An open letter from Natalie, a mother whose post-natal depression journey saw her thrive at Westmead Hospital’s Mother and Baby Unit

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Natalie S contacted The Pulse to share her journey as a client of the Mother and Baby Unit at Westmead Hospital following the birth of her second child. The below letter has been penned by Natalie, who wished to share this as advice for any new mums who are nervous or struggling, and to encourage the use of services like Westmead Hospital’s Mother and Baby Unit for support.

Please note, this letter tackles serious issues and may be triggering for some readers.

If you need support, you can reach the Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD) community health team on 1800 011 511. More information about WSLHD’s mental health services can be viewed here. You can also contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

How do you start to write about the most joyous and traumatic time of your life? How do you explain your journey as a mother so far when many, many parts of it are still a confusing mystery?

I guess I could start in the most typical way as a mother and just talk about my kids. I am the proud mother of two boys, my oldest is three and my youngest is nine months. My oldest is your stereotypical boy who never seems to stop. My youngest is my ‘velcro baby’: he just wants attention and cuddles all day every day. They both bring so much happiness to me, but they are also my biggest trigger.

I wanted children, and my husband wanted children. It was a very natural progression in our journey and one that we never questioned. I think it’s safe to assume that most women who dream of having children imagine their pregnancies as this deep, deep love growing every day for their beautiful unborn child. A strong an intense bond forming between you and your child, the most amazing experience you will ever go through as a woman. I envy the woman who has that pre-natal experience. With both my boys, I felt no emotions, no deep bond, not even a feeling of love towards this growing child. I was protective and happy sure, but the portrayal of the radiant and nurturing mother-to-be was not my reality.

I thought it was fine because I assumed once they were born, I would be overwhelmed with the love at first sight that mothers also talk about. You know the one; where you thought you felt love before you met your kids? That you just look at them and cry with happiness over how much you love them? Yeah, that didn’t happen to me either.

With my oldest, I developed (then undiagnosed) post natal depression pretty much straight away. I had a lot of issues breastfeeding and this really impacted my mental health. I developed a deep resentment towards him, I was withdrawn – I started having panic attacks, I didn’t want to see anyone, I had rage and intense mood swings.

While these are not normal thoughts, I now know that these thoughts in general are normal for parents to be experiencing post-partum. I’m not typically someone who talks about my feelings or shares my experiences. So, it comes as no surprise that I did not seek any help from professionals. I had this intense fear of being judged as a parent and assumed that’s what would happen if I sought help.

From about nine months after I gave birth to my oldest, the intense ups and downs became less frequent and I somehow managed to make it out of the woods for a bit even though I was still constantly triggered by the crying or the defiance. My husband and my close family and friends are the sole reason for this.

Advice: Find people who fill your cup. More importantly, find people who KNOW when your cup needs to be filled.

Fast forward to 2022 and we finally became pregnant again. Looking back, the pregnancy seemed to have set the tone for the post partum explosion that was to come. I was sick every single day from week five onwards. It was hard, I was miserable, I had no motivation (I didn’t even want to decorate for Christmas which for me was a big deal). My labor and delivery were also intense as it was a very quick, un­intentionally unmedicated birth.

The funny thing was, I felt close to this baby. I felt a bond. Maybe it was because I was more confident as a mother, who knows. Unfortunately though, this bond did not last long. At about month four or five, something changed. I don’t know what the catalyst was, but I was no longer bonding with him. I was becoming angry, withdrawn and moody. My symptoms were becoming extremely intense and causing concern for my husband. The poor man was doing everything he could to seek help for me and I was not cooperating – because of course, I was fine.

I couldn’t even describe to you my thoughts, feelings or actions during this time, but to give you an idea, I was convinced that my nine-month-old was not my child. He did not feel like my child, it didn’t seem like he belonged in our family. I didn’t know who he was to me. I felt like I was in a constant daze with no purpose.

My husband had contacted a Community Mental Health team who came out to visit me. I reluctantly sat with them, and they basically recommended I become a patient at the MBU at WSLHD. Again, I reluctantly packed my bags for admission, not knowing that my stay would include nine days in the Emergency Mental Health Unit at Westmead Hospital.

I then had a spot at the MBU. I was apprehensive, anxious and scared. MBU is a place for mothers and their baby to be and feel supported through motherhood with a focus on their mental health. While it took me a while to open up and ease into my new temporary home, I really feel like I thrived. The programs they offer were valuable beyond belief.

The other mothers there were amazing, and it truly felt freeing to be open about my journey and experiences with other who are literally going through the same thing. It’s one thing to vent and chat with other mothers about motherhood, but to be able to open up and receive validation from others who are also going through similar mental health struggles is extremely liberating.

I very quickly started to feel like a mother again, more importantly, HIS mother. Our bond came back, and I think I became a little too affectionate with him – lots of cuddles and kisses. If he was old enough, he would have been giving me the eye roll.

Medication and therapy needed to be a consistent part of my journey. As someone who was fearful of this, it is the only method that I feel truly has worked for me so far. I will always be forever grateful to the MBU team at Westmead Hospital.

So, now I’m home, trying to exist as a mother and wife in a world that still carries the same triggers it did before my breakdown and admission. I’ve had post-natal depression for three years now. Every day is still a struggle, with ups and downs from triggers with my kids, life, my husband. The silver lining is that now I have the tools and confidence to work through these feelings and ‘ride the wave’.

This was the most invaluable piece of learning from my time at MBU: when you are facing big emotions; breathe, communicate, acknowledge the emotion, allow the feeling (ride the wave), validate yourself, find your way back to your window of tolerance.

I still have many days where I cannot seem to remember these steps; things just become too overwhelming, and I will do something like withdraw or snap at my family. I’m learning that this is ok, recovery is not linear or perfect.

We as mothers, both individually and as a community, hold this title with often an unrealistic amount of responsibility. We are often the default parent, the ones who think about and organise each member of the family’s lives. We are perfectionists, we are self-conscious (about us as mothers, our choices, our bodies), we are judged, and we are blamed.

I have to say though, when mothers get together, it is such a kindred experience. From one mother to another, we HAVE to be supportive, understanding, non-judgmental and kind to each other. We need to build mothers up and acknowledge the absolute intensity of it. We are amazing people and we have done amazing things.

I am not a perfect person, mother or wife. I have had some intense and traumatic experiences as a mother. I implore whoever sees this to reach out for help! It does not make you weak, you will not be judged, it does not make you a bad mother. It makes you a strong person, and a brave person.

You are worth the help.

Thank you,

Natalie S