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Sarah Mayor Cox, 35, tells of her struggle with Post-Natal Depression

"If the strains of having children are not resolved early on... the emotional and spiritual side of the marriage calcifies, until all that is left is a brittle shell"

After each of your three sons were born you suffered from severe Post-Natal Depression (PND).  You say you would not have had it any other way. Why?

I feel as if I have been to hell and back over the last six years, but I am so much stronger for it.  I can really relate to that metaphor of work-hardened steel.  My experiences have forged me into a more resilient, compassionate and real person.  Before I got married and had the boys I was off in 'la-la land' a lot of the time.  I am a dreamer and slightly bi-polar by nature.  Being a mother of young children I initially lost sight of many of those dreams.  I think you would have to be an extraordinarily 'together' person not to let the endless baskets of washing, sleep deprivation and lack of time to yourself cloud your vision of your dreams.  I think that is one of the reasons I got PND.  But now I have found my way again I realise I was hanging on to my dreams for dear life.  I knew deep down that if I unclenched my fist I would die with my dreams. (That sounds melodramatic, but I am a drama queen by nature too!) Having come through my third bout of it I am eternally grateful for the lessons I have been shown, and I do not mean that in a martyrish way.

Had you experienced depression before?

Yes, the odd day in my high school years, and usually when I was pre-menstrual.  But I had never experienced long-term depression before – the sort which arrives like the snow for winter and stays long after the spring melts.

How has the depression affected your marriage?

Hugely. You often hear of couples with very young children breaking up, and you wonder why it has happened.  Pete and I have come to the conclusion that some of these may actually be undiagnosed cases of PND.  Starting a family is a massive strain to put any marriage under, especially when many couples work two jobs and are often removed from family support networks. And if one (or both) is suffering from depression it can mean the end of the relationship.

And relationships can end in many ways.  Sometimes people do physically leave each other and try to square things up financially. But more often, if the strains of having children are not resolved early on, then a different kind of leaving takes place – one partner stays longer at work, or puts more energy into exercise, recreation, hobbies or volunteer causes, and the other either does the same or slides into a pattern of resignation, low self-esteem and apathy.  Gradually the emotional and spiritual side of the marriage calcifies, until all that is left is a brittle shell.

Pete and I are pretty fiery, assertive types. Though we had worked through lots of issues before we married, and in the first few years, having the boys really showed up the areas we hadn't worked through.  For instance, as single people we were both quite energetic – the sort who had their fingers in far too many pies.  We realised that, as we had both lived at home until our late twenties, we had been able to do so much because we had had the back-up of our parents – meals cooked, clothes washed, nice place to live and, in my case, a father who helped me whenever I had to deal with a financial question.  I could stay at work late, put my hand up for every committee in sight and be very involved with my local church and more, because I was still treating my parents as my personal assistants.  You can do that as a child, but I don't think it's very healthy for working adults.  So when Pete and I got married we had lots of growing up to do.

All of a sudden we seemed to get nothing done, on the house or in the garden, and we were exhausted all the time.  When we had Oliver we had both just finished our Master's degrees, moved house and renovated.  For a while we had no bathroom, laundry or kitchen.  Try eating and living in one room and using a bucket for a toilet when you are heavily pregnant.  It was a recipe for disaster.  I do have this tendency to make each situation I take on as complicated as can be.  I think we'd honestly thought life would go on as normal. 

The baby didn't sleep much and was very clingy. It slowly dawned on me that, as Pete was working full-time, I was going to have to take on the personal assistant role.  I freaked and then baulked.  I was so angry at Pete and Oliver and the world.  I thought we had gone into parenthood with the explicit understanding that, as far as possible, we would parent in equal proportions. Suddenly I felt as if the contract had been changed – I was doing all the parenting and house-duties while Pete went on with his satisfying career.

What and/or who has helped you most through the darkest times?

Pete, some very special health professionals and my family (my sister in particular).  Pete, by sticking by me when I have been, to quote him, 'an axe-murderer' to live with.  There have been times when I have been so ill, angry and violent that Pete has feared for his life.  I would not have liked to have been married to me at times.  I'm sure the only thing that got Pete through was saying his marriage vows under his breath: 'in sickness and in health – this is sickness and it will pass, she will be healthy again'.  But horrible as it was for Pete, I used to say to him, 'at least when you go somewhere you have a break from me – everywhere I go, I take myself with me'.

I honestly don't think I would be alive today if it were not for my brilliant GP. She put me in touch with a fabulous psychologist who has helped me understand my own nature and God in a new way, and with a marriage counsellor who has helped us take our marriage to a deeper level. I also joined a PND therapy group which helped turn things around.

Another major help, after our second child, was that Pete cut back his working hours. We now work two-and-a-half days a week each, and when we're not at work we look after the boys.

Where does your hope come from?

From knowing that every day is a fresh day; from getting back in touch with myself and my God; from the writing which I have started doing; and from learning how to be silly.  I have spent too much of my life being really serious, and worrying what other people think.  And now that I am nearly well, my hope comes from my family too.  I love my husband – I am excited by the prospect of being his partner for the rest of my life.  Oliver, Hamish and Samuel are great little people too, and as they get older I enjoy them more.

Do you learn from your children?

All the time.  The latest thing I've realised is that the things I most dislike in my children's natures are the things I wrestle hardest with in myself.

Have you felt understood?

At times, yes.  Always by my health professionals.  By others no, not always.  I think PND is a scary condition for society to deal with.  We are frightened by the idea that mothers may be ill and unable to cope.  It is in society's interest for mothers not only to be good at their job, but to enjoy it.  Being a mother is bloody hard slog, and more should be done to support them.

Having experienced your shadow side do you feel more, or less, comfortable with yourself?

Far more comfortable.  Emotionally I have been to the edge – I have looked into the abyss.  It's a nightmarish place to be. But I have come back.  I know myself better now, and funnily enough I like myself better too.

I believe one of the reasons people in the West are experiencing more depression is that we have lost touch with our darker side.  We have tried to gloss over everything, made it appear all sweetness and light.  Talk to anyone in a war torn country and they will tell you it's not, but that even in the midst of the most gruesome conditions, the human spirit is amazingly resilient.  The 'Disney' spin we put on things cuts us off from half of ourselves.  You only have to read some of the old myths, legends, folk and fairy tales to know that humanity has a profound need to understand the darker side.  I am so grateful to have been put back in touch with this side of me.

After two bouts of PND, why did you have a third child?

Without sounding like a complete fruitloop (!), I felt very strongly that a little soul said to me, 'I will completely understand if you can't do it, but if you have room in your family for me I would love to be part of it. But don't worry if you don't have the energy – I will watch over you throughout life'. Well, what could we do? We couldn't leave that little soul wandering around. We had to make room. And our family is so much richer for it. Samuel is our little smiler – he smiles with his whole being, reminding us just what a lucky family we are.

Interview by the Editors of Global Express

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