Welcome to our series, The Motherhood Diaries. The pandemic years have been hard on everyone but when it comes to maternal mental health, there have been added layers for people who have had a baby in the past two years. Over the next couple of weeks, we’re talking to some of our past How Are You Today people who have had a baby in the pandemic to talk about their experiences and how they’re feeling now. First up, we’re talking to The Edge host and Dancing With the Stars host Sharyn Casey about having a premature baby in a pandemic, the #1 bit of advice she gives to her pregnant friends and what she and husband Bryce Casey say is the greatest gift you can give a parent.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a mum?
I always knew I wanted to be a mum but I thought it would be easier to become a mum than it was. We spend our whole lives trying not to get pregnant and then as soon as you want to get pregnant, some people are incredibly lucky and bang, there it goes – pardon the pun – and for other people, it’s really hard. I wanted to be a mum sooner than I was, but once I did become a mum, I think it was the perfect time. But I didn’t always know if I wanted more than one and I didn’t think it would be as hard as it was.
We’ve done a lot of stories with Baby Loss Awareness and it can be really hard for mums who have experienced baby loss when they do have a full-term healthy pregnancy and it’s still really hard – because motherhood IS hard and stressful, but there’s an added layer of ‘oh, but you’ve wanted this for so long.’ How did you manage that range of emotions?
I think there’s a lot of guilt when you have lost some babies and then you have your baby and… everyone tells you when you’re pregnant, non-stop, ‘Oh, as soon as you hold that baby in your arms, you will feel this love that you’ve never felt in your entire life and blah blah blah…’ and for some people, that’s really true. But for a lot of people, it’s not true – you love them, but you don’t get the overwhelming, ‘Oh my GOD’ love. It doesn’t always just come straightaway.
I make a point now of saying to my pregnant friends, ‘everyone says this will happen – and it may happen for you. But if it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with you.’
So many people had said that to me that when I didn’t immediately feel that way, I was too scared to tell Bryce, because I was like ‘I’ve lost three babies before this and I’m not having this overwhelming love that everyone keeps talking about.’ A week after Tyson was born, I started bawling my eyes out and I said to Bryce ‘I don’t have that overwhelming love that everyone’s talking about, do you?’ and he was like ‘…I do.’ And I got really upset.
I texted my sister and said, ‘I think I’ve got post-natal depression; I don’t have this overwhelming love I’m supposed to have.’ And she replied, ‘Not all people get that straightaway, and for some people it’s moments, rather than all the time.’ And I was so grateful she said that to me, because I had never heard that before but so many of my friends had that exact same feeling as me, when I told them ‘I knew I loved him with all my heart but I didn’t have that overwhelming feeling.’ I had a couple of friends burst into tears, saying, ‘that’s how I feel, but no-one talks about it.’ I make a point now of saying to my pregnant friends, ‘everyone says this will happen – and it may happen for you. But if it doesn’t, there’s nothing wrong with you.’
Because you’d already experienced depression and anxiety before becoming a parent, were you worried that becoming a mother would affect your mental health?
My mental health has always been a marathon, so sometimes it’s really good and sometimes it’s not. It really came to a climax about a year before I had Reuben, after that second 2020 lockdown, when I started having panic attacks and I started taking medication, which was the best thing that I’ve ever done and I’m so pissed off with myself that I didn’t do it earlier. But it never came into my thought process of having kids; it did however really push me to be more proactive with my mental health – go and see a therapist regularly, have a safety net, communicate better with the people around me if I’m having a bad day, because I don’t want my sons to watch me not deal with it.
Having a therapist is the most helpful tool for me because it’s like going to see a friend who can’t legally tell people what I’m going to say [laughs]. So being able to go and unleash everything was really helpful. There’s also a really good app called ‘Kite’ which is very helpful – but generally, talking is the best for me. Talking to a therapist, talking to someone I trust.
How have you found those chats with other mums? Because they can be both really good and also a total minefield.
