While motherhood for many is a time of great beauty and cuddles with your newborn (in among the exhaustion), for one in seven Aussie women it comes with added struggle of depression and anxiety.
And often that battle is silent – research found that only 34% of women who considered themselves ‘emotionally distressed’ after their baby is born sought help. It’s very often up to childhood nurses and obstetricians to prompt the conversation and ask a mum if she is OK, because it’s not easy to admit you aren’t coping.
“Women are worried about the repercussions of admitting to these sorts of feelings, but the reality is that seeking help actually means you are a really good parent and you just want the best for yourself and your baby,” says Dr Nicole Reilly, who works in the field of perinatal mental health.
Her current research project is funded by Australian Rotary Health, one of the largest independent funders of mental health research in Australia, and is looking into how well health professionals are screening women about their perinatal mental health.
Dr Reilly also stresses that the sooner a woman can ask for help, the sooner she can seek treatment and start to feel better. ”There are also other options like the Panda National Helpline: 1300 726 306, or online sources like Beyond Blue where women may be more comfortable disclosing information that they are worried about sharing.”
In the hope of normalising the conversation around post-natal mental health, we asked three women to share their stories.
1. Elissa:“I was worried I couldn’t pull myself together ”
Elissa Harris, 31, mum to Lola, 4, and Georgie, 2
It was after the birth of my second baby that I knew something wasn’t right. I remember one really hot day when I just couldn’t fathom the thought of getting dressed and going out. I thought, if I see anyone I know I’m going to look like I’m struggling and I’m not going to be able to pull myself together.
Even though I had desperately wanted Georgie, I found being at home with a newborn and a toddler really challenging. There was the guilt when the two of them would be crying at the same time and I could only attend to one. I’ve never been much of a homebody, but my children were napping at opposite times so I found it hard to leave the house. I thought, how am I meant to do this? I took Georgie for her four month immunisations and as I was sitting there I had an out of body experience. I felt like I was looking down on myself. That was when I recognised that I really needed some support. My post-natal depression wasn’t the kind that you typically read about where you struggle to bond with your baby. Mine was more of an identity crisis, not knowing where my role was as a mother and in life.
I struggled with maintaining my social connections and also with not having my biological mum around, as she passed away when I was seven. Having my own children brought her up my grief over her in a big way.
After the immunisation appointment I came home crying and told my husband what had happened. I was worried about judgement from other people… I mean, I still struggle with saying it now, that motherhood didn’t satisfy me. I had assumed I would adapt to the role well but being at home made me feel like I had no direction.
Seeing a psychologist who specialises in post-natal depression was a turning point. Just acknowledging that I was struggling without my biological mum around and that I needed support… as soon as I spoke about these things and owned them, things started to get better. I also reconnected with an old friend and I really turned to her.
I probably won’t have another baby. Things have become so much easier now the newborn phase of my daughters is over. They’re a lot more independent now and I’m enjoying motherhood much more. I don’t think I would put myself through that again.
2. Kelly: “Mothers matter too, and we are worth just as much as our children”
Kelly Hansberry , 34, mum to Ruby, 3, and Jack, 10 months
I didn’t realise I had post-natal depression until nine months after my first child Ruby was born. I had a rough time breastfeeding her, I didn’t have supply, it was painful, and my daughter had attachment issues. I felt such a huge pressure to breastfeed. I ended up on the medication motilium to boost my milk supply but a side effect of that can actually be depression and it set the ball rolling for me. My mental health deteriorated, I just couldn’t sleep anymore and I was crying all the time.
Unfortunately, the crisis point for me was where I started to feel that I wasn’t really safe around my daughter. I was having thoughts like, ‘If I let go of the pram and let her go down a hill, that would end all my problems, because she’d be gone.’ I knew those thoughts weren’t right, but I was having to fight against them on a daily basis.
Initially I kept things to myself because I was absolutely terrified that if I vocalised them to anyone they would say I was an unfit mother and they would take my daughter from me. I was lucky enough to have a great GP and I ended up admitting to her that I was really struggling. She did The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) on me and referred me to an amazing psychologist.
