Over the last six months, I’ve read three stories about new mums taking their lives mere months after having their babies. In June 2016, US Army wife Allison Goldstein dropped her 4-month-old baby girl at daycare, drove to a deserted area and committed suicide. On 25 October 2016 Canadian mum Florence Leung abandoned her then barely 2-month-old baby and disappeared. Her body was eventually found off the coast of Vancouver.
In November 2016, a 29-year-old Singaporean mum and her newborn fell to their deaths from the 12th-story of her Bukit Panjang flat. All three stories resonated with me not only because I am a mum myself, but more importantly, because I see myself in each of these women.
Almost three years ago, my husband Kevin and I welcomed our baby boy, Nick, in June 2014. He was our rainbow baby, since I had miscarried earlier at six weeks. We conceived Nick four months after the tragedy and spent the entire pregnancy planning and waiting eagerly for his arrival. Oh, the number of pregnancy and child-rearing books we read and antenatal classes we attended. I thought I was more than ready to take on motherhood.
Pregnancy had its ups and downs ― I enjoyed most of it, but there were times when it took its toll on my health. At seven months, I had to go on bedrest because I was suffering from symphysis pubis dysfunction, which affected my pelvic area.
I was induced at 40 weeks and Nick was born without any hiccups. When we were discharged a day later and placed my little boy in his brand-new car seat for his first ride home, I was on an indescribable high ― I couldn’t wait for the rest of our lives to begin.
All the books recommended breastfeeding for at least the first year, as it was “the best source of nutrition” for my baby, so I was determined to do just that. I tried every possible breastfeeding position to get him to latch well and put him on my breast every opportunity I got.
As a new mum who had postnatal hormones coursing through her veins…the last thing I needed to hear was that I wasn’t doing the one task I was given as a mother.
However, Nick cried a lot, even after a feed. He never seemed to settle but I wasn’t sure what was going on. When we took him for his one week check-up, we found out that he was losing weight. My paediatrician advised me to supplement with formula until my milk came in fully. But the lactation consultant who came over to help me correct Nick’s latch told me not to supplement because just one drop and my breastfeeding journey would be doomed.
Everywhere I turned, people and magazine and newspaper articles kept reiterating the “breast is best” mantra. That I should stick to it, because that’s my only responsibility to my baby at that point. My body was meant to nourish him and give him “the best start in life”. If I didn’t, he will not grow up smart, he would have several health issues throughout his life and worst of all, we would never have a strong mother-child bond.
As a new mum who had postnatal hormones coursing through her veins, recovering from a vaginal childbirth and whose entire system had gone into shock from severe lack of sleep ― the last thing I needed to hear was that I wasn’t doing the one task I was given as a mother.
Having read the same breastfeeding materials as me, Kevin was also determined that I breastfeed our son ― at all cost. We bought a top-notch breast pump, which set us back almost a thousand dollars, consulted two other lactation consultants and used different breastfeeding aids.
What was the outcome of Rebecca’s breastfeeding journey? Read on…
Nothing seemed to work, Nick kept losing weight and cried all the time. We had to rush him to the emergency room on three separate occasions. Every time the paed saw him, he would say the same thing, “Your baby is hungry, feed him formula.”
Was that an accusatory look the paed threw my way when he said that because he thought I was intentionally starving my child? I couldn’t tell if I was being overly-sensitive, but I also couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that I wasn’t able to feed my child. I was a failure. All the books and breastfeeding materials said only the strongest and most caring mums would persevere and succeed at breastfeeding ― I wasn’t one of them apparently.
I cried all the time and wasn’t able to sleep. We started Nick fully on formula at around three months. My son was noticeably more settled and finally gaining weight, but I was consumed with guilt.
At that point, Nick also developed reflux and was throwing up all the time and crying helplessly because he was feeling uncomfortable. Some days, nothing I did calmed him and he always wanted to be carried. We had to prop him upright to feed him and keep him in that position for at least 30 minutes after every feed, so that the acid in his tummy didn’t push the milk back up and cause him to throw up. It was exhausting.
I spent hours in the wee hours of the morning after putting Nick down after a feed just staring out of the window wishing I could run away from all of this or end my life. But then, wouldn’t that just be another way I was bailing out on my child?
I waited and waited for the fog to lift, but it never did. I felt like I had fallen into a deep, dark hole and couldn’t find my way out however much I tried.
I also had trouble responding to Nick when he cried. I couldn’t bring myself to carry him sometimes. Thank God for my husband whose understanding boss allowed him to work from home and family members who came around regularly to help me out with Nick.
I kept entertaining self-destructive thoughts, like ‘What if I wasn’t cut out for motherhood?’ or ‘If I had failed my baby so early in his life, would I keep doing the same?’. All these nagging questions kept floating in my head day and night. It caused me to act oddly and have severe mood swings.
However, I put up a happy front on the outside, so that nobody would notice. After all, every other mum seemed to have gotten her sh*t together, why can’t I do the same? One person noticed though ― my husband. He suggested on several occasions that I speak with a professional therapist, but I kept reassuring him my odd behaviour was due to the baby blues and it will get better soon.
