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Phaedra's Story
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After making the decision to try for baby number two, I remember feeling excited and ready. My elder daughter Charlotte was three and a half years old and could dress herself and take herself to the bathroom – I felt like I was prepared and knew what I was getting into. I had a no-frills delivery with my second daughter, Remi. She was not as good a sleeper or feeder as Charlotte, but we were working each other out.

A few weeks after Remi was born, we received the devastating news that Charlotte’s best friend from daycare, beautiful Caitlyn, had died from complications with influenza. I couldn’t wrap my head around it – this smiling, sweet-faced little girl with the most beautiful big brown eyes was just not there anymore. How had it gone so wrong? At her funeral, I was struck by the tiny pink coffin, the butterflies, the Disney songs, and by her one-year-old sister, who would never know that sisterly love that my girls shared and that I had experienced with my own sisters. I remember walking out of that funeral and returning home in a state of shock to breastfeed my six-week-old baby. The incongruity of death and life that day left me questioning everything.

Shortly after, I felt an enormous sense that nothing was safe, that disaster was just outside my home. I felt panicked walking out of the house that a car was going to come crashing into my kids or that they’d get injured at the park. Images of destruction and death flooded my mind, and I was constantly shaking my head to get them out or touching wood to stop them coming true. I started to feel very far away from myself like I was watching myself from the other side of the room. I was aware of my motions in everything I did. Everything felt analysed and effortful. Remi started to want to be on me all the time, and I let her. My mum would say, “That baby is always on you; put her down”, but I couldn’t, nor did I feel like I was looking at her very much. We were connected but not. My elder daughter Charlotte would come up to me and hold my face as if searching for me there. She would sometimes pinch me – I think to snap me out of my staring, but I barely felt it. I was bouncing from numbness to zinging with anxiety. I couldn’t stop thinking about Caitlyn, about her family, her final moments, and how their world had been ripped apart.

Eventually, with support from friends and family, I spoke to my GP, who recommended a psychologist. At first, I found it very hard to connect with my emotions; the numbness was so heavy. I wanted to change, though. I knew that what I was going through wasn’t right. I started to talk about how everything seemed so risky, and about the seesaw I was on between my racing heart and blankness. Amongst the therapy, I started some intense breathing techniques that my psychologist had recommended, they somehow helped my body to understand that I was in control of my panic. Slowly but surely, the zinging feelings subsided. In time, I also joined an outdoor boot camp with other mums, some of whom I consider my closest friends to this day. Being outdoors started to feel ok again, and together with therapy I felt myself returning.

When I reflect on that time, I can’t believe how completely different the aftermath of both of my daughters’ births were. I had experienced bouts of blueness before but never the searing energy of anxiety through my body. I felt so hopeless at times, frustrated that I wasn’t connecting with my children as I had planned to, but powerless to push it all aside and “do better”. I also felt guilty about experiencing joy because Caitlyn’s mum and dad were in such deep sorrow. Through a combination of therapy and group exercise, I felt like I had slowly untangled myself and could breathe again. I am eternally grateful to my psychologist for helping me through that time.

In part, my experience inspired me to return to university to pursue a career change in psychology. I realised that life was so fragile that I wanted to use mine to make others build their sense of self back as I had done. Throughout the years since, I have experienced more grief, losing my dad and close friends, but I’ve been able to draw on those skills to help me through.

I hope my story can help others to feel a sense of hope through the enormity of the perinatal stage. It is such an equally heartbreaking and joyous time in our lives, like no other really. And even though the challenges can feel truly all-consuming, I can share that there is a new life on the other side, filled with a stronger and more loving version of ourselves as mothers and women.

Phaedra's Story

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