The birth of a child is a time that brings joy, happiness and life to the parents and the extended family at large. It is a time where a mother is expected to be elated and taking charge of the responsibility to care for the child by all means. These are your expectations before you become a mother from all that you’ve been taught growing up and from what you have observed through your life as well. Motherhood appears to be wonderful and the bond between mother and child is admirable. Unfortunately, no one tells you the tough side of this life-changing event. No one tells you that you will be completely consumed with the baby that you will hardly have time to take a shower. No one tells you that a baby does not come with a manual and you will have to figure it all out by yourself. No one tells you that you constantly have to feed, change, burp the baby and try and put the baby to sleep all day long. No one tells you how hard the sleepless nights are. No one tells you that maternity leave is not a holiday where you will have this huge amount of time to bond lovingly with your baby.
When I heard I was expecting, I was ecstatic and immediately started to buy baby essentials and every book on babies I could get my hands on so that I am fully and well prepared for when the baby arrives. I had a lovely pregnancy with support from my husband and our families and friends all looking forward for the arrival of this bundle of joy. My baby was born full-term and completely healthy. My mother came up to Johannesburg from Cape Town to help me out with the baby for a few months as I adjust to motherhood. I also hired a helper to help with the baby and house chores as well. I had a good support system but little did I know that even with all that support my life would come crumbling down a few months down the line with what most people think is a myth, postnatal depression.
I had read up on postnatal depression, I never thought that I would suffer from it though. Throughout the months up to when my baby was about 5 months old, I was feeling extremely tired and my body was sore from the sleepless nights and night feedings. I constantly felt overwhelmed and this feeling got worse and worse. Whenever my mother asked me to get a nappy or make the bottle, I felt like screaming and crying because even the smallest of tasks felt big and too much to handle.
I started getting these negative thoughts in my head. I first started thinking that if the baby was not around my life would be normal as I know it and I wouldn’t be suffering emotionally or physically. I wished that she could just disappear. I wished that she could die! Then my thoughts shifted and I thought the baby is innocent and that it would be better to kill myself instead. All that my mind was telling me was that if I died then I would feel no pain. I would be in peace and I would not be faced with changing diapers, making bottles, sleepless nights, a crying and colic baby. It would all just come to an end and I would be at peace. I realized that my feelings couldn’t be normal.
It is true that knowledge is power. Since I had read upon postnatal depression I started to try and make sense of what was happening to me in my head. I had read that there are ‘baby blues’, which usually end quickly within the early weeks of the baby’s birth and then there’s postnatal depression which is a prolonged and extreme form of the ‘baby blues’ where one feels overwhelmed, has negative thoughts about the baby and/or about themselves, constantly think about death, always feeling agitated e.t.c. I then made a self-diagnosis and I told myself that I needed to get help or something bad was going to happen.
When I made this realization, I immediately took myself to the doctor and I told her everything. I told her exactly how I was feeling, the thoughts that were going in my head and that I thought I was suffering from postnatal depression. She confirmed the diagnosis and suggested that I be admitted to a mental hospital. At first I said no. I mean I thought me at a mental hospital no ways I am sure I can recover at home by myself as long as she prescribes ant-depressants for me I will be fine. She told me though that anti-depressants can take 3-6 weeks to start working. But she respected my decision not to get admitted and prescribed the anti-depressants. She suggested that I speak to a counselor and she actually called the counselor to let her know to expect a call from me. I called the counselor and we made an appointment for the day after next.
That very same night I started taking the anti-depressants I woke up in the middle of the night with the most excruciating heartache. It was the most extreme emotional pain I had ever felt, more painful than when my dad and eldest brother passed away, my heart was literally sore I wanted to reach deep down into my chest and take it out and throw it on the floor! In the few days up to then, I would wake up and tell my mother that I was taking a walk as part of exercising little did she know that I was taking the walks as part of wanting to escape from the house, from the baby, from my life. So I took another walk the next morning after seeing the doctor and I called my doctor and explained the excruciating emotional pain I had felt in the early hours of that morning and she said I definitely needed to get admitted as that feeling I had experienced was an anxiety attack. Thus I gave her the go ahead to book me in a psychiatric hospital. I called the counselor and told her I need to see her that same day and not the next day as was planned. I told her I didn’t think I would make it to the next day; I needed to see her as soon as possible. She re-arranged her schedule and took out time after hours to see me. That day a minute felt like an hour. I didn’t know how to get through the day. I didn’t understand why people wanted to live, why people wanted to breathe. I felt I had nothing more to offer my baby or my husband.
I also reached out to a good friend of mine. I walked to one of the parks in our area and I called my friend, crying hysterically on the phone. I explained to her that I didn’t know what was happening to me, that I didn’t understand why I was feeling the way I was feeling. She said she understood what I was going through as she had had a bit of postnatal depression when she had her first child and that she had been told it was a chemical imbalance in the body causing it. She suggested that I call my husband to be with me while I waited to see the counselor and while they were still trying to find me a bed in a psychiatric hospital since my friend was far away in Cape Town and couldn’t be next to me immediately.
I called my husband told him I was not alright and that he needed to come home. I had briefly explained to him a few days back that I thought something was wrong with me and that I thought I was depressed. I told him what the doctor had said and he also agreed with me that I not be admitted. He came home immediately and I told him that we needed to sit outside so I can talk to him since I hadn’t told my mother what was happening to me. I hadn’t told her because I didn’t want her to be worried and hurt. I am the breadwinner in my family and the thought that my mother would be crushed if she found out that I even remotely had thoughts of killing myself was just unimaginable. I felt she had lived a tough life and I just couldn’t bring her anymore pain so I chose not to tell her.
