How photography helped me to overcome postnatal depression

Kerry Bartlett had her first child aged 21 and suffered with severe postnatal depression. To get through it, she focused on her new career as a freelance photographer. Here, she discusses her struggles and how she overcame them…

This article was originally published in March 2016. At the time, Kerry was 32 and living in a village near Glastonbury in Somerset, with her graphic designer husband Nathan and their two children: Oscar, eight, and Pixie, three.

I grew up not far from the village we live in now. I love Somerset and will probably never leave, I used to want to be a farmer and still hold that thought close – one day, perhaps. My childhood was wonderful. Apart from some small house rules, table manners and the like, my parents were very laid-back. We were left to roam the countryside, and we were always making stuff – inventions, furniture – and re-decorating our rooms. Our house was often the ‘party’ or ‘sleep-over’ house of choice because I knew for sure that mum would agree.

Nathan and I met at a bus-stop, en-route to a mutual friend’s house party. It wasn’t until we both ended up living in the same house at uni that our relationship really began. We lived together before we were even a couple, so our relationship didn’t have to go through that awkward ‘will we still like each other?’ phase of moving in together.

Life as a new mother, newly self-employed, was the toughest period of my life so far

My first pregnancy was a ‘get out of a dreadful job’ card. I am absolutely not a believer that pregnancies need to be prepared for. It was planned in as much as I suggested we have a baby and Nathan took about a month of persuasion. I was pregnant a month later. Reproduction is the most natural progression for humans so I just thought: “how bad can it be? We’ll work through it.”

We had both studied graphic design at uni, something which I knew wasn’t for me. Nathan excelled at it and quickly landed a job as a graphic designer at Clarks (shoes). By the time we had Oscar, he’d been promoted to a middleweight position. I, on the other hand, was by this time working as assistant manager in a ski shop. I hated the job; I spent my whole time fantasising about self-employment. I was quite sure I could make it as ‘something’ but I had no idea what.

Because I had this self-employment fantasy in my head, I knew I wouldn’t be going back to work at the shop. I spent some of my pre-birth maternity allowance on a camera and although I don’t think I was planning to be a photographer at this stage, by the time Oscar was born, I must have been aware of what was coming because all the early photos we have of him are portrait-style photographs, with carefully chosen backgrounds and moody lighting. Within weeks of his birth, I had started building myself a website, booking friends in for portrait shoots and learning my new craft.

Kerry- weddingI had always been interested in photography. It had been a silent partner – from my first camera at about eight-years-old, to an AS-Level at college and an A-Level during my retail days. I feel glad that I didn’t study photography at uni because having never been very academic, I would have quickly fallen out of love with it.

I kept my postnatal depression secret

Life as a new mother, newly self-employed, was the toughest period of my life so far. I was desperate to become a photographer, desperate to earn money and to get out of the house and have some alone time. I was suffering from postnatal depression which, sadly, I kept from everyone close to me.

Oscar was a difficult baby. He was tricky to get to sleep and only slept for short amounts of time. When he eventually did sleep through the night, he certainly never slept in the day. He cried a lot during his first year and every day was a battle – I battled with my own depression, with his crying and with keeping up appearances because my diagnosis was another six months away. I would work myself to extreme tiredness in pursuit of my career, something that had a knock-on effect with the depression.

My first wedding as a photographer was on Oscar’s first birthday. I hadn’t realised this until long after accepting the booking. I remember feeling a battle of emotions on that day; feeling I had finally ‘become’ the person I was working to become, feeling freedom at working away from home for the day and of course feeling utter guilt that I wasn’t at home to celebrate. Of course, Oscar didn’t know what a birthday was but that guilt lives with me. It always will.

We were both young when we had Oscar – immature, really. We were extremely tired and I was an emotional wreck. Nathan must have been relieved to get to work in the morning, although he often had to spare some of his day to listen to me crying down the phone at him. I couldn’t cope and I was desperate for him to come home and relieve my duties. I was scared of what I might do to Oscar for the first year and a half and with Nathan knowing none of this, he was naturally feeling very stressed at my seemingly irrational crying and pleading.

Men tend not to be overly aware as first-time fathers. Bare in mind also, we were the first of our friends to have children. We were in fact the first by about six years, so Nathan had no friends who could understand or advise.

With postnatal depression, I needed extra support

Nathan is the best father I have ever known. And I don’t mean that just because he is my husband I think he’s great. My mental state meant that he was (literally) forced to take over night-feeds or comfort a crying Oscar. To begin with, he wasn’t very compliant but in time he got into a routine and after the diagnosis of postnatal depression, I was able to explain how I had felt and what I needed him to help with.

Nathan also had to become flexible with childcare as I began to work more weddings and portraits. In the early days, this caused a lot of strain. He is a methodical, structured man, to whom self-employment doesn’t make sense. I had to prove my worth before he really felt that my career was heading towards success.

Kerry - PixieI knew I had postnatal depression from the start. Five days into Oscar’s life I was utterly miserable, detached and easily upset. I googled my symptoms often and always they pointed to moderate, if not severe postnatal depression. I was finally diagnosed when Oscar was one-and-a-half. It took a single trip to the doctor during which I was given Prozac and sent on my way. The tablets worked quickly but I was concerned I would become hooked.