I always say to friends of mine that are about to become parents, ‘Text me or call me whenever you need to, because nothing is ever weird and nothing is ever gross.’ Because I feel like, once you’ve had a baby, nothing is too weird and nothing is too gross any more. And if you’ve got good friends, you can really ask them about anything. ANYTHING. Like… some of the messages I have sent my friends are… wow.
‘Once you’ve had a baby, nothing is too weird and nothing is too gross any more’
But if you’ve got really good friends, there is nothing you can ask them that will make them judge you. I went to anti natal classes with Tyson and the best part of those classes is meeting people who are in the trenches with you; I remember a girl, Sarah, who I became really good friends with and there were only two days in between my son and her son and we would text in the middle of the night. It was really reassuring, because we were in the same space.
You had your first son pre-pandemic and your second son in the middle of last year’s horrendously long lockdown. How did the pandemic affect your experience?
It was definitely hard – and it was really hard for Bryce because he is such a hands-on, awesome partner, who does just as much – if not more – than I do, which is something I’m so grateful for (and probably don’t tell him enough). For him, it was so hard to miss the scans because Bryce doesn’t miss scans. It wouldn’t matter if he had an interview with the greatest rock star on the planet, he’s not missing that scan. But he had to miss them because of the restrictions, which was really hard for him and also for me, because I find scans so scary because I’ve lost babies in the past.
And then I was in hospital for about five weeks before Reuben was born, and couldn’t have any visitors, because everyone was in lockdown. Our parents live out of Auckland and then even the family we did have here, were also in lockdown. Bryce was able to pop up after work for about an hour, hour and a half, and then go home and look after our four-year-old. So, for 23 hours a day, I was completely alone in the hospital.
The midwives and the obstetricians basically became my friends. and then once I got moved to Auckland hospital, when it looked like Reuben was going to come, I got roomed with somebody who has now become one of my closest friends. We had the exact same due date, so if we got up in the night, we’d be like ‘We’ve done it, we’ve kept our boys in for another day.’ And then we were in NICU [Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit] together so when we went home, it was so sad because we hadn’t seen anyone else in about four months.
I didn’t see anyone – apart from Bryce – until December. And we got back from our holiday in August. It was pretty intense. Because you couldn’t have any visitors in the hospital, the only person who could visit was Bryce. Post-natally, my mum was here. And I had had a vertical C-section – so a C-section that goes up – so I couldn’t get up by myself as I needed two hands on my stomach to get up.
I needed to take pain relief 20 minutes before I stood up because the pain was bad. It took a midwife or Bryce to get me out of bed, so when Bryce went home, I would have to wait for a midwife to help me – and they’re so overloaded already – so they could wheel me down to see Reuben and then wait for them to wheel me back, because I couldn’t walk and I couldn’t get out of bed by myself. So that’s a really long answer to tell you that it was really, really f—king lonely. I started trapping midwives into conversations for a really long time [laughs].
That sounds… I mean, that’s a lot. How are you now?
I’m good… [pauses] I’m in a space where it’s slowly all coming back to me. People keep asking me, ‘why haven’t you shared Reuben’s birth date? Or how much he weighed?’ Well it’s partly because I don’t really think people need to know that information and also because I haven’t processed any of this yet.
It was quite traumatic and I need time to process it all, to not see a Starship video and get anxious. It’s a lot. I’ve had friends who have had premature babies and I don’t think you can really understand what it’s like until you’ve been through it. it is unreal to me that so many families go through this, so often.
And when it’s Covid, and you’ve got a baby in NICU, you’re only allowed to see the baby one at a time. We were really lucky that we had a doctor who disagreed with that rule and let us go in together, but for six weeks Bryce and I only saw Reuben together – and with masks on – for about 20 minutes in total. For seven weeks, Tyson didn’t get to meet his younger brother, which is wild – he knew he had a brother, he’d seen pictures of his brother but he didn’t get to meet him and that’s confusing for a four-year-old. But that’s Covid – and there are babies that were in there for way longer. And going home while your baby is still in hospital is wild.
I had no idea about how full on that process was for parents with a kid in NICU.
