About an hour after I gave birth to my now 12 week old baby boy, the left side of my face started to feel different to my right. My smile, which at his birth had spread evenly, familiarly, across my face, felt tighter. I noticed that the scrunch of my nose and the seal of my left eye was weak.
I didn’t know it at the time, but in the afterglow of delivering my first born, my face was on its way to becoming paralysed. In the days that followed, it became completely immovable. I couldn’t smile, blink, taste or speak without slurring. And I thought fading my stretch marks would be top of my to-do list after delivery.
I was diagnosed was Bells Palsy, a condition caused by swelling of the facial nerve which controls the muscles of the face, ear, salivary glands and tear ducts. The inflammation causes temporary paralysis or weakness in the muscles of the affected side of the face and though it usually resolves itself within a few months, recovery can take much longer and some people experience permanent symptoms. Bells Palsy presents in only a tiny fraction of the population, but pregnant women are more susceptible to the condition, due to the extra fluid retained in a woman’s body.
As my paralysis set in, I descended into a deep depression. I felt sad about the trivial things (my mouth couldn’t open wide enough to eat the smoked salmon bagel I had craved for my whole pregnancy) and panicked about those that were much more significant (when would I be able to smile at my son? Would I ever recognise the face I saw in the mirror?).
I am telling my story because despite being told by the doctor who diagnosed me that she had seen several other women who had come down with the condition around the time that I had, I could find very little relevant information online about pregnancy-induced Bells Palsy. Most importantly for me, I found almost no personal accounts or testimonials from women who had come out the other side. Desperate for reassurance that I would get better, I navigated time zones to call an acquaintance of an acquaintance living in Israel, so I could hear the story of her recovery from over 10 years ago.
While I painstakingly waited – wished – for the fragments of my face to piece back together, I learnt a few lessons about resilience, conviction and the fragility of postnatal mental health. As no woman seems to come out of pregnancy or childbirth unscathed, I share these lessons here in the hope that it helps other women who are looking to pick up their pieces, however they are scattered.
If time doesn’t heal all wounds, it certainly dulls their pain. During the long weeks I spent waiting for my eye, lips and cheek to wake up, I spent the first few willing time to pass faster. When it inevitably didn’t, I surprised myself by revelling in the slowness. I stayed home and watched too much of the summer cricket test series, I half read books I wasn’t interested in and online shopped without compunction during 3am feeds. The days passed and on some I noticed small improvements to my face and my mental health. On the days where there were none, I recognised that at least I didn’t feel the same as I did the previous day or week, or, at the very least, on the day that my symptoms first started.
To those women willing the light at the end of the tunnel to appear, know that if it seems impossible to simply wait, the state you are in is not permanent. As a wise woman told me when I was at my lowest, your pain will not be this acute forever, with the passage of time, either your circumstances will change, or you will adapt to a new normal. With that in mind, sit on your couch, feed your baby and hope that there’s something better to watch on TV than the cricket.
Lean in to those around you
If you can’t see a way forward, allow others to guide you there. I am lucky to have an unabashedly intrusive support, network that I leant on heavily to help me recover. My husband, parents and close family buoyed me emotionally, and I was physically taken care of by a champion GP who was quick to diagnose me with postnatal depression and prescribe anti-anxiety medication.
If you too are lucky to have these type of people in your life, utilise them: ask your GP about creating a mental health plan so you can access counselling sessions covered by Medicare; ask family and friends for meals that aren’t conditional on an invitation inside and, importantly, for someone to take the baby so that you can wash your hair in peace.
Let it be about you
During my recovery, I came across people who responded to my diagnosis with advice along the lines of ‘these are the sacrifices mothers make for their children’. As a new mother who barely knew my baby, I questioned what I was expected to give up to become a mum. Could it reasonably include my face?
I am not ashamed to say that embracing such self-sacrifice was beyond me. Instead, the best thing I could do for my baby was to prioritise my own well being. For me, that meant cloistering away for several weeks while my mind and body healed and until I felt I had the bandwidth to do more than take care of my baby and occasionally respond to text messages. For you, it might mean exercise, formula and a night nurse. Let us allow mothering to be about the mother.
Today, it has been three months since the onset of my symptoms, and I am so grateful that I again recognise the face I see in the mirror. I eventually ate that smoked salmon bagel and by the time my son learnt to smile, I was able to smile back at him.
My symptoms of Bells Palsy may be mostly gone, but I will forever remember how I felt and what I learnt during my difficult postpartum period. So if any woman finds solace in these words, I hope that they are just a starting point. We should continue to share the lessons we learn as we muddle our way through motherhood, each contending with oh so much more than fading stretch marks.
Words: Johanna Deutsch