Moments Of Truth

Family photos lead Tobi Raj to reflect on her experience of postnatal depression.

Which came first – the crying, unhappy baby or the crying, unhappy mum? I still don’t know.

My mother claims my depression set in while I was pregnant. We were having a beach holiday, and there’s a photo of me curled up on the sand, fast asleep with my sunhat pulled low over my eyes, and my enormous belly hanging over my jeans. The photo fills me with such joy that I don’t believe it was depression that laid me low during that holiday; just the exhaustion of late pregnancy.

It was such a bleak and lonely time.

There is another photo taken when my son was six weeks old – he’s in the baby sling peering up at me, and I am smiling wanly down at him. It looks as though we are locked in a bonding moment, and we probably were, but if you look closer you can see that my eyes are red and puffy from crying, my hair is in a greasy ponytail, and my skin is a spotty mess. It might easily have been a week since I’d showered – he only slept in 20-minute snatches – and I never seemed to get organised quickly enough. The first inkling that I might have a problem occurred to me around this time.

Once my son had fed, and before he got tired and cranky, there was this lovely period when he would be a delightful, smiling, cooing little baby. The problem was that during this happy ‘awake’ time, I would usually be crying. We would sit there, him in his bouncer, me sobbing, pleading and begging him to be a better baby; to not cry so much, sleep longer, feed better.  Eventually, it occurred to me that maybe the problem wasn’t all him.

It was such a bleak and lonely time. Thankfully, I had great family support, although they lived too far away to drop by to help during the 5pm witching hour, but close enough to visit on weekends, when I’d tearfully hand over the baby for a while and rest. As well as family support, I had the help of a handful of healthcare professionals – Maureen, the community nurse; Marilyn, the lactation consultant; and Marie, the nurse at the residential family-care unit – the Divine Miss Ms.

I’m grateful for all these photos

Grandmotherly Maureen referred me to Marilyn, who presented ideas and solutions, which even if they weren’t successful, were something to focus on and work towards. Marilyn referred me to Marie, who gently guided me through my 10-day ‘sleep school’ stay. That stay was in many ways invaluable, even though we technically failed – my baby never learned to sleep past the 20-minute mark, and I never quite learned how to make him. But the experience made me aware I wasn’t the only one having a tough time, that it was okay to be struggling, okay to be failing even, and certainly okay to be suffering from postnatal depression.

I don’t really understand how so many photos were taken in that first year – my mum’s doing, I guess. I certainly wasn’t the one behind the camera. There’s one of my son under the UV lights when he had jaundice as a newborn. I was appalled when my mum snapped it, wanting no keepsake of the ordeal. But now I’m glad she did – my baby beneath the lights, fat and naked but for a nappy, hands casually behind his head as though sunbathing, stick-on sunglasses pressed to his face to protect his eyes. With his soft covering of dark body hair, he looks like a miniature swarthy old man on a tanning bed.

I’m grateful for all these photos, not just as mementos of my son’s first year of life, but to remind me what we went through, my gorilla baby and me.