Last week at our Maternal Mental Health Matters event, there was one story shared that stood out as a prime example of how nobody – even the strongest mamas among us – is immune to postpartum anxiety or depression. It was the tale of our friend Chef Christine Flynn‘s journey into motherhood and through postpartum anxiety.
Hers is a story that reminds us to check in on our strong friends – check in on the wonder women. And if you are that strong friend who is hiding your trauma or putting on a brave face for those closest to you, know that you don’t have to. Know that none of this is your fault, nor is it permanent. There are people and resources dedicated to helping you get back to a good place, where your thoughts no longer hold you back, but instead propel you forward.
(Those resources are all outlined in our Maternal Mental Health Matters event recap)
By Christine Flynn
I did not ask to be a mother. I just wasn’t careful and by the time I figured it out I was 8 weeks in. People close to me advised abortion and I agonized over that decision not even knowing there were two. When I saw the ultrasound screen with two blobs instead of one I laughed. Then I cried. Hard.
I lumbered my way through work at our restaurant group until 36 weeks. At 38 weeks I booked my Uber to the hospital and was induced. It seemed anti-climatic. I was hooked up to an IV full of pitocin. My water was broken for me with a tool resembling a size 11 crochet hook while I lay on something called a “splash pad.” The hormones made my contractions fast, and insanely painful.
When the anesthesiologist put the giant epidural needle in my spine he hit a nerve. I lurched in a spasm. He admonished me for moving, his heavy Slavic accent pounding in my ears as I braced myself for him to try again. The nurse held me in a headlock against her body while I tried not to panic as he pushed the fat needle into my lower back again. I felt him fishing around in my spine with the needle. I sobbed. I threw up everywhere.
I delivered in the OR, with a doctor I had just met who wore a plastic guard over his face to protect him from whatever was spraying out of me. Some random playlist was on. I didn’t have a birth plan, but if I did it would not have included music by One Direction. Two babies came out of me, one sideways. Then I pushed again, delivering two placentas and a river of fluid and chunks and pieces of my body. I prayed I hadn’t shit on the table.
No c-section but lots of stitches. When I asked how many they wouldn’t tell me. As if it was none of my business. 6 lbs 9 oz and 6 lbs 2 oz baby girls.
And so I went home with a giant hole in my abdomen where my babies had been. As I felt organs settle back into place I carried on with learning to be a mum. Getting on with it like my betters had done before me – amidst split nipples, feet the size of footballs and constant bleeding, but also through the haze of love I felt for my girls and the wonder of how perfect they were.
At 9 days old my daughter spit up, choked, and her body went into shock. She stopped breathing and turned an icy blue colour. Her tiny, 6 lb body was slack as I bent over her, doing CPR and screaming for her to fight and not to leave me. She came back while my mother called 911. It wasn’t until we were in the ER and I held a tiny oxygen mask over her face that I let out the guttural, terrified sobs I didn’t know were inside me. I had thought she was dead. Or worse, that the lack of oxygen to her brain would change her. I thought I had ruined my baby.
And still, after an overnight in the hospital, I got on with it. She was fine and no one asked about me.
I set up birth certificates, life insurance for myself and their father, RESPs, CCBs, passports. I finished putting the down payment on a rental property. Breastfed and pumped 12 hours a day. Boiled bottles religiously. Wrestled the double stroller, babies, gear and dogs up and down the stairs of the apartment. Endured well-meaning visits from people I didn’t really want to see. Baked cakes. Called into our weekly management meetings at work.
When the landlord asked us to move out the girls were 4 months old it seemed like a good time to consciously uncouple from their father. So I bought a house in Niagara I hadn’t planned on buying. It cost $250k and smelled like a nursing home.
While I waited for the house to close I drove the girls and our dogs to Nova Scotia in a standard Ford Focus hatchback and stayed for a month with my mother. Then I drove back.
I took the house apart with my own hands, ripping up flooring and spending long nights stripping wallpaper while the babies slept. I showered at the Y. When the contractors came in and the kitchen disappeared I cooked with instantpots. Hard boiled eggs, yogurt from expired milk, whatever fruits/vegetables were in the 50% off section.
My CCB cheques were gone before they arrived, as I maxed out 3 lines of credit and a credit card. I got tired of eating beans. I went back to work early, a more determined, efficient and focused version of myself.
At work, we set out actionables for me. I ticked boxes quickly so I could spend Fri-Sun with my girls because I couldn’t afford daycare or make it work with my schedule. I had cobbled together help from a neighbour in addition to the two days their dad came over to spend with them.
Fast forward and things improved. Renos were completed. Running water came back on the top floor. I was able to shower at home. I got handy w/ a caulking gun. The girls gave me daily joy. An au pair, Hannah, came to live with us and set about taking care of the girls (and me) in a meaningful way. I reconfigured my mortgage and wiped my lines of credit back to zero. My place up North was finally done. I met a nice guy who helped me shop vac the basement and took me out to dinner for the first time in 2 plus years. I started picking up freelance work again and my finances stabilized.
And that is when I fucking fell apart. Nothing had prepared me for the anxiety I felt in waves, each and every day. If I had a good day, or got good news, I would have to talk myself into being very calm because otherwise the next day I would be wracked with worry. I stopped listening to the news. I felt like the world was ending. Truly ending. I stared at the sky, thinking always that something apocalyptic was coming.
I would lay awake at night thinking about scenarios where I would have to take the girls and run, what we would need, how I would be prepared. Not running from anything in particular, just from the future, from something “other” in the distance. I worried about the environment. I found garbage triggering (this is so hard when you work in a restaurant!). The sight of plastic wrap made me feel afraid and queasy.
I worried somehow I would be separated from my children. That they would suffer. That I would not be able to protect them from what was coming. I told no one. No one asked. On the worst days as my mind spun and stuttered the place I would end up was simply that if it was coming, whatever it was, I would give in and let it take me because I was too fucking tired to fight it anymore.
Finally during a snowstorm I tried to cancel a meeting with my business partner Alan in Toronto. I was terrified I would not be able to get home to the girls during the storm. I visualized leaving my car and walking to Beamsville – determined to do whatever was necessary go home. When Alan (not knowing the spiralling going on in my brain) was reluctant to cancel, I visibly panicked and was unable to speak. I started gasping and crying and that’s when we both realized I was not okay as I sobbed at his desk and rambled irrationally.
It is so hard to feel so fucking crazy and to tell one of the people you’re closest to. There is shame. There is anxiety. And, of course there is the thing you want the least which is the people you care about to start worrying about you.
But with some help from my friends, family, au pair and work-family, I got help. Most days now are good days. I can wrap up half an onion in plastic wrap and not freak out internally. I can have a good day. And I’m just putting it out there because if you’re going through it, I’m here. We’re here. There are a lot of us, and every story is different. Every story has value. We should hear more of them. We should have more information, more research and our partners and families should be more aware of how to help or what the signs are that we are just barely holding ourselves together.
If you’re struggling and looking for resources to help with postpartum / antepartum anxiety or depression, we recently published this post full of helpful information to ensure you get the help you need. Read: MATERNAL MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS
Want to get to know Chef Christine a tad more? We profiled her in 2018 and you can read it all here: THE MAMA BEHIND THE MENU: A MOMENT WITH IQ FOOD CO’s EXECUTIVE CHEF CHRISTINE FLYNN
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