Gabby Hutchinson Crouch shares her experience of postnatal depression and encourages us all to bring the subject out of the dark.
“You must be delighted.” I got that a lot, straight after the birth of my first child.
I should have been as happy as every well-wisher sending cards, every old lady stopping us in the street to coo and every article about the first months of motherhood told me I would be.
My daughter was healthy, the pregnancy reasonably complication free, if deadly dull and vomit-filled. And besides a pretty epic, freshly stitched battle scar where the sun don’t shine, I’d come out of it in one piece. So far, so good, on the outside. But on the inside, I was falling apart. I felt like a ghost – like an important part of me had been taken, and what was left was a shuffling impression, that fed and burped and changed a baby. That smiled and nodded when I was told I must be delighted, but instead felt resentment and guilt at not feeling any of the things I should. I couldn’t bond with my daughter – she was terrifying. Too fragile. I was so terrified of hurting her, I could vividly visualise it every time I tried to go to sleep. Why was I allowed to care for her? I was an idiot that could barely take care of herself.
I couldn’t put her down – awake or asleep – without her crying. She wouldn’t breastfeed. But “every new mother could do it”. I obviously just wasn’t trying hard enough. I resented her for not feeding from me. I resented myself for engineering a situation where all I had to do was dispense patient love and fresh-from-the-nipple milk, and I could do neither.
“I’d expected culture shock and tiredness, but I’d never expected to feel as hopeless and inhuman as I did in those first few months.”
My normal, ordered life of going to work, visiting friends and relaxing with my husband had come to a sudden, painful stop. I felt like I was limping through a permanent twilight – a barely-feeling failure, who bled, and embarrassed people with her squeaky breast pump, who cried, who got cried at… and was told she must be delighted. I’d expected culture shock and tiredness, but I’d never expected to feel as hopeless and inhuman as I did in those first few months.
My experience isn’t at all unusual. For all the glowing, grinning new mums in the media, we’d be excused for believing postnatal depression (PND) was a rare occurrence. In fact, it’s estimated to affect 10-15 per cent of new mothers and around 4 per cent of fathers. While there is no known cause, mental health charity Mind suggest massive changes to a new mother’s body – including hormonal ones – can be a contributing factor.
Past experiences and social circumstances, such as previous mental health problems, experience of abuse, low self esteem, poor living conditions and a lack of support in this incredibly difficult, new 24/7 job can all be really relevant too. Meanwhile sleeplessness, huge lifestyle and relationship upheaval, financial pressures and the emotional overhaul of a new baby can act as triggers in both biological or adoptive parents.
Looking back , with my history of panic attacks and anxiety, worries about getting by on just my husband’s wage and my family being hundreds of miles away, my becoming ill starts to make a lot more sense. The fact we rarely talk about this problem makes it even harder for parents who are suffering. I was terrified of admitting I wasn’t just a bit tired and teary – this was a real problem. I considered it another failing, another reason I wasn’t fit to be a mother.
I feared my daughter being taken away. I feared being taken away myself, leaving my husband to take care of a child that I could not. It was only after coming out publicly, years afterwards that I found out just how many other new mums had also suffered silently.
It took a 4am meltdown and intervention from my husband to persuade me to see my doctor. Again, my main motivation was fear. I became so frightened of what might happen if the problem got worse, it overshadowed my fear of admitting what was happening.
Saying the words out loud to my GP was hard, but it got easier after that. We talked about PND and how it manifested itself in me. We discussed anti-depressants, but I opted to try counselling first, which was free to me on the NHS. The sessions allowed me to say things about new motherhood I felt I couldn’t burden my family with. They allowed me to stop internalising everything, and gave me practical advice too.
Over weeks and months, my daughter became less frighteningly fragile, and slept more. I established a new routine, and stopped feeling like I was in limbo. My sense of self returned and, as my daughter began to smile and laugh, I was finally able to bond with her.
Despite my first new motherhood experience, I decided to have a second child two years later. It was a risk, but having been through it once, I believed I could face it, if it came again. The depression was no longer a source of fear.
This time, my GP, midwife and health visitors were aware I’d had problems and knew to be watchful. Pregnancy was another drag and labour a pain in the arse (and pretty much everywhere else, except my hair – no surprise there) but I didn’t get depressed. Possibly just knowing the support was there helped me avoid falling into the hole.
Talking definitely helps. The more people I’ve come across who’ve been open about PND, the more open I’ve felt capable of being. So I would say a first step we can all take is to remove the pressure of expectation that all new parents must be happy. Ask how they are – genuinely. Don’t make them feel they have to put a brave face on for fear of burdening others by admitting to being unhappy.
And, while they might be delighted, please don’t make them feel that they must.3888 Views
Gabby Hutchinson Crouch is a comedy writer, mum & nerd. She writes for BBC Radio Comedy and Huffington Post UK, and once saw Dawn French coming out of a toilet.