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What Surviving Postnatal Depression Three Times Taught Me About Self-Care

How guilt-free self-care helped my recovery from PND and my tips for weaving a self-care habit into your busy mum-life.

Self-care has become a bit of a buzz word recently, and a cursory look at the hashtag #selfcare on social media will flood your feed with everything from 5-star spa stays to Champagne brunches to #hotdoglegs on sunloungers on excotic beaches, all things that every new mum would snap your hand off for, but all dishearteningly unattainable when your real-life like looks like, 2 hours broken sleep, left-over bits of fish fingers instead of your own lunch and dreaming about a solo trip just to the loo.
At the beginning of my motherhood journey self-care felt like an indulgent luxury for other people. But, recovery from Post Natal Depression (three times), helped me realise that it’s a selfless act essential for happy family life.

I was first diagnosed with postnatal depression in 2010, my oldest son was about 9 months old and my mum first noticed the symptoms, I was increasingly withdrawn, very tearful, extremely irritable and not leaving the house for days on end.

Recovery from this first episode felt relatively simple at the time; I saw my GP who prescribed antidepressants and pretty soon the symptoms lifted.
I came out of the fog, conveniently, at around the time my maternity leave ended and about 6 or so weeks post diagnosis, I returned to my job that I loved as a part-time PA. I muddled on in-between the recurrent lows and we decided to have a second baby who arrived in 2013.

My husband and I were determined that this time was going to be different though, we knew what we were doing right? I just had do better; be less obsessed with routines, get more sleep, worry less and the PND wouldn’t come back.

Wrong! 6 months in and I realised I was depressed again and went back to the GP, I was prescribed meds and pretty much changed nothing else, again, muddling on through recurrent lows. So in hindsight (that old gem!), it’s no surprise that within a couple of months of returning to work after a year of maternity leave, I had a breakdown. I was signed off work for a month initially and was so fragile that I wasn’t well enough to even contemplate returning to work for the rest of the year.

There’s large swathes of that year I can’t really remember but during my sick leave I did accept the offer of talking therapy.
I was lucky enough that my work provided access to private psychotherapy so I didn’t have a long wait and after a very tentative start, slowly it helped me heal. Over several months of weekly sessions, I worked through lots of things and learnt the tools I needed to help maintain my own well being.

I learnt about mindfulness and meditation and how to fight my inner critic and the magic power of breathwork and I soaked up all the nuggets of wisdom my psychotherapist shared. I learnt being a mum doesn’t mean sacrificing your own needs to the nth degree.
I learnt self-care! And most powerfully I learnt that self-care is not self-indulgent, it not even complicated or inaccessible. On the contrary, it’s the simple acts of self-compassion you can weave into your everyday life that can mean the difference between you feeling worthy of love and care or not. This learning felt revelatory, and like the simple secret I’d been missing all this time.

Armed with this new “secret”, and the fact I’d decided not to return to work after my sick leave, we decided to have another baby, of course! And, arguably predictably, when he was 6 months old I became depressed. This time, the decline was steeper than I had ever experienced before and I reached a crisis point, my GP and Health Visitor quickly referred me for care – but I had the tools and support network already in place from my first breakdown and the steep decline was matched by a steep recovery, much quicker than I had recovered from previous episodes. I really believe that’s because I had the knowledge of mindfulness, and self-care tools to support myself alongside the treatment of medication and talking therapy.

I do wonder if, had I had this knowledge when I was a new mum when I first experienced PND, if my mental health journey would have been very different, would I have gone on to have two more depressive epsiodes and subsequent breakdowns? Perhaps not, although PND is heavily influenced by physiological and hormonal changes that we have very little control over, so, who knows? I am, however, sure that having these powerful self-care tool as part of my everyday life would taken the edge off at the very least.

I often have this image in my head of “2010-me” and wish I could help her, hug her, and impart some of what I now know. But, in the absence of time travel, I’ll share with you; here’s three things I want every mum to know about self-care. 

3 things every mum needs to know about Self-care

  • Its a guilt-free activity!
    The biggest reason we find self-care as mums difficult is the GUILT – the notion that its self-indulgent, that we haven’t got time and that we should be doing something else – we’ve got to let that sh*t go!
    BUT, that’s a process, mum guilt is deeply ingrained in many of us, so sometimes we might need to fake it ’till we make it a bit while we’re forming the self-care habit so, listen and repeat the old cliches – you can’t pour from and empty cup, put your oxygen mask on first and you can’t drive a car with an empty tank – in other words, its OK to look after yourself too mama!
  • Keep it simple
    Once we’ve given ourselves permission to prioritise self care, it’s important to keep it simple.
    To start off, with just focus on getting the absolute basics nailed; I have a super basic list set a daily reminder for – move, eat, drink, sleep. I know if I’m making sure that I’m doing at least a little movement, eating healthily, drinking enough water and try to get enough sleep, then I’m getting the basics of looking after myself right.
    Even this list can look overwheming though, so start with adding just one thing a week to focus on. Simple, little and often is the key.
  • Lastly Breathe!
    Breathwork is so powerful – its my most-used tool and is the most accessible tool we have to soothe and look after ourselves. Just 3 minutes a day of meditative breathing has been proven in studies to be beneficial – even in the most chaotic of parenting days we can hide and find 3 minutes to just focus on our breath (google breathing exercises for detailed instructions but if you breathe in for a count of say 3 or 4 and breathe out for a count of one more you can’t go far wrong).
    And if really pushed for time remember that the act of taking only one deep purposeful breath is enough to start self-soothing.

Whatever stage of motherhood, and whatever your mental well-being is like please know self-care can be simple, it is NEVER selfish and your needs matter too.

If you have found this article triggering or are struggling with your mental health please reach out to your GP or a Health Care Professional.
And if you are in crisis, feeling suicidal or at immediate risk of hurting yourself it is always ok to go A&E for emergency mental health treatment. The Samaritans are available 24hours a day to call on 116 123.

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