I placed my hands on my tummy, and John’s* arms came from behind to wrap themselves around my growing bump. I was feeling sure that I was going to be one of those women who would have it all. I was 34, and ready to embark on the next stage of my life. How could anything possibly go wrong?
‘I was going to be just like Mum’
Mine turned out to be a difficult pregnancy, and neither John nor I were prepared for such a horrendous experience. I ran to the toilet often, and collapsed supine every minute in between.
As it turned out, my condition was serious and the gynae gave me three months off work, but the school I taught at was not at all supportive. The principal, upon hearing my request to extend my leave without pay, said that if she could juggle work, pregnancy and family, so should I.
It was at this time that my mother discovered she had breast cancer and was put on seemingly endless rounds of chemotherapy. I couldn’t accompany her to any of her doctor’s appointments, and any emotional strength I had left was used to bolster the courageous facade I wore for everyone’s sake. Inside, I was wondering why I couldn’t be like my mum and dad. They taught us to never rely on others, gave each of us a decent education and made sure we were never wanting. So why was I having trouble coping?
‘That feeling of desperation was suffocating’
Grace* was born clingy and colicky, crying for long periods and refusing to be let out of my arms. With no one to help me, I had to take her with me everywhere and eventually insisted on no-pay leave. The school slapped me with a disciplinary letter for not fulfilling my duties, which gave my self-confidence a further bashing. I never doubted my work ability before, but that setback made me question my worth.
By this time, John had stopped touching me altogether. He wouldn’t say why and I didn’t ask, since I’d been feeling unattractive for months. He had set a cot up in the adjacent room because he didn’t want to be disturbed by Grace’s midnight feeds and cries. My heart bled every time he treated our daughter like a nuisance. Soon, we stopped talking because it always ended in a quarrel. When I hinted that I felt like a single parent in an uphill war, he brushed me off like an insecure and attention-seeking twit.
‘I felt like I was drowning’
I started wondering, how nice if all of this ended? In my listless state, I began to lose control over my thoughts and my time. One night, I reached for her packet of vitamins, crushed a few before putting them in her bottle and gave it an absent-minded shake. Just before I put the teat to her mouth, my eyes sharpened in focus for no reason, and I saw the Panadol pack ripped apart on the table counter.
I nearly killed Grace. For two hours, I sat in a daze. Then I found my cell phone and called the only close friend I had left and broke down.
‘Not too proud to seek help’
It’s been 10 years since I was diagnosed with depression, brought on by my pregnancy and emotional stress. Mum has pulled through her battle with cancer and I now work at a new school. My new colleagues are wonderful. Whenever Grace needed to visit the hospital, they would never imply that my work suffered due to my absence. Instead, they rallied around me and restored what John took away from my self-esteem.
When I was at the Institute of Mental Health, he refused to pick me up after my visits. Instead, my parents had to pick me up from the hospital and I allowed it without protest. It took me a long time to realise that I couldn’t be a beacon for everyone; sometimes, I need help. Grace was a priority, but so was I – if I treated myself better, I could treat her better. And there are some things, such as John’s behaviour, that are beyond my control.
Recently, he surprised me when he remembered our 10th anniversary. He even got me a ring, which, to his amusement, I refuse to remove from my finger, even when in the shower. Perhaps, like me, he is realising that we need others as much as they need us.
Watch for the symptoms
Dr Helen Chen, a psychiatrist at KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), says women are more likely to experience emotional difficulties during pregnancy and the early postnatal months.
At any time in her life, a woman has a one in five chance of suffering from depression. To maintain mental and emotional balance, Dr Chen advises women to write down their priorities to get a better perspective, learn to be assertive and speak out, and not internalize their frustrations. She says: “It’s important to know your limits. You are human and can never be perfect or please everyone.”
If you need a helping hand, contact:
• Mental Wellness Service at KKH (tel: 6294-4050)
• The Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Support and Education Group (tel: 6394-3739), which offers tips on coping and lets mothers share their experiences.