I’ve had to accept that I also put a lot of pressure on myself in relation to the way I viewed motherhood and what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I thought I’d enjoy not working, and that breastfeeding and attachment to your children should come naturally. I had PND with both of my children and one of my hardest symptoms was not being able to feel emotions towards them. When they would smile or do things that should generate emotion in a mother, I didn’t really feel anything. I knew that wasn’t right.
The fog lifting
Returning to work after both babies sped up my recovery, and having time without the children enabled me to appreciate them more.
Unfortunately, my PND and suicidal ideation returned after my son was born. It wasn’t surprising, but it was still awful. Through working intensely with my psychologist I was able to get back on track after about six months. I still have challenging days, and on them I try to focus on positive self-talk and self-care strategies like checking in with my diet or having another coffee or going to the gym when my husband gets home from work. I also volunteer with PANDA as a community champion and with CFS the local country fire service. I find it’s often helpful to divert my focus outward. There is most certainly light at the end of the tunnel, mothers matter too and we are worth just as much as our children.
3. Felicity: “I remember my husband sitting on the couch with his head in his hands.”
Felicity Flanagan, 42, mum to Emily, 3
I had a lot of anxiety during my pregnancy, it was a pre-existing condition, but I didn’t enjoy the feeling of being pregnant. I had such intensely painful breasts that I couldn’t wear bras and as I grew bigger, I started to feel trapped in my body. I felt really weird and detached and I kept thinking “I can’t do this.” Because of previous pregnancy losses, I had ultrasounds every two weeks during pregnancy and at each one I would ask the obstetrician when was the earliest he could take the baby out as my anxiety was so bad that I didn’t want her inside me anymore.
Emily was born prematurely in the end and she was in the NICU for three weeks, wired up to machines. I was in the hospital that I started to have strange thoughts and feelings. I felt really, really low and I was in my room just crying all the time. I couldn’t leave the hospital to go anywhere and I started to feel really trapped.
At this point, Emily was too little to breastfeed, so I was in the milk room, pumping milk every two hours for her. When we got home she still wasn’t able to feed. We tried everything, including lactation consultants, getting tongue tie fixed, hypnotherapy, nothing worked. Emily latched on for three minutes during this whole time, I filmed it, but other than that I just pumped exclusively and fed her breastmilk through a bottle so she got what she needed.
I began to feel really, really angry about not being able to feed my daughter, I had intense feelings of rejection. I would say to my husband that I hated that Emily wouldn’t latch, and that she doesn’t love me. Sometimes I had to put her down and leave the room because in my heightened state of anger I knew that I could potentially hurt her.
I recognised that my anger was out of control but I couldn’t help it. People would try to advise me on breastfeeding and it just made me more upset. I got my mum to come and stay and she and James looked after Emily and I didn’t have anything to do with her for a little while, other than pumping.
A blessing in disguise
I remember my husband sitting on the couch one day with his head in his hands after listening to me saying very irrational things. He went and got advice on what to do. My GP intervened and we started going to the child and family health clinic and they helped by getting me some counselling and also helping with Emily’s sleeping. It was really helpful to talk to somebody, they gave me self-care and relaxation strategies.
Then when Emily was five months old I got sick and I had to stop pumping straight away as I was put on medication which would transfer through to my milk. That time turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as James had to take over with Emily. After using up the pumped milk in the freezer he put her on formula, and when I got home he taught me how to feed her that way. I began to have a sense of freedom for the first time in five months.
Things slowly got better for me as I’ve adjusted to motherhood. I was wholly unprepared for what happens behind closed doors. I had just assumed I’d breastfeed, I didn’t know about the challenging behaviours of children. I just felt so inadequate and constantly assumed I wasn’t doing the right thing by Emily.
As a mum you need to take breaks, ask for help when you need it, it’s essential. When Emily turned two she started going to day care for two days a week and that balance has been good for us all. My relationship with my daughter has really improved in the past 12 months. She giggles a lot more, and I’m not so serious. Now, when my husband walks in to the house after work it’s a happy household, we now definitely have more good days than bad.