Through my work as a mental health clinician, I have grown to appreciate the idea that just like our physical health, mental health is a spectrum. As we all vary in our levels of physical wellness, we vary in our levels of mental wellness as well. Over the past few years there has been more of a focus on mothers’ mental health through discussions about post-partum depression and other formal diagnoses. However, there’s more to maternal mental health than these various labels. I learned this on a very personal level.
The expectation of your first child comes with a myriad of feelings. At 35 weeks pregnant, my husband and I were filled with anticipation as we only had 5 weeks before we met our little one…or so we thought. After more than 24 hours of induced labour, I ended up having a c-section at 35 weeks gestation after an ultrasound showed that our baby was not growing as he should and was smaller than expected.
Through all the labour and preparation for surgery, nobody informed us of the likelihood that our baby would have to be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). I was in no way prepared for the separation from my baby. After briefly being held after the c-section, my son was whisked away to the NICU. It would be 12 hours before I would have the chance to finally hold him again. Even though I was staying on a different floor in the same hospital, the separation was torture for me. It was even worse once I was discharged and my son was still in the NICU.
As parents we were taught early on of the importance of skin-to-skin contact between and a baby and its parents for the baby to thrive. However, that skin-to-skin contact was vital for me to thrive as well. The idea of going home without my baby was absurd to me. There I was at home, with swollen feet and a fresh scar on my midsection…evidence that I had given birth to a baby, but there was no baby at home with me. Absurd. This was an assault on my mental health. It felt like my baby did not exist. I would sit at home and cry uncontrollably, because all I wanted was my baby. I felt like I was living in an alternate universe. Things were not supposed to be this way. It was like my mind was disconnected from reality; it all seemed so unreal. I envied those who were caring for my baby and also worried about how they were handling him. Ultimately, I was missing out on time with my son. I felt lost. There was only one remedy to relieve this sense of loss and that was to hold my son. Upon holding my son, the tears would stop flowing and my level of anxiety would dissolve. Having his head on my chest was the biggest relief and the best feeling. It assured me that he existed; it assured me that I was actually a mother.
In trauma care, grounding techniques are used to help survivors be in the present moment and not dwell in flashbacks or the negative feelings associated with their traumatic experience. Grounding is done by redirecting one’s attention from the negative to something else. Examples may include snapping an elastic band, holding on to something cold, or squeezing a stress ball. Holding my son was grounding for me, after what felt like a traumatic experience.
Having a premature baby was so unexpected; we were in no way prepared, especially mentally and emotionally. However, after this rough start, there was nothing like feeling my son breathe and his heartbeat against my chest to encourage me to press on in this journey called motherhood. Fast forward ten months later, and my son is a healthy, happy, and very busy boy. I still love to hold him close… when he lets me.
[Article by Joy-Ann Perry, Occupational Therapist, CAMH]