the baby is sleeping” too can be annoying too as a) when the baby is sleeping sometimes you need to eat (see above) or b) despite being utterly exhausted, sometimes when you are depressed it can be very hard to sleep as you have a million negative thoughts whizzing around in your head. I remember trying to sleep when the baby was sleeping and I lay next to her, wide awake thinking she was going to wake up at any moment. Anyway, 2 hours passed and I still wasn’t asleep and she WAS, so I had a panic attack because I realised I had wasted 2 hours when I could have been asleep and freaked out. I found the best chance I had for sleeping was if my husband took the baby out in the sling/pram so I knew she wasn’t even in the house and I could sleep uninterrupted for an hour or two. If your husband is at work, ask a friend to take your baby out for a walk. One of my lovely friends once took my baby out in the buggy whilst hers was in the sling and that gave me some much needed time out. There is No doubt that lack of sleep is torture and exacerbates depression and so try and get as much help as possible to prioritise YOU getting some sleep.
- Anti-depressants. There is NO SHAME. They are there to help you and sometimes you need them to even address the counselling, exercise and sleeping that needs to happen for you to get better. Talk to your doctor. Get someone to go with you to the doctors, as quite often you will not be able to do this by yourself and need a loved one with you for support. Stay on them for as long as you need (they take a while to kick in) and I promise you you won’t be on them forever because you will get better.
- Having time away from the baby/children not just to exercise, but to have a coffee, go shopping, have your nails done, go out with your friends, have a nice dinner with your other half, WHATEVER makes you feel good, do it as much as you can and do not feel guilty about leaving the baby/children with a delighted grandparent/aunt/friend - everyone will have a good time!
If you are reading this and suffering from Postnatal Depression or Anxiety then I urge you to get the help you need and deserve because you can and will get better. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, but one of strength. I have a very special and loving relationship with both my daughters, and although I feel sad that it was so difficult when they were babies it has not affected the close bond we share now.
For more details on our online safe Postnatal Fitness and Pilates programmes please click here.
For more details and help and support for postnatal depression see below resources/charities:
- For those Bristol based Bluebell Care is a fabulous charity working with those suffering from depression in pregnancy and postnatally. http://www.bluebellcare.org/ - it also has usefull links to other organisations that can help.
- The Samaritans - http://www.samaritans.org
- Mind helplines - http://www.mind.org.uk/help/advice_lines