As first time parents, you don’t know what you don’t know. So we tried to prepare by signing up to as many different courses as we could and researching as much as possible about pregnancy and birth and looking after a newborn baby. We thought the more courses we signed up to the less likely we were to miss anything important.
As a consequence, I now know a lot more than I needed to. Before my wife gave birth I could tell you all about the different stages of breast milk, what colostrum looks like, what to do if your baby cries, what immediately happens after childbirth. We even learnt about postnatal depression and the signs to look out for. Talking to my friends, I was a lot more prepared than many other dads. But in reality, nothing prepared me for what was to come.
Nobody mentioned anything to us about postpartum psychosis (PP).
Our son was born in July 2021 during lockdown. Because of the pandemic, I wasn’t allowed to stay in the hospital and, because there was over crowding there as well, Zebi and our baby were transferred to a different hospital that was a bit further away. I think this might be why I missed some of those early signs that something wasn’t quite right…
When Zebi got home, she was struggling to breastfeed and struggling to sleep. That’s when the symptoms started snowballing. The lack of sleep was the main issue as it seemed to be making everything else worse.
Zebi’s lack of sleep and her fast and pressured speech began to escalate, but I had no idea what might be causing it. There were also lots of arguments and yelling which wasn’t normal for us. I wondered if she maybe had some form of postnatal depression, but when a friend sent me a link to the PP page on the NHS website I realised Zebi ticked every box.
However, I was no doctor, so I certainly didn’t feel able to diagnose, and we had professionals visiting us regularly who knew much more than me about what was normal and what wasn’t. Unfortunately, the first three health visitors we had didn’t pick up on it, and it was only when a fourth visited that she realised something was really wrong.
By this point every piece of planning we’d done was washed down the drain – none of it mattered. What we were experiencing wasn’t like anything we’d prepared for.
The nurse referred us to the crisis team but, because Zebi had a masters in psychology, she knew how to talk the talk, what terminology to use and how to respond to the doctors. I personally didn’t have a clue what any of it meant, I didn’t even know what being sectioned was, so it was difficult to have an opinion. But Zebi’s knowledge allowed her to hide how unwell she had become. Because of this, it took a while to get her into hospital.
During this time Zebi was barely sleeping two hours a night, and so I wasn’t sleeping either. I needed to be on call 24/7, to watch my wife and look after our son.
Eventually, Zebi was formally diagnosed with PP. I remember trying to explain it to family members and they didn’t want to believe it. They seemed more inclined to believe it was black magic - the stigma around mental illness was so great.
I remember nurses and doctors coming around and trying to encourage Zebi to go to hospital, but she either wouldn’t answer their questions (because she knew that if she didn’t respond they couldn’t section her under the Mental Health Act) or she’d use her knowledge to try and convince them she was OK. It was as though she saw it as a game she needed to play, but I was trying to tell her the system wasn’t against her, it was there to help her.
Eventually, she was admitted to a Mother and Baby Unit (MBU) in Nottingham over an hour’s drive away. By this stage I was completely exhausted. Luckily, I had an amazing employer who gave me two weeks’ paid leave. I was so grateful and it really helped me at the time.
I struggled with not being there for my son. When Zebi was first admitted she was so unwell that the nurses were mainly looking after our baby until Zebi was able to. It didn’t feel right – her not being mentally there and me not being physically there. Luckily, I’ve since built a strong father/son bond but it was really tough at the time.
I think the exhaustion was also amplifying my feelings and anxiety, but I did find it difficult waking up in an empty house, surrounded by baby toys and presents and knowing that this was where my wife and child should be. A couple of my friends were really helpful, they brought me food, they’d come over and keep me company or invite me to stay with them. But really, I just wanted everything to be normal. I just wasn’t prepared in any way for what we went through.
Since Zebi came out of hospital and started to recover, we both began raising awareness of PP, speaking on the radio and sharing our stories. I think parents-to-be should have some awareness of PP, even if it’s just a few bullet points in a slide during a course. Everything we learnt focused on the birth itself but there was very little about what happened afterwards – especially in terms of mental health. Even if someone had said there’s this illness called postpartum psychosis, it’s unlikely you’ll experience it but this is where you can go to find out more about it, that would have helped.
Of course, we couldn’t have prevented it. And I have to keep reminding myself of that. But just having a little knowledge could have alerted us much earlier to what was happening.
And I think it’s important to be as honest as you can. If a health professional asks if you or any member of your family has any history of mental illness, answer honestly. They’re only trying to help you.
But what I would say to anyone else who is going through what I went through is this: it passes. In the moment it feels like this is it, this is everything. But it really isn’t. It’s temporary – but it is tough. So be kind to yourself. Don’t assume you have to know everything, and remember, it isn’t your fault.