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ellen chisholm

ellen chisholm

If you’re a mum you will understand the challenges of life with a newborn, especially when it’s your first child. Through pregnancy you were probably excited - reading books and magazines, attending classes, learning everything possible about what life might look like when baby arrives. You make plans, and may have long held hopes and dreams for your birth experience and beyond...but what if it doesn’t go to plan? What happens when birth, and the weeks and months that follow, don’t look anything like you thought they would?

For Ellen Chisholm this situation is all too real. After a traumatic birth experience, and an unacceptable level of care, Ellen was suffering not only physically, but mentally as well. For almost three months she was fighting a battle with postnatal anxiety and depression. Thankfully with the right supports in place she was able to recover and rediscover her love of life, and more importantly, discover that she absolutely loved being a mum. What makes Ellen’s story even more inspirational is that she has been able to instigate a shift in how new mums are cared for after birth.

I am very grateful that I have been able to connect with Ellen and share her story, because it’s one that needs to be heard. What Ellen has also shown is that, as a regular kiwi mum, she has the capacity to bring about change that will have an impact on the experience of countless other mums, and if that in itself isn’t inspirational then I don’t know what is!

Tell me about yourself and your family.
I am a 35-year-old mother of two beautiful boys – Bede (three) and Finn (16 months). I was born and bred in Southland, and I’m the youngest of five from a farming family. I’m married to Matt, and I work as the P.R. and Communications Manager for Cadenshae, the NZ maternity activewear company. I love being a mum (most of the time!), drinking wine, eating cake, keeping fit, and hanging out with my dearest friends and family. Pretty standard sort of chick!

Your experience of early motherhood was nothing short of traumatic. Can you tell me about that?
Basically, I didn’t sleep for 48 hours, the birth was 27 hours long, my son’s head was stuck against my spine causing crippling pain above and beyond the contractions. Eventually, I had an epidural, the midwife ‘went in’, moved his head, and then, after a second-degree tear and one and a half hours, he was out. The real kicker was that I was then booted out of hospital at 5am. Two and a half hours after giving birth. I was bleeding, I couldn’t walk, I was utterly wrecked, but had to get off the bed, shower, dress, fit my new baby into the car seat, and direct my mother an hour north to a birthing centre where I stayed alone with Bede for three days. Looking back, I know that as soon as I was told, “Once you’ve been able to pass urine, you’ll need to leave…” I was in serious trouble mentally. I just needed sleep and some breakfast, I didn’t get that, and I’ve always wondered if that would’ve made all the difference? The pressure of being forced out with a brand new baby, combined with the fact my body had just been through the biggest physical challenge ever…I had nothing left, I was spent in so many ways and my anxiety levels just went through the roof from there on out.

You suffered from postnatal depression. Can you tell me what that was like for you?
The first few weeks were the toughest of my life. Without my family, friends, and the will to ‘beat’ the anxiety…I don’t know where I would be. There were times when I genuinely thought it would be easier for everyone if I wasn’t here. I was in so much pain and my thoughts were completely irrational. My brain was malfunctioning. I was so anxious I couldn’t sleep, and I genuinely thought my husband would be better raising this wee boy without me.
I was lucky though, it only got me for ten weeks, some women deal with this for years. I’m very thankful I got through it quickly, although at the time it felt like forever. Once I calmed down and got some decent sleep, motherhood was a pleasure. I love my boys so much and am so proud I didn’t let this ‘hump’ stop me from going again with Finn…and we’ll be going again next year I think, I want a girl now!

Matt was away for Bede’s birth, did you still have enough support around you?
Matt was gone for the first three days of Bede’s life. He missed the birth, which was tough. But once he was home he was a huge support to me, always looking out for me and doing the best he could. It’s hard dealing with a mentally unwell person, particularly if you don’t fully understand the pain, but he was awesome. I did have a lot of other support though. I am lucky I have a stunning family and in particular a mother, father, and sister who were there for me every step of the way! My friends were phenomenal too. There were a couple of friends who had postnatal anxiety previously and I leaned on them hard, they were epic. I went to the doctor which certainly helped. I got some anti-anxiety medication, and sleeping pills, and spoke with a postnatal distress psychologist. I forced myself to get out and exercise too, and that was the turning point I think. Movement is medicine!

What inspired you to share your experience?
I found when I was feeling really low it helped me hugely to read other people’s experiences and talk to people who had been through it. It made me realize I wasn’t ‘CRAZY,’ this wasn’t my fault, and I wasn’t alone. I wanted to tell my story, try and rid the taboo, and normalize PND or PNA. I hope my speaking out has helped other women understand they’re not alone and there is a way out.

You were able to instigate some changes in the way that new mothers are cared for right after birth. Can you tell me about that?
Yes. Once I was feeling better, I complained to the Health and Disability Commission about my treatment at North Shore Hospital. I didn’t fully understand how ‘bad’ my experience was until I spoke to my coffee group mums, none of them were treated like I was.
So, I became a keyboard warrior, and they soon replied saying my case would be reviewed. I was told I could meet with the head midwife and maternity nurse to discuss my experience and what needs to change. I did that, and told them that mothers not only need to be cleared ‘physically’ to leave, but need to be cleared ‘mentally’ as well. Ask them, are you feeling okay? Are you ready to leave now, or do you need more time? How can we help you more? The hospital reviewed its processes and have taken this on board.
Also, a new law has just been proposed by Mothers Matter insisting women are aware they’re entitled to 48 hours in hospital after birth, and funding is to be ring-fenced by DHBs so this can actually happen. Also, if a woman goes home straight away she can essentially ‘gift’ her nights to another mother who needs more time.

How different was your experience when Finn was born?
Sooooo much better! I gave birth in the afternoon, and it was only 11 hours, so much easier! I knew going into it that I would have 48 hours in hospital if I wanted, so I knew I would have time to recover and bond with my bubba. I did get a bit anxious for about three weeks, but bounced back pretty quickly, and this was probably just a natural response with a newborn and a toddler! I got exercising really quickly too because I knew how important exercise was for my mental health.

You’re a working mum, your husband travels for work - how do to ensure you are looking after your own health and wellbeing?
Exercise is CRUCIAL to me, not only so I can fit my jeans and feel good, but more so because I just NEED it for my brain to function correctly. I work out five times a week - Move it Mama and CrossFit.
I also try to treat myself every now and then, maybe once a month I’ll leave the kids with Dad on the weekend and pop out and get a pedicure or something on my own, just get some ‘me time.’
And sleep…I try to be in bed by 9pm, lights out by 9:30pm. My boys sleep through the night for the most part, but if you’re a mum you know this is never 100% of the time! Without sleep, I go mental, so I ensure I prioritize that.

Is there anything else you would like to share?
I just want mums to know that there is a way out of PND or PNA. Don’t be frightened, you’re not crazy. Your body has been through a massive hormonal upheaval and you’ve just embarked on the most important job in your life! It’s okay to not be okay…you WILL get better, but don’t allow yourself to suffer out of embarrassment. That’s just silly.

If you could offer all mothers one piece of advice, what would it be?
The biggest one would be to put your phone down, stop reading baby books and listening to ‘sleep experts’, and just trust your gut, it’s always right. Follow your baby’s cues. You know your baby better than anyone in the whole world, and every baby is different, every mother is different, all home environments are different. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, or to what the books say…follow your baby, and follow your instinct.
First published in 2019

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