Bronwyn Bay's powerful story of a shocking but life-changing experience.
It was a stunning, crisp winter day in May 2013. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and yet a storm raged inside of me. I was in the depths of post natal depression where I could see no light, no hope, and no way out of the exhaustion, anxiety and fears that had overcome me. It was only 10am and already I felt completely drained. Tears streamed down my face as I thought about the fact that I was going to have to get through another 7 hours at least until Chris got home. I thought about inviting another mum over to help pass the time. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t bear the thought of putting on a smile while we discussed teething issues and I’d have to pretend that when both my daughters were screaming at me, I didn’t hang my head in my hands and fantasise about walking out the front door and never looking back.
I didn’t realise I had put expectations on myself regarding becoming a mother a second time until Michaela arrived. Everything was different. She was breastfed, Charlotte wasn’t. She only did 20min cat naps throughout the day, Charlotte had slept for 2-3 hours. She woke every 1-2 hours in the night, Charlotte had slept longer. I was not prepared for the level of exhaustion I was still going to be feeling after 4 months and it didn’t seem like it was going to let up any time soon. Plus my beautiful 2 year old had changed from a happy and joyful child to a terror who threw things, drew on things, yelled and screamed and pushed everyone but me away. She both loved and hated her new baby sister who was taking up almost all my attention. Michaela constantly wanted to be held and would cry if I sat down or stood still. The guilt I felt for the pain my 2 year old was going through tore me up inside. It was incredibly hard for all 3 of us. I cried to the night sky and asked whoever might be listening to give me strength.
So here I was on this morning in May at my wits end when I decided that we would go for a walk. Charlotte insisted that she was tired and wanted to lie down in the stroller. So I laid it flat and I strapped her in. I wasn’t going to deal with her trying to move around in there while pretending to sleep. I threw a blanket over her, popped Michaela into her sling and off we went. We had only gotten around the corner when I stopped at a crossroad. Usually I go left towards the playground and do a walk around the block but today I felt a little tug inside me that said “why not go right?”. It seemed like small decision but it was one that would change my life. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was a hugely crucial crossroad that I was standing at.
I sort of shrugged my shoulders and thought “why not? I’ve got nowhere to be” and so I went right. I went right into a powerful transformation. Heading right meant I was walking along a flat pathway that runs along the top of a bank leading down to a shallow storm drain. I had only just started along the path when Micahela started to fuss in her sling. As she wiggled like a little worm I hoisted the sling up a little so that her legs would be more comfortable and then I heard Charlotte cry “Mumma!”. She sounded scared. I looked up and saw that the stroller was gone. In my exhaustion and drained state, I had absent mindedly taken my hands off the stroller to adjust the sling and not put the brake on. I looked to my right and saw, to my horror, the stroller crashing down the hill towards the storm drain.
Usually this wouldn’t have been a huge problem. I mean, of course it’s a major problem when a stroller rolls down a hill with a child strapped inside but what I mean is the storm drain is shallow. On most days there is a trickle of water running through it. But this was no ordinary day. This was the day of my transformation. I saw the stroller hit the storm drain and topple on its side in the water. Even as I ran down the hill after it I was having a typical mum thought of “oh great, nowshe’s wet, the walk is ruined, we’ll have to go home”. It wasn’t until I got to the stroller that I realised things were much worse than expected. Due to the thunder storm we’d had yesterday the storm drain was full to overflowing and moving incredibly fast. I put one foot in the water to try and pull the stroller from the torrent and was instantly swept in. I landed on my butt right next to the turned over stroller. The water was freezing! I was stunned for just a moment as Michaela began to scream as she was half in the water. She looked at me with a bewildered face as if to say “why am I coldandwet?” I turned to the stroller and saw a sight I will never forget. Charlotte’s face under water as the torrent streamed over her. She was trapped under the water due her being strapped in the stroller. It was so surreal, it felt like it wasn’t happening but it was and I had to get the stroller out of the water. I pushed at it from my awkward place of sitting in the water and it would not budge. This is no little push chair. This is a Phil and Ted’s mountain buggy. It weighs 30lbs and had my 20lb daughter inside. Plus, the force of the raging water was pinning it down. I realised from where I was sitting I couldn’t lift it and she needed her head above water NOW. “God!” I called out as I felt the intensity of the situation. I became incredibly focused. I didn’t have time to panic or scream. Instinctively I wedged my leg under the stroller and used it to lever the stroller up so her head would come above water. As her head raised above the water she opened her eyes and gasped for air. She was breathing, I had done it, now I could panic.
