Making It To Motherhood

After a traumatic birth and narrowly surviving childbed-fever, author Ellen Alpsten shares her experience of post-natal depression.

post-natal depression

by Ellen Alpsten |
Updated on

The heroine of my new novel ‘The Tsarina’s Daughter’ weathers every storm but grieves her childlessness - a sentiment I understood all too well.

‘Your cupboard will get fuller, your holidays will lead further afield, your life will grow emptier,’ my mother gloomily predicted when I confidently planned a childless life of choices and personal freedom. Even though few women of her generation studied and worked, she had given it all ‘gladly’ up to start a family. I wanted things differently, spelling my life out in an ABC inspired by too many Judith Krantz novels: Adventurous! Big! Colourful! Daring! And that did not include children.

While studying in Paris, my Swedish boyfriend pushed me to get the best possible graduate job. He proposed the day I had my Eurostar-one way ticket to London. Five years on, he had built up his tech-company and I worked gruesome shifts on breakfast TV as a news anchor. The sky seemed the limit. Our first flat on a lesser street in Notting Hill boasted a small second bedroom. ‘Is that the nursery?’ he half-jested. He was the driving force behind the decision to have children, but I was persuaded. We had tried so much together, so what difference should a baby make? My life would still continue as before, I told myself. Two months later, as a tadpole-shape showed in the scan’s snowstorm image, the gynaecologist said: ‘There is no heartbeat.’ As motherhood slipped through my fingers, I found I desired it all the more. A second and a third pregnancy also ended in a miscarriage. ‘At least I fall pregnant,’ I said, but the GP shrugged: ‘Miscarriages, too, are infertility.’

I got referred; a specialist prescribed blood-thinning ‘baby-aspirin’. Three months later, we were lucky and wept when seeing a foetal heartbeat. I furnished the nursery, and my birthing plan was determinedly au naturel – an epidural, God forbid! At term, labour started violently. The baby was a ‘star-gazer’, its spine pressing on mine. For 24 hours, I would not dilate and screamed in vain for an epidural. 42 hours later, his heartbeat waning, Linus was born by C-Section, my scar a zigzag-line ragged with haste. All I wanted was sleep - and for someone to take this being, whose huge blue eyes searched me at all times, lying too close for comfort, away. Despite my exhaustion and non-existent breastfeeding skills – Linus’ hungry howls brought the hospital down– I was discharged.

At home, a grey December sky shrouded me in loneliness. My life had been derailed by a seven-pound steam engine. No other friend had children yet. Getting ready for a promenade took one hour. No clothes fitted me: my jeans got stuck at my knees. My life was over, forever. Sobbing, robot-like, I fed and cleaned Linus, before staring blankly out of the window, longing to leave – the flat, him, everything. Two tearful weeks in, I was shaking with violent chills. ‘You need rest,’ the advisor on 111 suggested. As my fever rose to 42 degrees, we sped to hospital: I had contracted Puerperal-Fever, the silent, swift killer of the past, when giving birth was a woman’s gamble of life and death.

You need rest. Linus shared my room, hungry and howling, with neither a breast-feeding advisor nor a bottle in sight. Dutiful, tormented, I held him tight, ignoring my drip, as he latched on, his gaze galvanising me. Something in me upended: Never before had I been so needed! I had to live – for him. Christmas in hospital rendered our world minute; a harrowing yet healing lesson. It was heart-break hotel: my room neighbour had given birth at 22 weeks and needed to let her child go. The priest never left her bedside, her sobs soaking the air. Her story was one of many that made me stay in my room, cradling, feeding, and tickling Linus, delighting in his first smile.

We were lifers once more, but on parole.

My GP helped me find a routine and I had my life back – a different life, though, as a mother and also working as an author. Could I ask for more? All too gladly I fell into nature’s hormonal trap: if having babies resulted in a divine being like this, we needed more! Linus was joined by Caspar 15 months later, before Gustav completed the trio. At both their births, my mother’s open-end visit helped me overcome the chaos of those early days – making for unforgettable memories. And so, I found, that from not wanting children, to being persuaded to give it a go, and then to worrying, too late, that I could not – or did not want to – do it, I found purpose and passion in motherhood after all.

The Tsarina’s Daughterby Ellen Alpsten, published by Bloomsbury, is out in hardback on 8th July, and Tsarina, Ellen’s first book, is out in paperback now.

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