Traumatic experience inspired Aimee Oliver to launch new initiative to help other mums
A fitness instructor from Co Armagh has revealed how she is fighting back after she felt her mental health spiralling out of control when complete strangers criticised her for breastfeeding in a cafe.
Aimee Oliver was feeding her two-week-old daughter when she overheard an elderly couple bitterly express their disgust that she was doing so in public.
It wasn't long before the 30-year-old from Portadown developed full-blown anxiety, refused to leave the house and plunged into a deep depression following the incident four years ago, which still haunts her to this day.
But the mother-of-two battled her demons by setting up a company specifically tailored to meet the needs of mums, and she has just recently taken on her first employee.
Now, she's showing solidarity with other mothers who've experienced mental health issues by organising a 'Sisterhood Soiree' fundraiser to be compèred by popular BBC broadcaster Wendy Austin, to raise awareness of perinatal mental health, as well as money for two charities.
"Bodyfit Mums came about because I had a really bad experience breastfeeding in public when Lily was only two weeks old," says Aimee.
"I was wearing a sling because I'd practised using it and everything... but there was an elderly couple sitting in front of me who were tutting and shaking their heads and shouting out things like, 'That shouldn't be happening in a cafe'.
"It was terrible. I still have nightmares about it - even now."
As Aimee's anxiety deepened, so too did her desire to shut herself indoors.
"I didn't want to leave the house," says Aimee, who now has two children - Lily (4) and Jack (20 months) - with businessman husband Matthew Oliver (31).
"I was afraid of Lily crying in public, I didn't want to be out somewhere that I had to feed her so I always fed her in the house and quickly went out.
"On top of the cafe incident I couldn't really exercise because Matthew doesn't have a nine-to-five job and I never really knew when he would be home.
"I really started to struggle even more because exercise has always been my release.
"So I was struggling with my mental health and I was also struggling to find something exercise-related where mums could bring babies - or even find support for mums wanting to exercise.
"Then, one day, I sat down and put pen to paper and started designing the programme - and four years later here I am."
Bodyfit Mums specialises in six-week post-natal fitness programmes comprising both studio and home-based elements - and children are allowed to come.
"It's a gradual process, they're not thrown in at the deep end," says Aimee, who's been in the fitness industry for 12 years. "You don't have to bring your children with you but you have that option. Most of the time babies are in their prams or car seats and I have big mats and play tents for toddlers.
"I've never actually had a day when I've thought, 'This is a really bad idea'. It's really weird - it just works.
"Half the time I'm pushing prams while feeding (babies) a bottle while coaching... we all help each other out. And it's not just for new mums."
Over the past four years, hundreds of women have passed through former lifeguard Aimee's programmes which she runs out of One Fitness in Lisburn and Portadown - and she's currently looking for premises in Belfast.
"It's eight mums per group - it's not too big, you still get that one-to-one feeling, but there are enough people so they feel like they're part of a community," she says.
"That's what it's all about. I put them into their own group chat at the start of the six weeks and I still have group chats going from over two-and-a-half years ago.
"It's not necessarily all about fitness - more about who's trying what type of gin," she laughs.
She also plans to launch a prenatal fitness programme next year.
Having turned her own mental ill-health into a successful business, Aimee says she's met many other mums who've been struggling to cope with the demands of motherhood.
"One in five mums in Northern Ireland will be diagnosed with a perinatal mental health issue," she says.
"Despite this, a staggering 80% of parents have no access to specialist services and therefore must rely on community services for support."
Northern Ireland is the only region in the UK which doesn't have access to funding for perinatal mental health charities and that's where the Sisterhood Soiree fundraiser, due to take place on October 26 at Belfast's Wellington Park Hotel, comes in.
"I'm running the fundraising event because I've noticed that some mums are struggling with depression and anxiety," she says.
"I've had mums sitting in a car park for an hour with me thinking they haven't been able to make it, but it's because they can't actually get out of the car..."
Indeed, because "there are a lot of mental health issues going on" Aimee felt the need to reach out to the two charities.
"We Are Pangs NI deals with the perinatal side of things and Birthwise is focused on helping developing the services for parents in Northern Ireland," she says.
"Together we will try to provide Northern Ireland mothers with some of the support they desperately need."
BBC journalist Wendy Austin said she's looking forward to her role as compere at the Soiree.
She revealed that her own daughter Kerry, and her sons Austin (5) and Ellis (3), are class regulars.
"Kerry has been going since the programme started and is now an instructor - she and my grandsons love it," Wendy says.
"I'm very happy to support Aimee, We Are Pangs NI and Birthwise - I just wish Aimee would run some classes to produce bodyfit grans."
Author Michelle Bradley, who set up the perinatal health charity We Are Pangs, explains that "it's all about mums supporting mums".
She adds: "That's why I love it. It's incredible that Aimee has decided to do this fundraiser. Northern Ireland does not invest any money at all in perinatal services and that's why we're trying to roll out a peer support network."
The Sisterhood Soiree charity night with a fashion show, pop-up stalls and DJ to help you dance the night away, takes place on Saturday, October 26 at Wellington Park Hotel, Belfast.
There will be a raffle on the night with prizes donated by businesses including the Bullitt Hotel, The Merchant Hotel and Belfast personality and former model Orlaith McAllister.