Post-partum Depression and the African mum (pt1)

New mama – beautiful boy

Close to 9 years ago I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Now, I am aware all mothers feel that their babies are beautiful. But mine was BEAUTIFUL. Everyone wanted to carry him. His aunties couldn’t get enough of him, his uncles fawned over him, his grandparents absolutely adored him, even the nurses at the hospital doted on him. His father was besotted with him; he took pictures of everything he did (and I mean everything! I’m sure if I look hard enough I just might find a picture of his first bowel movement!).

Yes. My baby was beautiful. He was a healthy 3.4 kg bundle of pure love and joy.

But I wasn’t happy.

Something’s not quite right here

I remember the first time I looked at my baby. I knew a new mother was supposed to feel overwhelming love and joy and gratitude and all that other good stuff we hear about. I didn’t.

What I felt was fear. Pure and simple. Fear of this tiny little pink person that was supposed to be my baby. Fear that something was wrong with him. Fear that I had caused whatever was possibly wrong with him. Fear that I wasn’t good enough to be his mother.

Everything…every single thing caused me so much fear and anxiety. I remember counting his fingers and toes repeatedly; what I was hoping to discover by doing that I have no idea. He didn’t open his eyes the first day so of course I made up my mind that he was probably blind. And when he finally did open his eyes, they took a while to focus so I pretty much freaked out!

Being a medical doctor didn’t help the situation. I asked for every single consult I could get; before he was 4 days old, my son had seen the neonatal paediatrician every day, the ophthalmologist, the ENT specialist (yeah, I somehow also believed my new-born couldn’t hear), and he had been tested for Neonatal jaundice at least 4 times (now, I am not fully to blame there….the boy was sooooo light-skinned I was convinced he might have a little jaundice).

I know, I sound like a freaking nightmare right now. And I was.

I got much worse when my son got a minor cord infection just as we were about to be discharged from the hospital. I yelled so much at the poor paediatric nurse, she burst into tears. At this point, I wasn’t sleeping AT ALL because I would watch my son sleep and count his respiratory movements.

When we finally took our baby home, I thought things would get better but they didn’t. He got very colicky and would cry all the time. When he wasn’t crying he was feeding and since I was determined to exclusively breastfeed, I became a walking zombie. My mum and my hubby tried to help but nothing could calm me down. I wasn’t eating or sleeping and I cried at least 4 times every single day.

My poor paediatrician must have been sorely tempted to block my number because I called him about everything.

I had family around me. Lots of family. And they tried to help whenever they could. My mum was an angel. She cooked, cleaned and took care of the baby when I was too exhausted to protest. She agonized that I became skinnier after I had my baby than before I got pregnant. No jokes; I was 58 kilos at the peak of my pregnancy. 2 weeks after I was 47 kg! I still look at pictures I took then and marvel at how thin I was then.

In that time, my son grew. In spite of my depriving myself he ate voraciously and doubled his birthweight in no time. He got even more beautiful with enough hair for 3 babies and the most adorable smile. He outgrew the colicky phase and became a really happy playful baby.

Slowly losing it

In spite of all this, I wasn’t happy. I felt distant from my child and really couldn’t connect with him. Oh yeah, I told myself I really loved him and I tried to be the best mother I could and yet…something just wasn’t there. I felt inadequate. And every time something went wrong, if he had the slightest fever or got a little soap in his eye during a bath, I felt like the worst mother in the world. When he would cry inconsolably for one reason or another and I gave him over to someone else, if he stopped crying, I would get so sad. I felt he somehow knew that I was a bad mother and preferred everyone else to me.

I tried so hard to find that thing that was missing and for the life of me, I couldn’t. I didn’t feel I could tell anyone because I was so ashamed. What kind of mother doesn’t love her baby? What kind of mother doesn’t feel love towards her first child? What kind of monster was I? Because truly, I felt I must be a monster. The worst kind of monster! In a world full of childless couples, it would take a person with a heart full of the worst evil to not treasure the greatest gift. Yes. I believed I was evil.

Africanfinestmums - post-partum depression is real

My Mum tried to reassure me that it was because I was stressing myself too much and just not getting enough food or sleep. Her resolve was to feed me more ( like a true African Mum) and recently she even admitted to putting half a Valium in my milk. Lol. Bless her.

But then, she had to leave. She had planned to stay for 2 months and ended up staying an extra 2 weeks. After all, she had to get back to her job and my dad.

I tried to pretend I was okay as her departure approached. But on the day she left, I broke down.

