Oxford university, postnatal depression and me
Mental health issues among students are slowly gaining recognition, but awareness of postnatal depression is almost non-existent. Emily Beater recalls how she coped with it alongside studying at Oxford
I found out that I was pregnant during Freshers' Week. My mind often flits to that moment, the two pink lines and my shock and exhilaration. Like many undergraduates, I came to the University of Oxford with a dread of inadequacy. Now, my body was doing something wonderful, driving me towards a point that fear could not prevent.
The rest was complicated. I had to tell my parents, just days after I had left for university, that I was having a baby. My internet search for pregnancy brought up images of mature women, rings glistening, full of smiles. Married? Tick. Late-20s? Tick. I was the other stock-image girl with head in hands, attracting words like "epidemic" and information on terminations.
An incredulous “what happened?” from someone, pulled me further into my fear of failure. I did not immediately begin feeling like this was a catastrophe. I absorbed it from a society that deemed my situation a disaster.
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I returned to Oxford with my partner and our three-month-old daughter. In my first year as a student parent, I found work exhilarating. I didn't know I was depressed, only that I loathed housework, never slept and sat in a kind of messy shock.
Studying had colour and control. It was always a relief to return to my laptop after an evening of childcare tasks, which only seemed to increase with the grey of my mood.
I felt like an awful mother. I loved my daughter, yet I was an imposter. I would look at her, her rosebud mouth and chubby warmth, her material realness and the weight of her. She needed security. However, I was nothing, a clay creature who scraped myself up and gave everything. But it wasn't enough.
I lived hanging on by my fingernails fretting about sending her to nursery on a student loan, about my career-less state, about the future.
Our accommodation was full of parents doing a master's or DPhils (I was the only undergraduate), yet my isolation was painful. I think the student parent is simply trying to survive, our schedules so punishing that even networking feels like a guilty distraction.
The weeks consumed us. Playgroup dates and mum meet-ups rushed by as we battled between our children and the intense turnover of work. If I did attend a group, I felt like a spy with a dirty secret.
Postnatal depression made me angry. A tick-list recording depression often neglects the violence of feelings. Weepiness, irritability and loss of appetite all suggest misery, a gentle wasting. But what about when you want a bus to crush you? What about at 3 o'clock in the morning when you finally crawl into bed, hear the baby cry and you dream deeply and lucidly of throttling yourself? My throat welled with knives at every noise, voices stabbed like a cattle prod.
I wanted everything to stop, just for a second. The tiredness was torture, but who dares mention torture in relation to motherhood? I deeply loved and welcomed my daughter, yet I was young, and she wasn't part of a plan.
Within motherhood, sleep deprivation and mental deterioration are rarely understood or accepted. Surely it would adversely affect any of us? And when tiredness turns into suicidal thoughts or psychosis, people wring their hands and wonder why. If we cannot have honest discussions about motherhood, if we cannot eliminate the stigma of feelings considered unnatural in mothers, how can we help those with postnatal depression?
We must stop thinking there is something defunct in mothers who struggle to bond with their babies, who are exhausted and who find continually caring for another human being difficult. We must stop linking mothers to a state of never suffering or never admitting they suffer. Being a mother can be wonderful, life-affirming and definitive. It can also be very hard and this should reap understanding, not shame.
As a depressed young student mum, I know that having to fight stereotypes of failure on top of motherhood and mental illness is not only demoralising, it is pointless. Like all human beings, young parents need support, respect and legitimisation to flourish in the world.
Emily Beater is a second-year undergraduate student at the University of Oxford
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If you are affected by any of the issues discussed in this piece, please contact Mind for further advice.