I’ve had friends who have had premature babies and I don’t think you can really understand what it’s like until you’ve been through it. it is unreal to me that so many families go through this, so often. And something else I didn’t realise – that people also don’t understand – is when you have a prem baby, it’s important not to discount the full experience.
‘I’m not ready to go into detail, but they were the biggest, most traumatic days of my life’
When Reuben was in NICU, someone had written a story that I had given birth and they had taken a guess at what my gestation was and it was out by five days. And for people that don’t have a prem baby, that probably doesn’t mean anything. But for someone who has a prem baby, those five days are EVEYRTHING. Every day you keep that baby in means less days in hospital. And those five days I kept Reuben inside me were the biggest fight of my life.
I’m not ready to go into detail, but they were the biggest, most traumatic days of my life. It got down to the point that every hour I kept Reuben in was a massive achievement. If you know someone who has a prem baby and you’re going to talk about what gestation they were born at, then include every single day. If their baby was born at 32 weeks and one day, then it’s 32 weeks and one day – it’s not 32 weeks. Because 24 hours is a fricking long time when you’re trying to keep a baby in.
That’s such an important point and I had no idea!
Neither did I and now I know it’s such an important thing to remember.
I saw that Reuben’s middle name is named after your obstetrician, Dr Ammar Al-Abid. Can you tell me that story?
Reuben’s first name is named after one of our really good friends, Reuben Bonner and he has the best energy; he’s kind, he’s creative, he’s super intelligent. Both of our boys are named after friends of ours and we hope that they grow up to have their qualities. And we had decided on the name Reuben, after our friend, before I was even pregnant. And then we were trying to decide on a middle name and Bryce said, ‘What about Ammar? Because if it wasn’t for Ammar, we wouldn’t even be picking a middle name.’
When we found out we were pregnant with Tyson, Ammar was one of the first people we told.
Because it’s a story of divine intervention, really. When we lost our little boy before Tyson, I had a D&C hospital procedure because I mentally – and physically – couldn’t do another miscarriage at home. Completely randomly, I was assigned Ammar and he was kind to me and I was so scared. Afterwards he came in and said to me, ‘Hi, my name is Ammar and I did your D&C and I want you to know that you’ve got a septum in your uterus and I can remove it.’
At this stage, I’d been going to so many doctors and they had all said there was nothing wrong with me. So, I went back in with him three months later – I didn’t want anyone else touching me – and after my post-op, as I was leaving he said to me, ‘Hey, I’m an obstetrician as well and when you get pregnant and you need an obstetrician, I know you better than anyone.’ And he really did [laughs].
When we found out we were pregnant with Tyson, Ammar was one of the first people we told. When I was in hospital before Reuben was born, Ammar came and visited me in the hospital every day because he knew I was lonely and couldn’t have visitors. When I went into labour the first time, he was at a guitar lesson and he came in and started doing all the things that the nurse or the midwife would normally do, because he knew I was so freaked out. It was like having my dad in the room. He’s so special to us, that when Bryce said we should use the name Ammar, it was like ‘Well, of course we should.’ There isn’t a word good enough for how good a person Ammar is.
God, I love him. What a wonderful man. I also wanted to ask you about something you had on your Instagram, where you did a solo staycation at a hotel. Why is that solo time important to you and do you recommend a staycation like that for other parents?
Bryce and I always say the greatest gift you can give a parent is a break and we’re both really good at doing that for each other. We’re both the sort of people that need a minute, so whether it’s making sure we both exercise – because we’re both assholes if we don’t exercise – or making sure we go away for holidays.
When we had Tyson, we started a savings account that we funnel money into and for our birthdays and our wedding anniversary, we do a staycation where either one of our parents comes up or we pay for someone to look after the kids and we have two nights in a hotel and we spoil ourselves. It is the BEST and then we come home refreshed.
I think it’s really important that you do something like that both for your relationship and for your own mental health. It doesn’t mean that you don’t love your kids, it’s about remembering that you’re a person that needs looking after as well. It’s like Ru Paul says, “if you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you gonna love somebody else.”
You can catch Sharyn Casey on Dancing With The Stars every Sunday at 7pm and Monday at 7:30pm, on Three.