I waited and waited for the fog to lift, but it never did. I felt like I had fallen into a deep, dark hole and couldn’t find my way out however much I tried. I felt trapped and couldn’t breathe.
I started to regularly reminisce about the post-baby Rebecca, who was always the life of the party and enjoyed joking around and making people laugh. I missed her. I felt sad that my son would never know that side of me. On one such occasion, a thought suddenly popped up in my head, ‘Why should Nick not meet the real you? You are an incredible person Rebecca, you owe it to your son to resuscitate that person. That’s the best thing you can do for him.’
Click to find out what Rebecca did next …
I finally agreed to see a therapist, who diagnosed me with a mild form of postpartum depression (PPD), also known as situational depression. She said it was due mostly to the high and lows of the situations I had to face in the past year. The miscarriage, then conceiving Nick quickly after that, followed by a less-than-perfect pregnancy and then the natural high of giving birth. In between, I had also lost my beloved dog of 14 years, who died of old age. Everything came to a head when I hit rock bottom ― I thought I had failed my son because my body had failed me because I couldn’t breastfeed.
When I heard that mine was a mild form of PPD, all I could think was, ‘You mean this could be even worse?’ I couldn’t even imagine what women with full-blown PPD had to face every day. This was intense enough.
That was the day I decided to turn things around ― because I owed it to my son, whom I had wanted more than anything in this world. I also decided there were so many other ways for me to give my child my best.
I had to work on coming to terms with my guilt, which is what I did with my therapist. After going back to work for several months after the end of my maternity leave, I left my job to stay home with Nick. In my book, it was something I could do for him that was within my control.
As my husband is European, we moved there for a year when Nick turned 1 and spent that time exploring the continent. The change in scenery also helped me reclaim my mental health.
I did Skype sessions with my therapist whenever it was needed and my husband was always ready to shoulder my emotional burden on the days when I just couldn’t get it together. He stayed by my side the entire time and never once judged me. He was my rock ― honestly, I couldn’t have gotten through this without him.
I did Skype sessions with therapist whenever I needed, my husband was always ready to shoulder my emotional burden on the days when I just couldn’t get it together.
After a while, the old Rebecca started emerging. I started laughing more ― from the heart — not just for the sake of it, like I used to. Slowly, I felt like I was being released from my emotional shackles and it was a truly liberating feeling. It was then that I was able to emotionally open myself up to my child and we bonded like never before.
PPD is a sensitive topic, so I speak about it only to a chosen few. But my PPD radar is stronger than ever now. Whenever I meet a mum whom I think might be going down that road, I try my best to reach out to her and tell her my story, so that she knows she’s not alone in this.
My bout with PPD feels like a lifetime ago. I no longer remember that old sad Rebecca. Although it was a traumatic experience, I’m glad postpartum depression happened to me because it taught me the greatest lesson of all ― there is no one way to be great mum, but several ways to be a good one. Another key takeaway ― every mum is fighting her own battles, no one is perfect and we can only give our children our best, according to our own abilities. So, instead of judging a mum for her choices, we should always strive to uplift them.
Nick will be turning 3 in a few months ― he’s the perfect mix of my hubby and I. He is happy, super-healthy, well-travelled and speaks four languages ― so, he’s quite brilliant in mummy’s eyes! I’m so glad he got to meet me, his real mother because as it turns out, he’s as goofy and fun-loving as she is.
He loves daddy, but it’s mummy that he wants from the minute he wakes up till goes to bed at night. He is constantly hugging and kissing me and telling me I look “wow” in a new dress.
I’m equally smitten with him, if not more. He’s all I think about, now that I’m back at work. He’s the reason I pack up and rush out of the office on time every day. Every evening when I pick him up from my parents’ place, he runs into my arms and gives me a big, fat sloppy kiss. I’m so grateful I had a strong support system to fight my PPD experience because, look at everything I would have missed out on if I hadn’t.
Rebecca Lim, 35, is married to Kevin, 38, and mum to Nick, 2.
Postpartum mental help
Marriage and family therapist Anoushka Beh has tips on how to manage postpartum depression.
Reach out to anyone in the community who can be a source of support, even if you tend to feel more inclined to withdraw. Lean on your partner, a close girl friend or a therapist to discuss what you’re feeling ― this is the key to healing.
It’s okay to ask for help and delegate tasks. Get family or hire a part-time helper to look after some of the day-to-day needs around the house. This can lighten the load and also create a more supportive environment at home.
Arm yourself with information If you suspect you may have postpartum depression, or have been diagnosed by a professional, research more about it online and read other women's stories about their experiences. There are many online women’s support groups available as well, which may be another useful resource for support.
Get out and do something for you Lunch with a friend, get a massage or just go for a leisurely walk. It can help lift the spirits and create some much needed head space to relieve stress and help you rebalance.
Make sure you’re eating well As well as enriching your body with foods rich in supportive nutrients like omega 3 and B vitamins. Also, reinforce your diet with supplements that support good brain health.
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