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The unexpected, disorientating tidal wave of grief that can accompany motherhood

When Sali Hughes had her first baby, a severe depression descended. She found her way out with good therapy and a million tiny, but real, changes

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By Sali Hughes on

Almost 11 years ago, I was standing in a nice, warm London kitchen, preparing dinner; my freshly bathed, massaged and carefully pyjama’d five-month-old baby sleeping soundly in his cot downstairs. My very nice husband came home from work and found me chopping mushrooms in a steady, efficient rhythm, and kissed me on the head, entirely unaware that I’d spent the previous 15 minutes wondering how I might best turn the knife on myself so that there was enough time for me to bleed out, but not so long that the baby would be left alone for a worryingly long spell. The resigned, dispassionate nature of this internal monologue scared the life out of me, and I realised I couldn’t safely take another day of pretending (a week previously, I’d calmly declared I was going to retrain as a barista, for reasons even I didn’t understand). I placed the knife down on the board, looked my husband square in the eye, and said firmly, “I am going mad. I promise I am definitely going absolutely mad and I need help.”

I wasn’t exaggerating. I genuinely felt insane. Since the birth of my much-wanted baby, and the death of my father a few weeks later, my life had felt like an interminable movie I was watching from behind a thick sheet of tracing paper. I did all the stuff I was supposed to do – the stuff I had been looking forward to doing: the baby’s nappies were changed regularly, the surplus breastmilk was pumped and frozen during his naps, the shopping was put away, the house remained relatively clean. But I myself was drowning not in the workload, but in a disorientating tidal wave of grief, boredom and regret. First came the fear of meeting other mums, in case they could “see” I was really bad at this (I now know almost all new mothers think this). I would keep curtains closed all day, every day, scared that someone might spot me through the window and try to pop in for a cuppa. I never answered the doorbell without first checking the peephole for the postman. Weeks would go by without the baby and me going any further than our back garden and yet, at weekends, in the company of others, I was the life and soul.

I became convinced that if I left the house, I’d be mugged or attacked, or my house would be burgled. I thought my husband was going to die if he popped out for so much as a paper on a Sunday morning. I cried constantly

I was horribly lonely and isolated (I was the first in my friendship group to have kids – it’s amazing how instantly the invitations drop off) and yet I couldn’t bring myself to ever pick up the ringing phone. During these days (so long ago that social media didn’t exist as we know it), I stayed in my pyjamas, eating too much, flicking through magazines, consumed with jealousy and sadness for those still in an office producing them. I’d finally get dressed and made up just an hour before my husband came home in the evening, then lie about what I’d been doing. Gradually, my condition worsened and I developed extreme paranoia. I became convinced that, if I left the house, I’d be mugged or attacked, or my house would be burgled. If I walked the dog, she would be stolen and I’d be unable to leave the pram to run after her abductors. I thought my husband was going to die if he popped out for so much as a paper on a Sunday morning. I cried constantly in private and yet, publicly, couldn’t convince anyone that I was anything but fabulous.

Clearly, I had a very bad case of postnatal depression. But I hesitate to say that because I’m not sure the term is helpful or even begins to do it justice. Certainly, the euphemistic colloquialism “baby blues” should be put in a lead box and booted off Brighton Pier. Because PND is really just depression and, when I say “just”, I actually mean real, deep, horrifying, scary, lonely, hopeless, debilitating and seemingly unending sorrow that can have a horrible effect on the entire family, but especially on the mother at its helm. For some, it is dangerous and life-threatening (mercifully, I never had an urge to hurt or abandon my child – though I quite understand those who have what must be terrifying thoughts of that nature); others may feel safe, but are consumed by an unprecedented level of sadness, loneliness or anxiety that robs them of their quality of life and, temporarily, of their relationship with their baby.

What is unique about postnatal depression is that it’s an affliction that strikes at the exact time when the world thinks women should be at their very happiest, their most in love with life and those around them, at a time when they’re starting a new job – the one job in the world where no training is given, and which comes with a zero holiday or sickness-leave contract. I felt bereft of the work I was good at, the people I worked with, the adult conversation and the confidence boost of a job well done. I felt useless, lacking and ashamed that I had woefully miscast myself in a role that was supposed to make me feel the most satisfied and enriched I’d ever been. I felt guilty that I was unable to enjoy my lovely, healthy and adored baby when he was relying on me, and when so many women struggled to conceive one of their own. I look back and feel guilty that I’m no longer sure who I was more acutely grieving for – my dead dad or the old me. 

I felt guilty that I was unable to enjoy my lovely, healthy and adored baby when he was relying on me, and when so many women struggled to conceive one of their own

But I was fortunate. I put the knife down and was able to recognise my need for professional help. The one tiny upside to my bereaved state was that I had a small inheritance to pay for emergency psychotherapy that, over the course of two-and-a-half years, gradually led me into full and happy recovery – a handful of (mostly) less serious bouts of depression notwithstanding. Many women are much less fortunate and get neither the help nor the understanding they need.

The pain and the mental isolation of postnatal depression can easily cause women to decide not to chance another baby in case the worst happens again. One girlfriend of mine has barely had sex since her last child was born three years ago, another decided with her husband to opt for a vasectomy – to them, surgery seemed like a walk in the park compared with the threat of another 18 months of fear, panic, tears and grave marital instability. But, however a mother copes, it’s important to remember that while any depression – postnatal or otherwise – is real and terrifying, it always, always comes to an end. It gradually lifts. My relationship with my eldest son is as happy and adoring as that with my youngest, with whom I mercifully didn’t suffer at all, and I truly love being their mother.

I wouldn’t dare tell anyone how to “cure” their own PND, because there is no silver bullet to fix the problem. But I will say, for me, recovery came via a combination of one huge decision to get therapy and a million small ones: opening the curtains, going for a three-minute walk around the block, deleting my card details from dozens of websites where I constantly self-medicated with things I neither needed nor really wanted. And, perhaps most importantly, the act of saying, “I am completely bloody mad and I can no longer cope.” It’s hard and shaming to be the one to effectively shoot down the myth of magic motherhood and say, “Actually, this is quite shit. I am quite shit.” But I know from experience that to say it is the very opposite of bad parenting. In putting your own happiness first, in ensuring that you don’t endanger your life or family’s stability, you are loving and caring for your child in a nothing short of heroic way. Sod the veg-puréeing and the baby-signing. This is what good mothering really is.


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Mental Health
motherhood now

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