I gave birth to my daughter in January of 2016 in the UK. I was 36 at the time. We were living in Cairo, Egypt but had gone to the UK so my daughter can have a British passport, as her father is a British citizen. My mother could not attend the birth as she was refused a visa to the UK. So I was there with my husband and my mother-in-law. My pregnancy had been a relatively easy one. I didn’t have morning sickness, I just slept a lot and cruised through the whole thing without any major issues. Considering that I hated living in Egypt, my third trimester which was mostly spent in the UK- Woking, Surrey- to be exact was the most enjoyable for me. I took long walks in a park nearby, breathed in the clean fresh air that we are deprived of in Egypt and tried not to think of going back. When it came to the delivery, I was induced, even though it wasn’t my due date yet, because we had only a few weeks left before we had to go back to Egypt. We were on a time crunch due to my husband’s work. The delivery was long, and hard, and after almost a whole day of labour, and a few hours of pushing, I underwent an emergency C-section. My doctor said that the baby’s head was not low enough for natural birth and was not turned the right way. Later on, he explained that my womb was not wide enough.
Needless to say, I did not bond immediately with the baby. I was still in shock, I was exhausted, sleep-deprived and disoriented. That feeling would remain for the next few days and intensify through my initial troubles with breastfeeding. I knew something was not right, I couldn’t feel anything towards my baby, at least not the overwhelming love that is so talked about. When the midwife came a couple of weeks later for a home visit she made me fill out the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale survey, and I fit the criteria for postpartum depression but as I was going back to Egypt in 10 days she was certain that there would be treatment for me there. I was less sure. In fact, I remember a day before we had to leave, I had a panic attack. I was in the apartment alone with the baby and I called my mother hyperventilating. I didn’t want to go back.
A few days before that, I was with my mother-in-law and aunt-in-law at the mall and we were in Debenhams Department Store. I was suddenly hit by this weird sensation, so strong I actually had to sit down in the shoes section. I just got this feeling that the world was going to end. That these were the end times. I looked around me, all the people going about their daily lives, and I thought we are all going to die someday, all of this would be gone, and so what’s the point? That feeling would come back to me again and again over the next few months and years. In fact it would be one of the most defining thoughts during my postpartum depression (PPD) period. On top of the inexplicable fear of death and sense of impending doom, I just felt deep sadness most of the time. I was like a zombie, exhausted, sleep-deprived, alone, without any support as my husband barely helped, and I had live-in housekeepers who would disappear on me at a moment’s notice for months at a time. The only thing that made me feel safe was co-sleeping with my daughter and breastfeeding her. However, the feelings of depression and isolation grew as the demands of my child increased, but they were compounded by the fact that my husband didn’t offer any kind of physical, or emotional support. He went about his daily life as if nothing had changed while I barely left the house for weeks. His involvement can be summarized by his constant interrogation as to what I fed her, how many times I changed her etc and his constant nagging and objection to our daughter co-sleeping with me. At four months old, he wanted her to sleep in her own room, which was separated from our room by a flight of stairs. I tried everything to deal with my depression in a natural, non-medicated kind of way. After getting absolutely no help from my gynaecologist, who suggested I either take drugs or cheer up, I decided to try other non-invasive methods. I tried homeopathic remedies which worked for around a week. I tried working from home when my daughter was a few months old, I tried going back home to Dubai a few times a year. But no one really understood what I was going through, not even my mother. In fact, when my daughter was a little over one year old, my aunt started dropping hints that I should get started on baby number 2. When I told her I just couldn’t, she told me smugly that my husband will just go and marry someone else. I got into the habit of telling her and everyone else that I wish he would. What no one could fathom is that I was drowning, I would wake up every day wishing I would die, have a good cry in the shower, go about my day, in a numbed state and then go to bed at night praying that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. My marriage suffered, my husband made it clear to me that he doesn’t want a physical relationship with me because I was co-sleeping. Of course, his excuses and distance from me were symptomatic of deeper marital problems that would come to a head a few years later, leading to the complete disintegration of our marriage.
When my daughter was around 1.5 years old, I decided that if I wanted to be happy, I had to create my own happiness. I had decided that my life cannot revolve around a man, or even a child and that I needed to have something else in my life other than caring for a baby all day long. So I taught myself how to paint. Art opened a whole new world for me. At this time, September 2017, my daughter started going regularly to nursery and I had more time on my hands. Art healed parts of me. I still felt sad, and oppressed by Cairo, and isolated, but I also felt that I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. That no matter how old I was I could still learn new things, and the inability to go on with life anymore was suddenly replaced by an excitement, a quiet, tentative sense of wonder. I couldn’t wait to explore everything that life had to offer. By the time, my daughter was 2 years old, a good friend of mine finally convinced me to go see a therapist and perhaps take anti-depressants, and that mental disease was just like any other disease. Being medically uninsured for mental health issues, I felt a little hesitant to spend all that money on therapy sessions (which was the reason my husband initially dissuaded me from going to see a therapist), but then I decided to just do it.
