With all the physical issues surrounding having a baby from breastfeeding to lack of sleep, it’s perhaps easy to overlook the mental effects of being a new mother.
Many women feel down, fearful or anxious after giving birth but symptoms that go on longer are often a sign of postnatal depression – PND or postnatal anxiety – PNA.
There is definitely more awareness of parental mental health these days with celebrities sharing their experiences and a study in the news today finding that women who have a baby before they are 25-years-old are more likely than any other age group to have postnatal depression.
We’ve all heard of PND but what about PNA? Are symptoms the same? These aren’t ‘one size fits all’ illnesses but with PND you feel overwhelmed and can end up questioning whether you should have become a mum. You feel guilty because you believe you should be handling it better. You can feel sadness, hopelessness and disconnected from the world.
With PNA it’s more about worrying all the time with your thoughts racing. You may feel the need to check things constantly, have trouble sleeping and feel that something terrible is going to happen.
Parenthood can feel isolating and especially nowadays when people have less of a close family unit nearby. A lot of us turn to social media for answers to questions and for ‘reaching out’ but it’s perhaps not always helpful as we are bombarded with images of the ‘perfect’ parent. Sometimes it’s hard to forget that this isn’t ‘reality’ and even in baby groups the focus can be about the next steps your baby is taking and trying to keep up. It takes a strong group of friends or family to be able to discuss your real feelings.
Perhaps the answer is for more discussion pre-pregnancy? Should midwives/health visitors focus on this as much as breastfeeding etc? Or should the focus be on keeping baby healthy and getting on with it?
I spoke to two mothers who have experienced either PND or PNA and here they share what they went through along with offering advice:
Mum of one, Jamie suffered with postnatal depression and anxiety following the birth of her daughter. ‘I became so fixated on preventing harm to her. I became convinced that something bad was going to happen. It was a pretty bleak time and I look back with so much sadness. I was treading water to survive, and I am not quite sure how I got through it. I don’t have happy memories of the “cuddly new born” days, to me they were filled with a screaming baby and me exhausted with a crippling paranoia.’
Jamie describes feeling better after her daughter’s first birthday, ‘The colic screaming had stopped, her allergies were being managed, and she had started to sleep. She is now approaching two, and the haze has lifted, and I have way more good days than I do bad.’
Like many mothers in this situation, Jamie doesn’t believe that there is enough awareness of PND and PNA. She said, ‘I think many more new parents suffer with mental health issues than we are aware of, and I believe there is a massive lack of prenatal education around this. I did three separate antenatal courses whilst pregnant and not a single one talked about PND or PNA.’
Along with a wider lack of awareness, there is perhaps a lack of awareness and willingness to discuss with family and friends, ‘I was a really closed book, I went into survival mode. My mum and husband could see I wasn’t myself, but it wasn’t until I finally cracked that they really saw the extent to which I was suffering.’
To get through it all, Jamie was lucky to have, ‘an amazing health visitor’ and ‘speaking about it’ also helped. She started writing about her experience in her now award-winning blog: Mama Bear of One ‘I have found it easier to write the words down as opposed to saying them. Friends and family have praised my bravery and the reaction from followers of my Instagram has been amazing too. So many people praising me for my honesty, and so many inspiring women who are going through really tough things themselves who have reached out to me.’
Jamie is now in a position to offer advice to others who are going through the same thing, she suggests, ‘Speak to someone you trust and don’t feel ashamed. You won’t be the first person who has had these feelings, and you won’t be the last. It doesn’t make you a bad mother, and it doesn’t mean you don’t love you kids. You deserve to enjoy your children and getting support will help. Hang in there mama, you got this.’
Another mother of two who I spoke to, Sarah, suffered from PND early on after her first daughter was born, but wasn’t diagnosed until months later, ‘I generally didn’t feel like I was depressed, I was always going out, keeping busy to avoid being on my own. I became obsessive over things that weren’t important and cried or got uncontrollably angry when I was alone, mostly because I felt like I was failing at motherhood. I knew from the minute she was born that I would protect my daughter with my life, but it took me quite a long time to enjoy her. I craved my former life, found the restraints of having a young child like a prison, and the long nights very dark and lonely.’
Like Jamie, Sarah believes there needs to be more awareness of the illnesses. ‘I wonder if mothers should be better screened by the health visitors and doctors post baby, or if there should be a fixture three months after your antenatal classes where you sit in a circle and actually discuss how it’s going.’
Sarah’s friends and family found it a relief when she was diagnosed. ‘I think it was a relief for them and me, that this wasn’t the new normal. It’s amazing when you chat to people, how common it is.’ Sarah did some Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help along with taking medication. So far with baby number two, she is doing well. ‘I occasionally have a dark few days, but the sunshine returns. I found very quickly after starting the CBT and taking the medication after my first daughter, that I emerged from the dark cloud. It was a game changer for me.’
Sarah’s advice and reassurance for any other mums suffering with PND/PNA is this: ‘Everyone is different, and I found an effective fix, which I know isn’t the case for everyone. But I would say to all new mums including those with PND, motherhood is one of the hardest most rewarding jobs in the world. Use your friends, your family, your doctors and health workers. This isn’t a journey that should be done alone. Work out things that help you cope, treats, routines, exercise, some space and guard these things fiercely. You are important, you are the lynch pin that holds your family together, and there is nothing more important to maintaining a happy family, than a happy mummy.’