Giving birth seemed to spell disaster for my mental health. Were my anxieties unfounded?

I hadn’t expected to have a baby. But when I turned out to be wrong about that, I found myself expecting the whole thing to be a disaster. It wasn’t just that people tend to be rather negative about what early parenthood entails, focusing on the sleepless nights and endless nappy changes. It was also because I had a mental illness that I thought would make it impossible for me to cope at all, let alone enjoy motherhood. Neither had I expected to be giving birth in the middle of a pandemic, in which I would be cut off from much of my support network.

In the three years since I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, as a result of a serious trauma in my personal life, I had spent a great deal of time trying to work out how to manage my illness. I planned my weeks around activities that research told me would help mend my mind a little. I knew that cold-water swimming, for instance, appears to help us control the fight-or-flight instinct that often goes so awry in mental illness. I knew that running could encourage the body to produce chemicals that lift the mood. I had discovered that birdwatching and looking for wild flowers were much more effective for me than mindfulness apps, with their calls to sit in silence in a room. I had just written a book about the healing power of outdoor pursuits and was starting to feel mildly in control of my life.

But then, in September 2019, after feeling so nauseous on live television that I feared I might vomit on the politician sitting next to me, I took a pregnancy test, just to be sure. It was positive. Everything was going to change again.

As soon as I knew my son existed, I was desperate to meet him. But I was also frightened. I knew that new motherhood would mean sleep deprivation, which has long been a trigger for my health to deteriorate. I wouldn’t have the same time to dose up on the outdoor activities that were keeping me sane. All the usual anxieties accompanying pregnancy were compounded by my fear that, having told myself I would never be a mother, I was now doomed to be a useless one.

When lockdown was announced, my panic increased. Would I even be allowed to leave the house with my baby, once he had arrived? Back in March, there was talk of restricting daily exercise to just a couple of hundred metres from someone’s home. An already terrifying prospect seemed to be growing worse.

My son, Jacob, was born on 12 May, while Britain was still in lockdown. My mental health had progressively deteriorated as I approached my due date and I had been in my own personal lockdown for much of early 2020. This meant my mental state was monitored carefully during my very long and difficult labour at Kingston hospital in south-west London. We were lucky with our maternity unit: Kingston allowed partners to be present before, during and after the birth; friends giving birth at other hospitals were forced to stay on the postnatal ward alone for days, their partners banned from visiting.

I am writing this sitting on a slightly soggy fallen tree in Richmond Park, my now-enormous baby snoozing happily in his pram. None of the things I had expected while I was expecting came to pass. Motherhood has not been easy, but I discovered gaping lacunae in my friends’ accounts of having a newborn baby, which seemed to gloss over its wonder. No one had explained to me that I would feel a love so weighty that I often couldn’t hold my son without weeping. No one had mentioned those moments in the middle of the night when, as I was struggling to keep my eyes open, I would hear Jacob let out a little sigh of contentment.

In many ways, living with a mental illness is a good preparation for parenthood. I was already accustomed to my life feeling out of control and the best-laid plans disintegrating on a daily basis. My illness had wreaked this havoc for long enough: it seemed much nicer when my fat, curious little baby was responsible instead. Leaving the house is a struggle when you have a tiny baby, but I was used to isolation, which is so often a result of illnesses that make you depressed and anxious. I found the restrictions imposed by the pandemic less noticeable, too, because I had spent so much time voluntarily alone.

As the summer went on, I learned that it would still be possible to look after my mental health even with a tiny, sometimes cross, always demanding baby. I would just need to be creative. No, I couldn’t go for two-hour runs or disappear for a lazy afternoon swim at the drop of a hat. But it was still easy to calm my mind by getting outdoors.

In the weeks after Jacob’s birth, I would hobble through my local woodland with him in the pram or a sling. The pace at which my recovering body permitted me to move meant I noticed even more about my surroundings: the cleanness of the early summer leaves, the nuthatch zipping up a tree trunk, the bee hovering by the entrance to a foxglove flower. There were many days when the baby slept better when outside in the pram. When awake, he seems calmer when we are outdoors. He doesn’t let me stand still for an hour to photograph a kingfisher, as I used to do in my childless days, but I spend even more time walking and discovering local wildlife than I did before. I now have the added benefit of seeing my baby’s utter delight on encountering a loudly honking goose up a tree, as we did on the Thames Path the other day.

I am running out of fingers on which to count the months of good mental health I have enjoyed. Some of this is down to luck, but it helps that the NHS does a better job of looking after new mothers with psychiatric problems than it does with the general population. When I became seriously depressed mid-pregnancy, I was in a psychiatrist’s consulting room within a fortnight (previously, I had been told to expect a year’s wait) and referred immediately for cognitive behavioural therapy. I am still being regularly monitored by the perinatal psychiatric team, I am still on the highest possible dose of my antidepressant and I can start therapy again at any time.

I expect that at some point my mental state will fall off a cliff again. But if there is one thing I have learned from becoming a mother in lockdown, it is that I will learn a new way of coping with whatever comes along next, no matter how unexpected.


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