I opened up to my therapist and told her everything. She then referred me to a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with PPD and prescribed a low dosage of mild anti-depressants (Cipralex). Within the first few days of taking the medication I felt better. I felt the fog in my head start to clear up, I felt like my old self again. At my second session with the psychiatrist I described to him my almost instant change in moods, and wondered aloud if it was a placebo effect. He said it’s not so much a placebo effect or even the chemical reactions caused by the pills, but rather a suggestion of hope, and the promise of an end to the darkness. For what is depression if not darkness? And when you are presented with the hope of that darkness lifting, then just that promise can act like a drug. I was still having marital problems, and still dealing with my daughter primarily on my own, but I felt stronger, I started looking forward to life again, especially because now I completely immersed myself in my new hobby, a hobby that filled me with delight at the sight of paintings I created with my own two hands. I finally understood the freedom and joy that creative people feel. I started taking on more freelance work (I am an environmental consultant by profession), and I started taking care of myself more, wearing more makeup etc.
My daughter is almost 7 years old and we are currently living in Montreal, Canada. My life and motherhood journey is relatively more stable now that I am on the other side of a messy divorce. While babyhood was a picnic in the park compared to the toddler years that were a never ending cycle of sheer, unadulterated frustration and the depletion of one’s patience- a time in my life that was particularly difficult because it coincided with my marriage imploding, being homeless and unemployed and having to sleep on my mother’s living room couch for a year and a half) I often look back with a sense of awe at those dark, early years, the lost years. I marvel at how even though everyone and everything around me failed me: my husband, my family, my community, I managed to pull myself out of the darkness, by myself. I still struggle with low feelings, but they are more a reaction to the circumstances I find myself in, rather than any residual feelings of PPD. I have developed a strong bond with my child but I still ensure that I have a life and a sense of self that is not dominated by the demands of motherhood. As I reflect on my child’s early months and years I often feel a sense of sadness that my feeling of constant overwhelm robbed me of the joy of early babyhood. I miss cradling her in my arms, I miss the breastfeeding. I missed so much. But I still take pride in the fact, that throughout these lost years of PPD, I cared for her to the best of ability (even though my ability was severely diminished as a result of PPD), I made sure that her emotional needs were fulfilled, I gave her my time, my attention, my body and perhaps even for a while, my mental stability. I faked the love until I felt it. I told myself I don’t care how I feel, I will make sure that this child is loved, I will hold her and kiss her and touch her and show her in a million ways that she is loved and wanted. Even if I didn’t feel it at the time. I suppose that is a kind of love. Going through the motions of motherly love and duty gave me a sense of purpose, an anchor, a lifeline.
She has grown into happy child: energetic, intelligent, sociable. In fact, when she was a few months old, a midwife in Cairo commented on how quiet she was, while she was carrying her around, and I mentioned maybe it’s because I co-sleep with her. She responded that yes, it is, as her emotional needs have been fulfilled.
I think what I learnt from this experience, is that PPD is not only a hormonal imbalance, it is also a failure of the imagination on the part of our society that stigmatizes women for not instantly bonding with their babies just because they came out of their bodies, for not loving the thankless, endless drudgery that is motherhood, and ostracizes them for wanting more out of life than mere service to their husbands and children. I learnt that I can hold space for two seemingly conflicting ideas: I can hate the never-ending chores of motherhood, (which can be attributed to society’s unrealistic expectations of mothers), while loving my child unconditionally. I learnt that we need to be better listeners and when a woman, struggling with motherhood says she doesn’t want to have another child, we need to show compassion and withhold the judgment because, more often than not, it is a cry for help. At least, it was in my case. We need to understand that a mother struggling with motherhood needs a community, a support system so she can have time to herself, time alone, time to take a shower, to go out and feel normal. And finally I learnt that motherhood for me works only if I have other things in my life, other ambitions and pursuits and passions, and dreams, that I want more out of life than just being a mother. While I love my child, motherhood doesn’t define me, it is not the be-all and end-all of my existence, and I hope that as my daughter grows up I do a better job of teaching her that she need not let society’s expectations define her. We can only hope and strive to do better for our daughters than what our mothers did for us.
Cover image by Erin Mcphee.