As I was sitting outside with my husband and I was just anxious. I caught a glimpse of the baby inside as the nanny had just returned from taking her for a walk. When I saw my baby I literally started shaking and couldn’t face that direction again. I avoided her for the rest of that day. In the afternoon my husband took me to the counselor. I was just crying uncontrollably in the car and telling my husband I didn’t know why this was happening to me but he tried to re-assure me that it will pass. I went in to see the counselor and I just broke down as soon as I started to explain what was happening to me. I was very open about all the feelings and thoughts I had. She also said it was a definite case of postnatal depression and that it is actually quite common but she kept on re-iterating that I would be fine and that I just need to be treated medically as this was caused by a chemical imbalance in my body. Of course I didn’t believe a word that she said, I didn’t see how I could be helped and how I would come out of that darkness. I saw no light at the end of the tunnel at all.
I hardly slept that night but all I could think about was that I need to be admitted in order to get helped. I was finally admitted the next day. My husband took me to the hospital. We got there and I still couldn’t believe that I was being admitted into a mental hospital. A friend of mine called me and I just broke down as I was speaking to her and telling her where I was. She came to see me the next day. A number of friends came to see me over the next few days and my husband came to see me every night after work without fail. They were shocked and worried and this was all knew to them as well. I stayed at the hospital for 2 and a half weeks. I was treated with medication and was seeing a psychologist every day. The first few days were hard. I sometimes couldn’t sleep as my mind was just restless and I was still getting anxiety attacks. I stayed in my room the whole of the first week. I ate all my meals in the room. I was sharing a room with two other lovely ladies. I couldn’t believe that they were at a mental hospital as well because if you passed them on the street you wouldn’t think that they are having any kind of mental problems. One of them opened up to me to try and assure me that depression is curable. She told me that she also had depression and had also thought about dying. She said she was feeling better though by that time as she had been there a week before me.
I noticed that I started feeling better when the excruciating emotional pain in my heart went away. It just disappeared and I didn’t get any night anxiety attacks after that. The second week the nurses encouraged me to go eat at the dining hall so that I could get out of my room and go meet other people. I went and was really amazed at the people surrounding me. They all looked “normal” to me so that changed my opinion of mental hospitals.
The psychologist I was seeing was a very nice lady. She gave me the space to talk and pour my heart out to her. She assured me that I would get better and that she had dealt with similar cases before thus she knows for sure that I can be treated and that I can fully recover. That put me at ease just knowing that I could be helped and that I would be able to see the light again. The psychiatrist (medical treatment) treating me encouraged me to start attending the various classes they were offering at the institution. There were various classes every day ranging from meditation to making leather bracelets. I started attending and it was a great way to help you get through the day and keep your mind occupied. It was also great in the sense that you were surrounded by other people that were also going through some kind of mental hardship so you knew that you were not alone. My psychiatrist also encouraged me to see my baby. She said I must ask my husband to bring the baby while I’m at the hospital and then I must report back to her how that experience was. My husband and my nanny brought the baby with on a Saturday to see me. I was happy to see my baby. I didn’t get anxious at all but I could feel I wasn’t fully recovered. I was trying to internally suppress any anxious or negative feelings or thoughts. She was still practicing to sit at that time and I was saddened because I felt I was missing out because I couldn’t get myself to the “happy mommy” phase.
At the end of the 2 and a half weeks I felt better but I was skeptical about going home. I was thinking what if I relapse when I see the baby again. At the same time I did want to go home but I was worried how I would react when I got there. I decided I had to be brave and go home. I went home and I cried when I saw my baby and my mother calmed me down. I was crying because I couldn’t believe that I was still alive and I cried because she was just this innocent angel who didn’t know anything but who had a mother that possibly could have taken her own life.
I only experienced one or two cases where I just started feeling anxious after coming back from the hospital. I was told that I need to be on anti-depressants for 2 and a half years because the mind takes very long to recover from such an illness.
I now live a much happier life. I feel fully recovered and in control. I love my baby so much and I can’t believe that I ever had thoughts of taking her out of my life. I can confidently say I have reached the “happy mommy” phase. I have a loving and supportive husband that I know I have so much to offer to and to our baby. My mother is still around supporting me and my family. I eventually told her about my postnatal depression and to my surprise she knew about it (you don’t expect Black parents to know or understand such things) and said she had sensed that I was not myself at some point. She re-assured me that she will support me through it until I’m fully recovered. I love my family with an unconditional love. I look back and I realize that I had an illness that I thought couldn’t be cured but here I am still living and going strong today. I want nothing more than to live a long life with my family. I take my medication daily but I know its all for the greater good and that it’s something I need to go through which will pass and be in my past one day.
My biggest lessons from this experience are that firstly depression is not a “white people’s disease”. It does not discriminate by race, culture or religion. Anyone can get it because it is an illness just like catching the flu, which can happen to anyone. But also like the flu, it can be treated. I have also learnt that you can fall into the darkest pit of your life but having the will to live and having faith that things will eventually get better and that life is a beautiful gift. I hope my story can educate, motivate and save the lives of other women and children.
– Noluthando Mojalefa is a young mother and wife from Khayelitsha in Cape Town. She is the daughter of a two loving parents, her late father was a taxi driver and her mother, now retired, was a domestic worker. Noluthando holds a Bcom Economics from UCT, Honours in Economics – Trade and Development from University of Johannesburg and an MBA from the University of Stellenbosch. She is currently a strategy support consultant at a Financial Institution in Johannesburg.