Chelsea is the mother of two young girls, a military wife, worked as Midwife for 3 years and now works as a Lived Experience Practitioner for Healthy London Partnership. Through her role she uses her own experience to shape NHS perinatal maternal mental health services to fit to those who need it. She also supports Peer Support within these services.
During my first antenatal appointment, I was asked by the midwife about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). She wanted to know if had experienced anything that might affect my transition to motherhood. My answer was no.
But what did that mean? How would anything that happened in my past make it difficult to be a mother? Looking back, I now know that what needs to surround that question are conversations of trauma, and what defines an adverse childhood event.
I have always wanted to be a mom. I was always the one holding a baby at family parties, I worked in childcare settings, and I was a nanny for most of my college years, but I was blindsided and devastated at how unwell motherhood made me. It took a long time to work through the process of changing the voice in my head that was always screaming; Why couldn’t I handle this? Why did I shout so much? Why can’t I relax? WHAT WAS WRONG WITH ME? I genuinely believed deep down in my core that this was just who I was, and that I was not capable of being a mother. Those thoughts repeated in my head all day, every time my children cried, or I failed to be a patient parent. Their struggles were reflections of my failings.
What I didn’t realise was adverse events in my childhood, the biggest being childhood sexual abuse, had changed my ability to cope. Toxic childhood stress had caused a dysregulated nervous system, a simple misunderstanding would push me into a state of anxiety and dread for hours.
Managing motherhood is overwhelming, managing motherhood whilst dealing with unresolved trauma was unbearable. When I was overwhelmed/ triggered by daily challenges of life I struggled to be level-headed Chelsea and parent the way I dreamed I could. Instead, symptoms of anxiety, depression, rage and intrusive thoughts reigned in our house.
How did it present to me? Anxiety: Due to my trauma, I was hypervigilant to the point of my own detriment. I badly needed time to myself, but the thoughts of what could happen to my children overwhelmed me. Where some parents may see a playground, I saw 1448 ways to get hurt; not just scrapped knees, my head created images that were very real and terrifying. I was once told “over-protective mothers were once under protected daughters”. Please keep that in mind the next time you tell someone they are ‘a helicopter parent’, they need to ‘just relax’, or anything else unhelpful.
My anxiety also presented in other ways – I had video monitors in both of their rooms, my anxiety couldn’t handle the 3 second switch from room to room, therefore I had separate monitors. I employed a nanny, but it didn’t last long, I wrote a 13-page instruction letter for her, I texted obsessively to make sure everything was okay. I was rigid to my routine, it kept me safe (but not sane). I was isolated and struggled to trust anyone with caring for my babies; the person who hurt me was family, so my levels of trust are low. I also experienced Intrusive thoughts. My thoughts were always of bad things happening and were incredibly detailed images in my head, so much so that I would have to shake my head quickly or stamp/kick my legs to stop them. They were the worst at bedtime and would often impact my sleep, I would have to get up and check they were okay several times even if I had just done it 5 minutes before.
Rage: I was ANGRY and shout-y. I wrongly took their disobedience as a reflection of how much they cared about me. What was really happening was that I was struggling to regulate myself. I reached a tipping point and exploded. I’ll share one of many low points, both kids were screaming and I went into the kitchen and threw a plate on the floor on purpose. Even writing that is hard.
Depression: The guilt, the shame, the inability to cope weighed heavily on me. It overshadowed everything else. I am still really saddened by this, some days it’s too heavy to carry because I know I won’t get that time back. But I have to remind myself I did the best I could at the time. I was also always incredibly negative; I expected the worst because why would things go right? People who have experienced trauma often have negative bias, the smallest set back would ruin my whole day.
How did I move toward recovery? Almost half of the population in England has experienced at least 1 ACE, but your score does not have to be your destiny. Adverse childhood experiences/toxic stress can change brain development and affect how the body responds to stress.
The best bit is that it healing does make things better, nonetheless its forever work. Don’t be put off – the skills and knowledge I have now sustain my recovery and keep me well. Mental health is just like physical health and there will be days that you have less symptoms and days where you have more. Initially, it was an everyday process to be more aware of my thoughts and change the narrative, but now something that used to unnerve me for days (I would be in bed, inconsolable, unable to speak without tears, or angry) doesn’t have anywhere near the same impact. I have to remember these unconscious behaviours took over 30 years to learn it will take time to unlearn. It’s a huge accomplishment to just acknowledge patterns and behaviours and choosing new ways to respond is healing. Sometimes this healing is as big as breaking generational cycles.
Therapy for me was transformative. It allowed me to peel away the layers that were symptoms of trauma and not who I actually was. My counsellor truly understood and lead me on a journey to discover that I was worthy of healing. I suggest finding a professional that is trauma-informed. Looking through a lens of “What happened to you” instead of “What is wrong with you? If you’re in a safe space, look at the ACE scoring system, share it with a trusted professional and investigate the physical and mental relationships. Having someone affirm aloud your experiences can mark the beginning of your healing journey.
There is also nothing better than hearing the words “I know how you feel…” and someone truly meaning that. There is something magical about finding a person/group that has similar experiences. I highly recommend reaching out for peer support, there are resources online or in person and you will be surprised at how many people will understand parts of your story, because what your feeling/experiencing is normal. Really acknowledging that being a parent is hard and I don’t mean just acknowledging it for other people but for yourself.
The day your baby is born you switch from meeting your needs to meeting their every need. That is a big change and its okay to find it hard, especially when you may still be healing. There are so many who have walked the journey and want to make it easier for you. I speak about things now because I don’t want anyone to go through the same pain I did. It’s never too late to heal.