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'Being a mum has taught me how to be more than my self-harm scars'

'You will change, you will adapt, you will survive'

Maggy van Eijk

For me, meeting my baby was a bit like meeting a celebrity crush. I’d been thinking about her for so long, I felt like I already knew her but the reality was nothing like I’d expected. I didn’t look into her eyes and fall deeply in love with her. In fact, I was keen to pass her over to my boyfriend so I could push out the placenta which was cluttering up my womb like an unwanted house guest.

The love, that fierce, protective love - unlike anything I’d felt before - would come later. For now, all I knew was that I would do everything possible to keep her safe. Even if I hadn’t yet figured out how to do the same for myself.

It was winter 2018 when, to my shock and surprise, I found out I was pregnant. I’d been going out with my boyfriend for less than a year, we didn’t even live together and I was barely making enough money to support myself, let alone a baby. Added into the mix was the fact I’d been really struggling with my mental health for the past two years.

After we’d recovered from the initial shock, my boyfriend and I decided that we were definitely going to have our baby. Even though becoming pregnant hadn’t been our immediate plan, we both loved kids and knew we wanted a family together. So, scared, excited and feeling decidedly queasy (pregnancy hormones are a bitch), I set off on my journey to mumhood.

The year before, aged 26, I had been diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) - also known as Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. BPD is often associated with disturbed patterns of thinking or perception, impulsive behaviour and intense but unstable relationships with others, and a 2014 survey estimates that it affects around 2% of people in the UK.

On the outside, I seem like a chilled-out person (most of the time) who keeps to herself but, on the inside, it’s emotional warfare between the various parts of my brain. Anything good or positive that happens in my life - like finally meeting the right guy or landing a possible dream job - is marked with an onslaught of negative thoughts like “you don’t deserve him” or “it’s not actually that great - don’t kid yourself”.

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The same year I received my BPD diagnosis, I was sexually assaulted. I’d been self-harming on and off since I was 15 and after the assault, I started cutting and burning myself again. I used casual sex to try and wipe the trauma from my mind, drank heavily and refused to seek professional help. My body became a canvas to act out the shame I was feeling, which is why the idea that it could be used to grow another human life was such a shock.

When I first met my boyfriend, I used to joke about hating men. Turning everything into a comedy routine has always been my coping mechanism. When he finally asked me what was behind my acerbic remarks, something in me broke and I told him what had happened to me. Somehow I knew I could trust him with even my darkest secrets, which was an amazing feeling.

As my pregnancy progressed, I experienced real highs and lows. At points, I was so happy - my boyfriend was sweet and caring, and coped with my mood swings. But, on the bad days, everything came crashing down. All it took was one well-meaning remark from a colleague about how "neat" my bump was and I’d wind up blubbing in the loo. Did that mean my body wasn’t keeping my baby safe? Was it a sign I’d be a bad mum? It might sound irrational but my brain doesn’t play by normal rules. 

I felt trapped between wanting to reach out and tell people what was going on, and feeling ashamed for not being like how I imagined other mums-to-be were: glowing, excited and happy.

After about six months, I felt like I'd hit rock bottom. Faced with a midwife, I’d either choke up or brush my worries off. So, with the help of a counsellor that I'd agreed to start seeing about three months into my pregnancy, I decided to let my boyfriend tell his side of the story, how my depression affected him, how worried he was about me and how I needed more help than I was admitting.

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It’s not just mums like me who have existing mental health issues who can struggle during pregnancy and afterwards - a 2017 survey by BBC 5 Live suggested that more than a third of new mums have experienced mental health problems relating to parenthood. From the moment I let my partner help me, everything changed. I started learning how to let people in, built a support network around me and even met some mums-to-be in similar situations.

The rest of the pregnancy was by no means a breeze but it was manageable. Somehow, I got through the searing pain of labour by focusing on the end result - getting to hold my daughter for the first time.

The first few weeks of her life were an emotional rollercoaster. I barely slept because I had to make sure she was still breathing. We got a taxi home from the hospital and every bump in the road felt like this massive threat to her life. There was so much to worry about: getting the hang of breastfeeding, keeping the room temperature right, making sure she didn’t suffocate in her crib. The only way to manage the constant anxiety was to be by her side 24/7.

Gradually, I started to bond with my daughter. Once I was less panicked about keeping her alive, I began to get to know her - especially during those long nights when it was just the two of us awake.

To combat the loneliness of maternity leave, I forced myself to come up with reasons to leave the house: a playgroup, a supermarket trip, a visit to a local park. Before I was a mum, anxiety had kept me trapped indoors but now it made me embrace the outside world. It was also a respite from the smell of dirty nappies and baby vomit.

Slowly, I made new friends. Chief among them are Rosie and Miriam, who I met through Instagram. One of their babies had similar struggles with sleeping to mine and it was great to have someone who understood the extreme tiredness I was experiencing.

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My relationship with my boyfriend has really grown too - we’ve become even more of a team. But, sometimes, you’re both so tired that the odd argument is unavoidable. Once, we were in the park having a silly row and I ended up storming off, leaving him with the baby. A few minutes later, I could hear the shuffle of the buggy behind me. You’ve run off with the nappy bag, he told me. Suddenly, we were both laughing our heads off at how ridiculous this new world was, and the fight was forgotten.

I haven’t been a mum for long (10 months as I’m writing this) but I can say that it’s made me show up for myself in a way I didn’t know was possible. The stakes are higher now. I have a family. I’ve also learnt that a mental illness diagnosis isn’t set in stone. It’s malleable, flexible and will change as your life changes. I had got to a point where I had become my diagnosis, it defined me. But the one thing being a mum teaches you is that you will change, you will adapt, you will survive. Bit by bit, in loving my daughter, I’ve learnt to see myself in a new light. I’m not just a screw-up. I’m not the sum of my scars. I’m a capable person, someone who has a lot of love to give. Above all, I’m a mum.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.