She was a social work graduate and post-partum depression (PPD) was something she had studied. Yet when it hit her, Lim Mei Hui was as unprepared as the next mother. The 31 year-old mother opens up to TNAP with her story.
It All Began On a High
Immediately after my first birth, I experienced an immense high. I had a relatively quick, natural birth with no complications; no need for epidural; my baby was extremely good-looking. Many people commented how he looked like a Caucasian baby. I was breastfeeding exclusively and had no latching, supply, nor mastitis issues. I would lie awake at night not being able to sleep, even when the baby was sleeping.
Soon however, the negative emotions began to wash over me. I became extremely stressed caring for the baby. His incessant cries were too much for me. They were like the constant admonishments of my failings as a mother. I tried using ear plugs, mufflers, closing the door – none of it worked.
Many times out of sheer tiredness, I just stared at my crying baby. I couldn’t do a thing. And I started crying too. Some nights I even experienced sleep paralysis which was extremely shocking for me. I researched it and saw that stress and sleep deprivation were some contributors – a daily affair for me.
I cooped myself up in the house all day, convinced that I was nowhere near capable of getting out the house lugging a baby. I was determined to continue direct latching for fear of breast rejection from bottle feeding. I stopped going to church, and before I knew it, five months had passed before I finally stepped out of the house.
I felt completely robbed of my self-esteem and personhood. My weight was especially depressing. I had also made the decision to be a stay-home mother to give the “best possible care” to my children, and I constantly bemoaned my lack of earning power. I enjoyed taking my time to eat, to bathe, to travel to the gym (the journey itself was therapeutic). Now, I could only eat foods that could be wolfed down quickly so that I could attend to the relentless demands of my children. Whatever happened to sipping my favourite bowl of hot soup?
I would be taking a pee, and the children would barge through the door. If it was locked, they’d threaten to break it down – and I’d threaten to break them if that happened. I would be bathing, and with soap in my eyes, be told that “it’s time to feed the baby”. I can’t stand a messy house – and sometimes I can’t even find a space to stand. Exercise was the last thing on my mind, but the very thing I needed – and I couldn’t. Motherhood was tearing me down bit by bit.
I began fighting back. I became nasty. Phrases like “get out of my life” and “you’re killing me” were quickly picked up by the children, and when they repeated them, the feelings of inadequacy just got reinforced. I call this the “bad mother cycle”. You never get out of thinking you are a bad mother.
I also became hypersensitive. I chased my mother out of the house for “giving me a black face”. She helps to care for the children and I hate it that I can’t manage on my own. Yet I know that I am blessed with one of the most self-sacrificial mothers out there. There was this other time when a friend whom we hadn’t seen in a long time remarked to my mother-in-law, “Aunty you look the same!” Her tongue-in-cheek reply, “Oh hardly. I’ve put on weight just like Mei Hui!” I’ve never forgiven her for that.
I also know that I’ve been blessed with one of the best husbands in the world and an absolute hands-on dad. He feeds the baby, changes diapers, prepares the food, does the dishes, washes the clothes, bathes the children, plays with them, reads to them, gives me massages, wakes up with me in the middle of the night, prepares the breast pump – I really couldn’t ask for more. Yet at times I find myself snapping at him, especially when he messes up every now and then.
My sharp tongue goes, “Just let me know you don’t wish to feed the baby/change the baby/bathe the children, etc. You don’t have to screw it up on purpose just to make me do it myself!” Sometimes I message my husband, “I wish I could just throw the baby down!” He offers to come back from work to help, but I refuse. I make him promise me not to. Then he tries to comfort me over the phone or via messages, but his words have no impact. I say to him, “I used to think that talking to you would help – but it never does.” I constantly fear that I’m actually pushing him away, and possibly into another woman’s arms – but I still can’t help myself.
Before I became a stay-at-home mother, I used to work in a context where I saw parents get arrested for Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), and would think to myself, “How could they do this to a child, their own child?” Oh how I empathise with them right now!
Picking Myself Up
It has almost been six years since staying home, and I have three children now. While I probably do function normally from day to day, PPD doesn’t really ever go away. It’s constantly there at the back of your mind, ever ready to rear its ugly head at the right trigger. At the same time, I’ve learnt to manage little pockets here and there.
While my training has taught me that support groups are helpful in dealing with PPD, I also accept that being a natural introvert, I do not flourish in such settings. Being around people makes me uncomfortable and puts undue stress on my mental-state. I found that having close, individual friendships was much better for me. A timely word from them every now and then really gave me much needed perspective, allowing me to face the drudgery of the day.
I was also familiar with scientific research on how sleep affects depression from my stint in the social work setting. The correlation was simple – the worse my sleep quality, the worse my depression. I knew I had to work on my sleep management. In order to help myself fall asleep faster, and stay asleep longer, I did a couple of things. For instance, baby and I sleep in separate rooms from day one.
Co-sleeping was too much stress for me as I would be consciously anxious about when he would wake. My husband supported me by massaging me every night (he still does by the way), and ensuring he does not fall asleep before I do, as his snores would cause me a lot of anxiety. Not only do they prevent me from falling asleep, but they sent a signal that I was all alone in this, and would exacerbate my insomnia.
I now also firmly believe that self-care is other-care. Just like the airline emergency announcement states, always save yourself first, before attempting to save someone else. So many times in motherhood, we pour from an empty cup. Be sure to find avenues to refill your cups so that you can give your best to your loved one, including your spouse. Being able to exercise and do Bikram yoga really energised me, and I relished those occasions for some me-time. And when time became an issue, I picked up High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and can get a good workout in just half an hour at my lift landing.
Lastly, there was the mental pressure of staying at home that I had to manage. I had to accept the forgone income and the loss of empowerment and social status that comes with employment and financial independence. These issues can easily drag down your self-esteem.
In my case, being able to write and also start a small business from home did wonders for my spirits. I am always grateful for these opportunities, and gratefulness is a powerful antidote to dealing with PPD. Another significant ‘mental hack’ for me was coming to the belief that the parenting design is for a child to have a mother and a father, and not two mothers; so I became less uptight about how my husband interacts with the children, something that really got to me in the past.
These small victories along the way truly help in this journey of life, especially life with PPD.
By Lim Mei Hui
What is Postnatal Depression?
PDD affects about 10-15 % of women after childbirth. It is a feeling of sadness, misery, loneliness, insecurity and incompetence usually felt by women after giving birth. Signs include:
• Loss of motivation
• Restlessness or irritability
• A lot of crying
• Eating beyond normal amount (either too small or too much)
• Feeling guilty or worthless
• Loss of interest in engaging in pleasurable activities
Although it is commonly believed that the mother’s age and breastfeeding are linked to postnatal depression, the exact cause is unclear. Some women may be genetically more vulnerable than others to postpartum depression, especially for those with past psychiatric history. Some studies have shown a relationship between postnatal depression and obstetric complications or complicated delivery. If not properly treated, it may indirectly have dire effects on an infant’s growth and development.
Refrain from being alone and seek the company of close friends and family. Ask someone you trust to be by your side as much as possible.
Singapore Association of Mental Health Helplines
• Pregnancy Crisis Service: 6339 9770
• Postnatal Depression Group: 6836 0063
• Pertapis Centre for Women and Children: 6284 4707
• Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE): 1800 774 5935 (Mon to Fri, 3pm to 9.30pm)
• KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital offers consultation and treatment for postnatal depression. Call 6294 4050
This article was first published in New Age Pregnancy E-guide Feb/Mar 2017.