You see, she had woken up extra early to give her precious grandson a bath, fed him a bottle of pre-pumped milk and put him to sleep. Then hubby had driven her to the airport to catch an early morning flight.

And the tears came down

Well, my baby slept peacefully. Till about an hour later when he woke up howling. I fed him, burped and changed him, rocked him, sang to him, even took a walk with him. And yet, he still would not stop crying. He cried for close to 2 hours! I didn’t know what to do. It was as if he knew that his real mum, my mum, had gone and he was screaming for her to come and take him away from this monster mummy he didn’t want. Finally, I couldn’t take it. I put him in his rocker, ran into the bathroom and locked myself in. And then I cried.

Africanfinestmums - the pain and stress of post-partum depression

I didn’t know who was crying louder; him or I. Looking back, this was probably the lowest point of my life, bar none. Nothing prepared me for that. I had been so excited to have my baby and I had imagined how amazing it would feel to be a new mum. Stressful, yes, but amazing. I loved babies! Absolutely loved them. The first time I made 300 naira was for babysitting my neighbour’s kids when I was 12 years old.

And yet here I was, hiding in the toilet unable to get my own beautiful baby boy to stop crying.

Now I know I had post-partum depression (PPD). I have read enough literature and talked to mental health specialists to recognise what I was going through. But back then, despite my medical background, it just didn’t dawn on me.

PPD? No African women don’t get PPD

The truth is African women aren’t supposed to have PPD. Heck, we’re supposed to be sturdy baby making machines who just pop them out year in year out without as much as a whimper, clean ourselves up and get back to the farm to harvest cassava before nightfall.

Fancy terms like Post-partum depression are supposedly myths created by western women who are too lazy and too entitled to walk down to the stream to do a heap of laundry with triplets strapped to their backs!

Forgive my exaggerations but you get my point; African women are supposed to be super women and super women are seen but not heard, get married at the right age, get pregnant with the greatest of ease and give birth without much ado. Then they quickly take on the role of mother without missing a beat, doing every thing they are meant to do while raising well bred kids, keeping their men happily and satisfactorily sexed AND running the home like a well oiled machine.

Certain things do not exist in our lexicon; being single after 30, having issues getting pregnant, Caesarean sections(remind me to write on that another day) and definitely not Post Partum Depression! What is that? What do you have to be depressed about?! What kind of woman are you, having the baby blues? You’d better stop that before we revoke your African Woman Membership!

Africanfinestmums - every woman, Wonder woman

But I was depressed. And I didn’t know. Or perhaps I knew but the part of me that is steeped in tradition and what is expected of me refused to accept it.

Baby blues vs PPD

Post-partum depression is real. Its not a myth. It doesn’t mean that you are weak, or spoilt or evil.

Anywhere from 40 to 80 percent of new mothers experience the baby blues – an emotional state of tearfulness, unhappiness, worry, self-doubt, and fatigue. The baby blues typically begins a few days after delivery and goes away on its own within a week or two.

However, Post Partum Depression is a more serious condition lasting over 2 weeks post delivery. Symptoms could include:

  • Extreme sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • Crying all the time
  • Loss of interest or lack of enjoyment in your usual activities and hobbies
  • Trouble falling sleep at night, or trouble staying awake during the day
  • Loss of appetite or eating too much, or unintentional weight loss or weight gain
  • Overwhelming feelings of worthlessness or overpowering guilt
  • Restlessness or sluggishness
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • Feeling that life isn’t worth living

Other possible signs you might be depressed include:

  • Being irritable or angry
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Worrying excessively about your baby
  • Being uninterested in your baby, or unable to care for him/her
  • Feeling so exhausted that you’re unable to get out of bed for hours

In rare cases, some women with PPD experience delusional thoughts or hallucinations and may harm their baby.

PPD results from a combination of hormonal, environmental, emotional, and genetic factors that are beyond your control. Some women might feel somehow responsible for having PPD, but depression doesn’t happen because of something you did or didn’t do.

A beautiful mum - Africanfinestmums

I don’t remember how long I stayed in that bathroom; it might have been 5 minutes or 50 minutes. I do know I eventually came out. My son was still crying but when I took him into my arms he calmed down a little. So I took him to the guest room where my mum had slept while she stayed with us and we both lay down, me on the bed and him on my tummy. I guess we were both cried out because we fell right asleep and slept for 4 hours. After that, every time I wanted to get him to sleep, I put him down on that bed; I figured my mum’s smell on the sheets helped soothe and calm him down. You can bet I didn’t wash the sheets for weeks!

(Read the Concluding part Post-partum Depression- The African mum pt2 )

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