I yelled for help and I heard one of the most beautiful sounds. A young man running down the hill from the Christian College that was on the other side of the storm drain calling out “I’m coming!”. He and a group of other students came galloping down the hill to pluck us from the chilly water. I sat trembling on the grass in shock with my eyes closed. I couldn’t bear to take in the world around me . I retreated inside, unable to respond. One of the girls stood forward and asked me gently “can I take your baby from you?” to which I nodded gratefully. The students took my girls into their care on the grassy bank. I knew they were safe and in that moment I released all the sorrow, pain, rage and anguish that I had been trying to cope with since birthing Michaela. It was all too much. I had only just been hanging on and now this – I was done. “My babies almost drowned!” I wailed in between the torrent of tears and cries that flooded out of me. I wailed and I sobbed at the top of my lungs. I had, on so many occasions, wished that I could go outside and scream at the top of my lungs without the neighbours thinking I was being murdered. Now I was doing it and I didn’t care. I wouldn’t say I let the emotions out, I had lost all control – they burst their way out of me. It was cathartic. It came directly from my stomach, through my heart, out my mouth and out onto the muddy grass which is all I could keep my eyes on at the time.
The students around me were all in their final year of school. About 7 of them had come down the hill and stood around me at a distance. One of the girls was struggling with my distress and asked me “what should we do?”. I felt for that girl, truly. She was on the verge of becoming an adult but there was still very much a child in her voice. She was asking me for guidance as an adult. I had to tell her while still staring at the mud “I’m sorry, I’m in shock. I don’t know what to do”. I can imagine they all felt quite helpless in that situation but what they didn’t realise was they were already doing something amazing. Their mere loving and caring presence from a distance gave me the space I needed to release the traumatic emotions that were within. To this day I feel that being allowed to have such a huge release on that muddy bank saved me from post traumatic syndrome – I’m not sure why I believe that but I certainly recovered much quicker than expected from my ordeal.
Soon a teacher appeared and helped me up the bank. I was reunited with my girls and we were taken to the nearby clinic to get checked over. One of the strangest things I noticed on that day was how Charlotte was behaving. As I was being helped up the bank still shaking and in shock I saw Charlotte sitting with a group of students. She had a blanket around her and she had a very strange closed mouth smile on her face. As the doctor checked her over at the clinic she continued to have this strange smile on her face. She never cried – even when she was pulled from the water. She seemed completely at ease with the experience and even the next day asked to get in the stroller and lay down.
Once I had overcome the shock I realised I had overcome something else. My post natal depression had vanished. I was so immersed in the feeling of gratitude that I still had both my daughters with me that it was impossible for me to feel anything else. When I told people what had happened some of them would react in horror and say “oh my god, what if Charlotte hadn’t been strapped in and had been swept away? What if Micahela had been in the second seat of the stroller? What if? What if? What if?”. I’ll admit it was difficult to hear people pointing out to me how much worse the situation could have been, bringing me images of much worse potential outcomes. I continued to feel nothing but gratitude and I would tell them so “yes, it could have been so much worse. I’m so grateful. Thank god Charlotte was strapped in, thank god I wasn’t in a more remote location of the walkway, thank god Charlotte called out to me as the stroller rolled down the hill, thank god it was morning tea break and the students were in the lunch room that looks over the storm drain”.
What happened to my girls and I, in my view, was nothing short of a traumatic miracle. Is that possible? After all we think of miracles as wondrous and joyous events. Well I think it is, because it happened to me. I’m sure there are many who have been through a traumatic or incredibly painful situation to find a multitude of gifts on the other side of the experience. There is plenty I’ve gone through in my life that seemed unfair and horrible at the time that actually delivered me to people, places, realisations and experiences that I would not have had otherwise.
If you are going through something traumatic and painful right now, I’m not going to say something cliché to you like ‘this too shall pass’ or ‘everything happens for a reason’ (give me a bucket!). What I’m doing is sharing my traumatic experience with you to let you know that for me – when it seemed like the universe had kicked me when I was down it was actually busting me out of the prison I was in. Had I not asked for strength? I was so far down the hole that 'gently does it' wasn’t going to cut it. The universe lit a rocket under my butt and sent me to the stars.
Do I still walk around feeling euphorically grateful for my girls when they are screaming, crying, throwing things and biting? Of course not, there will always be ups and downs but I don’t think I could ever go back to such a low place where I would wish them away because I almost got my wish. Sometimes the only way to break free is to go through something chaotic. A plant busting out of the seed must seem like total destruction at the time when in fact it’s growth. A caterpillar shuts itself away into closed off darkness before kicking its way out of the cocoon it created. As long as you’re breathing there’s hope.
I hope my story gives you strength.
With Love, Bron (seed buster, cocoon kicker)
Opening my heart to mothers has allowed many to do the same with me. So many mums are struggling with all sorts of heartaches. As a result I felt compelled to try and address these issues and created a not for profit conference called 'Mothers Unite! A Women's Empowerment Conference'. It's happening on Sunday 15th March at the Zen Garden in Auckland. Here is the website www.mothersunite.net http://www.mothersunite.net
Bronwyn created a community support initiative for mums in East Auckland called, It Takes A Village. For more information go to http://ittakesavillageakld.wix.com/village