I’ve taken babies from their mothers. After my son was born, I was afraid it was my turn to be punished | Ariane Beeston

TThe first time I start hallucinating, I’m at home, alone, with my baby. Drunk from lack of sleep, I watch his features shift in and out of shape. I take photo after photo and try to capture what I see.

A few days later, as I’m pushing the stroller outside, it happens again. I pull down the hood to hide my baby from prying eyes. I don’t know who to trust anymore.

They say psychosis is a break from reality ā€“ and not long after my son was born, mine broke out, erupting into a series of visions and delusions and the thought that I had already died.

I’m dead, I’m dead. And because I’m dead, it doesn’t matter if I kill myself. No one can miss what was never real.

Postpartum psychosis, that one studies suggest affects between 0.86 and just over two in 1,000 mothers and often starts in the first two weeks after birth. For me it was day four when I discovered the diaper rash. I’m sure the government welfare agencies will know. Somehow they will know that I have already failed, that I am not a perfect mother, and they will come and remove him.

I know this is because before I became a mother I worked for the New South Wales Department of Community Services on the Child Protection Helpline, then as a primary care practitioner and finally as a registered psychologist.

I know this is because I took babies from their mothers. I strapped them into car seats in government cars, drove them back to the office where we did a last-minute foster search and gathered paperwork for juvenile court. As part of my job, I have assessed other mothers. I observed them during contact visits and made recommendations about parental responsibility.

And now it’s my turn to be punished.

It’s my turn to be judged.

Weeks after my son was born, I’m lying face down on the floor when someone knocks on the door, convinced that social workers are coming to get him. Outside, I’m running from UV rays that I think are out to get us both. My limbs ache from fatigue and my skeleton feels sad. The bones that hold me upright are fragile.

I need help and yet I stay not oneyearn for it. I don’t ask because everyone around me seems to be dealing with motherhood – and shouldn’t this be “the happiest time of your life”? I don’t ask for it because I’m afraid I’ll never work as a psychologist again. I don’t ask for it, and I don’t ask for it, and I don’t ask for it until I realize I’ve forgotten how to stay alive.

Author Ariane Beeston. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

IAt the hospital, in the mother and baby psychiatric unit, one of the nurses asks if she can film me interacting with Henry. It is a standard part of a hospital stay, the manual states. An opportunity to get feedback on the developing bond between a mother and her baby.

‘I know what you’re doing,’ I think to myself as the nurse adjusts the camera. I know that my parenting, my mothering skills, my ability to be ‘responsive’ and ‘sensitive’ are showing. Despite all the mild language in the hospital manual, I know I am under supervision.

I put on my performing smile, perfected through years of training as a dancer. I can do motherhood on command. But I’m a shell ā€“ and even after a hospital stay it takes years to recover.

I still think about the babies we brought into shelter as young care workers. I think of the mothers whose babies were taken at three or four months postpartum, some even at birth, still bleeding and staggering. I think of the hoops the department made them jump through, the way the words “do not intervene” were weaponized against them.

There is shame, there is guilt and there is disgust. How could we not understand that asking new mothers to meet what seemed increasingly difficult expectations, while recovering from birth, adjusting to motherhood, and facing myriad social challenges, was setting them up to fail? That taking their child away would only make their existing mental health problems worse.

I often think about a woman I met next to me in the mother-baby unit who was experiencing what we call “intrusive thoughts” about harming her newborn baby. Studies have found that between 70% and 100% of new mothers report unwanted, intrusive thoughts about harm related to their child, with as many as half of all new mothers reporting unwanted, intrusive thoughts about intentionally harming their child ā€“ although this is not associated with an actual increased risk of harm to babies. I think about the email I received from the other mother months after we were discharged, saying the department had called her in for an interview. She asked me for advice. How many children are removed because we don’t understand the nature of these thoughts in the perinatal context? How many mothers are punished for reaching out?

Author Ariane Beeston has written a book about her experiences with postpartum psychosis. She is a former child protection officer and psychologist with the NSW Department of Communities and Justice. Sydney, NSW, Australia. May 15, 2024. Photo: Carly Earl/The Guardian

As young practitioners, we were always ‘on the job’ and always struggling with ‘competing demands’. This meant that we often intervened at crisis points rather than working with families to keep them together. I can write here that we did our best in a broken, racist system. Sometimes I even believe it to be true when I think about my own complicity. But it wasn’t okay then and reports today suggest not much has changed.

Too unwell to work as a psychologist, I left my role on the ward not long after my second hospital admission when my son was 15 months old. But the work never left me ā€“ and what I learned as a vulnerable mother, an MBU nursery mother on the other side of the camera, changed the course of my life and career.

In my role now at the Center of Perinatal Excellence ā€“ Cope ā€“ we often hear that women are too afraid to ask for help for common conditions such as perinatal anxiety and depression, for fear of their child being removed, let alone more complex mental health conditions such as postpartum psychosis or perinatal OCD.

While my own fears about having my baby removed were delusional ā€“ false beliefs as part of a psychotic illness ā€“ for many women (particularly First Nations mothers) they are very real and are a barrier to seeking help.

There is still so much stigma and ignorance surrounding maternal mental illness, and a lack of knowledge in the community and among health professionals when it comes to how best to support those in need of treatment and care.

Because here’s what we do know: having a mental illness doesn’t make you a bad or unfit parent. It just means that you need more support during this often difficult transition.

Vulnerable women should not be afraid to speak about their mental and emotional problems during pregnancy and after childbirth, for fear of what might happen to them and their families.

We can and must do better.

  • Ariane Beeston is the author of Because I’m Not Myself, You See: A memoir of motherhood, madness and coming back from the edge, out May 21 via Black Inc.

  • In Australia, support is available at Beyond blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at Men’s line on 1300 789 978. In Britain: The Charity Mind can be reached on 0300 123 3393 and Children’s line on 0800 1111. In the US you can call or text Mental Health America on 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org.