Some days were really dark

I made it through each day, just about. I counted the hours until Nathan would return from work. When Oscar slept or played, I worked on my computer or trained myself with my camera and when he needed me, I tended to him almost robotically. There were times when I was heavily into my work and I would get up to feed Oscar, finding that bottles hadn’t been sterilised. He would be screaming and I would be tired to the point of exhaustion and feeling really angry. Some days were really dark. I would have stayed up the night before to finish my website or edit a wedding and really I was a robot or a zombie. My eyes were almost closed and had a kind of fog constantly in front of them.

It was the right decision to have a baby aged 24 because I know for sure that there is never a right time. We spent about four months only living on Nathan’s wage, with a mortgage to pay. All my earnings went on photographic equipment with a bit spare for clothing and essentials. We spent £25 a week on food for a while and I had to be really inventive in the kitchen. I remember once making bread rolls. All we had was flour and mayonnaise, which I used as a raising agent. They worked!

Although we were poor for a while, we learned some really important life skills during that time. If I were to have a first child now, I don’t know how my business would survive. This must be why lots of women worry about the break in their careers. I think it is worth considering that the hard times are better played out when you’re not stuck in a routine of good money and a job you love.

By the time I was diagnosed with postnatal depression, Oscar (being one-and-a-half) was calmer than he had been previously and Nathan and I were due to marry later that year so I was beginning to feel better by that point. I took myself off the pills and used St John’s Wort to help with the depression. I was so excited for the wedding and Oscar was beginning to talk. I had a good amount of weddings booked in for that year and life was looking up. Our rough beginnings were smoothing out and I knew I would cope better the second time around.

Kerry - kids x6Because planning a baby is tricky with 18 months of weddings booked in, it took us three years to plan to have Pixie and Oscar was nearly five when she was born. I had a massive plan in my head, and I mean massive. I planned work, home life, school runs, the pregnancy rituals, the birth – everything was planned beforehand. I made sure I was really fit during the pregnancy and planned a birth standing up for as long as possible.

When I had given birth to Oscar, I was given a pethidine injection that made me groggy and slow to push. With Pixie’s birth, I was so focused on managing the pain in my head; I refused even the gas and air, when offered; I was using both hands to grip the bed so I couldn’t hold a mouthpiece. Nathan had told me I should try visualising my contractions as waves that I would surf to the shore. This really worked! The more painful the contraction got, the closer I was to the crest of the wave, then riding the wave was the easy part at the end of the contraction.

I had brought my camera to hospital and as Pixie was crowning, I shouted to Nathan to pass the camera, which I then set up manually so that he could capture Pixie’s arrival. Those are the most incredible photographs I have (kind of) taken.

Pixie was a calmer baby than Oscar had been. I was a calmer mother too. Oscar helped with all sorts of brotherly duties and I was able to work alongside Pixie. She really was very easy. My first portrait shoot was just two weeks after giving birth. The shoot was on the coast and I got soaked through in the constant cold April rain. I had tonsillitis following that day and I was forced to take stock again – consider what was important. I recovered quickly and took that as a lesson learned.

I have to be learning and advancing, always. My two beautiful children deserve so much from me – I owe a lot to Oscar and I want him to have gained something from our rocky beginnings. It feels really good to give him great days out as a family. In fact, I overheard him talking to a friend not long ago about what his happiest memory is. He told her that it was the day we surprised him with Otis, our shih tzu. I bought Otis and although money doesn’t buy happiness, my hard-earned money bought us a dog who gives us all so much pleasure and love.

I have two personal photography projects underway this year. The first is a landscape one that I have been planning for about three years. I hope to start shooting soon with a view to hold an exhibition early in 2017. My second project is based around the kids. It is called Ogg and Pig (when Pixie was a baby, she called herself ‘Piggy’ and Oscar ‘Ogger’) and follows their daily lives. The idea is to create really quite stylised works out of the everyday happenings, something which isn’t easy, even as a photographer. I’m trying to create the project without interfering too much with what they’re doing. They are used to the camera so they often know what I want, even before I do! Some of the photographs have been comical, some quite moody. Always they depict the real Oscar and Pixie, even when posed.

Kerry - familyWe are really lucky to have two sets of parents close by. That said; we do pay for childcare where possible. We don’t want our parents to resent the situation so we tend to ask them for help on odd occasions. Probably once a week, I will ask my mum to help out with short-term childcare, a pick-up from school, that kind of thing. Nathan’s parents tend to look after them on a weekend day once a month. I pay a childminder to look after them when needed. We have a great flexible arrangement where I pay more per hour than a usual childminder but on the understanding that the work is ad-hoc and she is under no obligation to take the job. This means that during the busy summer, I have childcare but in the leaner winter, I’m not paying for a childminder I don’t really need. Nathan’s job is weekdays only so most weekend weddings are covered.

We have been climbing the property ladder since before Oscar was born, so we continue in pursuit of our ‘forever home’. My business is now financially useful when it comes to getting a mortgage, which it wasn’t in the early days. We are not planning on having any more children. While we both used to desire four children, we are very content with our two. Once you have experienced post-natal depression, you realise what a big risk factor it is, should you want more children.

But I’d like to take this opportunity to tell couples who are worrying about how they might afford to have children, or how children will fit into their lives, that the question of having children should not be a money or a career question, it should be a physical and emotional question; can we have children, physically? Do we feel we will miss out if we choose not to have children? If you are at all concerned that you will regret the decision not to have children then that should be enough to start planning. Having a family is such a natural thing; it doesn’t make sense to put man-made blockades of careers and money in the way.