Donna-Marie Gibson

The RAF first-time mum who says its okay to find motherhood tough

Donna-Marie Gibson

The RAF first-time mum who says its okay to find motherhood tough

43-year-old Donna Marie Gibson became a first-time mum during the Covid-19 pandemic. The RAF Corporal became a single mother following a relationship breakdown and has struggled to raise her baby alone as the UK was repeatedly plunged into lockdown. Isolated and unable to access post-natal support, she turned to SSAFA.

On her first Mother’s Day as a mum, Donna is calling for other struggling mums to reach out for help if they need it.

“I got pregnant when I was 42 and had Oliver when I was 43.

“He was born on 15th April 2020, right at the beginning of lockdown. I work for the RAF, and at the time I was posted 200 miles away from my family. It was tough.

“When I was just eight weeks pregnant, my dad had a stroke and now has vascular dementia and being kept apart from him has been so hard. And just days after Oliver was born my Nana died.

“On top of that, Oliver was born with Craniotabes [a soft skull] and later developed positional plagiocephaly [a disorder that affects the skull, making the back or side of a baby’s head appear flattened], so I had to take him to regular hospital appointments. I was alone with a baby, and it was hard.

“The lack of help during those early days was really hard.

“I didn’t plan on becoming a single mother. I never thought after an incredible RAF career that I would even become a mother. But that is how life turned out.

“Although I was so overwhelmed by love for my son, the reality versus the expectation was so different.

“Being a mum is a lot harder than I expected. The tiredness, the lack of being able to just even get in the car and go to the shop without getting him dressed, getting him in the car, crying, taking nappies.

“When you see a mother out shopping with a baby, you don’t think of what it has taken to even get her to the shops in the first place.

“I couldn’t go to the gym or do anything for myself, because there was no one to look after Oliver, and because of Covid-19 no one could come in to help me.

“There were times when I was so tired because I'd been up all night and I wanted a meal, but I didn't have any energy or time to cook.

“The lack of help during those early days was really hard and it affected my mental health quite a lot. I really missed having family support.

“Being in the military, even when everyone in the country was separated in lockdown, was tough. I wasn’t safe in the knowledge that my family were just around the corner. I knew I was alone.

“My ex’s parents were great, and I saw them every two weeks, because they were the closest people to me. But still they were 40 minutes away by car and mostly I was alone.

“My mental health most definitely suffered. I noticed a difference in myself, but luckily, I felt strong enough to speak up to doctors.

“Despite the supposedly perfect lives of women you see on social media, it's completely normal to feel that way, but it's almost still a taboo. Many women feel they’ve just got to ‘keep going’ for fear that they might have their child taken off them, but it’s not the case.

“Because I spoke up to my doctor on base, I was given the help I needed.”

I feel like I lost my whole ‘new mum journey’

“Having a baby during the pandemic was very tough and I feel like I lost my whole ‘new mum journey’.

“It was towards the end of my pregnancy that we went into lockdown. Appointments were very short and very clinical and there were no antenatal classes.

“They tried to keep the birth as normal as possible, and actually that was a really good experience for me.

“At the beginning I was walking on clouds thinking 'I'm a new mum, this is all great’. It was weeks later when I realised, 'This is my life now', that's when I went downhill. That's when I really needed to be going to mum and baby classes, to speak to other mums, to get me out of the house, and I never had any of that.

“I was just inside, and even to go to the shops, was worrying, from packing everything, to sanitizing everything.

“The health visitor called me 15 days after Oliver was born, and because I said I felt okay at that time, they didn’t contact me again for four months. I could have picked the phone up, but I didn't really want to bother them with my problems. Especially with everything in the news about the strain the NHS was under. I just thought I was wasting their time. It would have been nice for them to call and check in on me. Maybe because of my age they thought that I’d be okay, or more able to cope.

“I did eventually pick up the phone to the health visitor to ask them to visit, but I got most of my support from SSAFA.”

Jenna showed me how to cope, she gave me clarity and showed me how I could help myself.

“I first got in touch with SSAFA when I went to speak to my unit’s welfare team.

“I was worried about how I was going to manage financially as a single mum, paying huge nursery bills and caring for a child on my own.

“I just thought, 'I can't do this.' I couldn’t even begin to imagine how I was going to make it happen on my own. They put me in touch with Jenna at SSAFA.

“If I hadn't have gone through the welfare chain, I would never have thought to go to them. I guess it's a British thing, 'We'll just carry on', but I knew that, because I was on my own with Oliver, I had to do not just what was right for me but what was right for him. It was up to me to take charge of myself and him.

“Jenna was someone to talk to and she offered me sound advice on how to take control. She helped rationalise everything for me, which I needed when I was isolated from everyone else.

“On my own, I was living in my own head. I was overthinking, cooking things up and made everything seem worse than it actually was. Jenna showed me how to cope, she gave me clarity and showed me how I could help myself. She was absolutely fantastic, and SSAFA is just amazing and the work they do is so vital.

“If it wasn't for them and the military doctor, I don't know what I'd have done.”

Now I want to do something to remove that stigma first time mums face

“Civilian or military, if you're finding motherhood hard, then you need to speak out, because I feel completely different now. I'm in a better place emotionally and physically. Had I not asked for help, it could have been different.

“I’m now at RAF Honington which is closer to my family. I've got a nice home here with a huge garden, my work/life balance has improved because my role has changed, which really helps with the little one.

“I went back to work in January.

“I was dreading it. I was dreading leaving Oliver. I'd not left him before. The whole time, we'd just had each other and we have an incredibly strong bond. I thought I would suffer with him back at nursery.

“Actually, the opposite has happened. Now I'm back at work, I have time for me. That’s also helped my mental health.

“I'm getting the interaction with people that I've missed out on for the best part of a year. I can go running at lunchtime. I feel like myself again.

“And Oliver loves nursery. All he does is smile, he's the happiest child I think I've ever seen. He adores his keyworker. And he's coming on leaps and bounds because he is interacting with other children. It's absolutely fantastic.

“I feel a lot better than I did, but now I want to do something to remove that stigma first time mums face if they don’t pretend everything is perfect. Finding life with a newborn tough is completely normal. Covid-19 was an added pressure. It's hard being a new mum. Your body changes. Your mental state changes. It's not what you expect and that is okay.

“I want other new mums to know, it's not going to stay like this. It's not going to be like this forever. You're going to need support so don't be frightened to ask for it, even if you don’t find it easy.

“For other mums in the military or whose partners are, reach out to the channels that are available to you, like I did with SSAFA. We're really lucky to have them.”

“Now, I'm just looking forward to seeing my family when this all ends because my dad's vascular dementia is getting worse. These things can deteriorate quickly, and he's not a very well man. I'd like to be able to see him at some point. My little boy's only seen my family once since he was born and he's nearly one.

“It’s my dream to hold a little party for Oliver and get everybody together.”