Depression. Such a downer of a word, isn’t it? No one wants to talk about it, and God forbid you have it and want to discuss it with people. I read an article recently that stated that 1/3 of people think that women are ‘too quick’ to diagnose themselves with post natal depression. Another nationwide survey found that 57 per cent of people believed women get postnatal depression because they have unrealistic expectations of motherhood and one-quarter thought postnatal depression did not need treatment and would go away on its own.
Basically, people just want it to go away. It’s a bit scary, it’s a bit strange, and no one is entirely sure what to say or do. Best to avoid the crazy new mother with dark rings under her eyes and the screaming baby on her hip. People with depression should ‘toughen up’, ‘enjoy their baby, they are small for so long’ or should be jollied along with a lunch out or a bunch of flowers. I find it’s a very rare person who understands depression and how serious it is and sadly, they are usually the people who have lost someone to it or suffered it themselves.
In fact, there is such a stigma surrounding depression that I, a successful, intelligent mother who knows better, will very rarely admit to having suffered from it. It feels very much like an admission of weakness. Or worse, an admission of guilt. It feels like telling the world that I couldn’t handle the pressure, that I wasn’t strong enough, that I didn’t love my baby enough to be happy. But I think it’s incredibly important that more women stand up and give this disease a voice. More new mothers need to read about it before the birth of their baby. More partners and families need to know how to support their wife/child/sister through this illness. More care providers need to ask more questions and be quick to take action and most importantly, follow up their patients. No one should be slipping through the cracks.
In retrospect, I would say that the warning signs were there throughout my pregnancy with my first daughter. It was a stressful time, with house renovations and family dramas. I was so busy that I didn’t really have much time to think about what it would be like as a new mother. My birth experience was something that I found traumatic, even though both the baby and I came out of it healthy and relatively unscathed physically. The first clue should have been the fact that I didn’t sleep for the first 4 nights in hospital. Literally did not sleep. The adrenaline from the birth, combined with this absolutely crushing feeling of responsibility for this tiny scrap of humanity served to keep me in a state of high alert. I would lie there for hours and stare at the baby, making sure she didn’t stop breathing. I felt numb from the drugs from labour and while I recognised that my entire world had shifted on its axis, and that suddenly this little thing was the most important thing in the world, I didn’t feel that rush of love that I’d been told to expect. It felt like someone had handed me a stranger’s baby. I was incredibly connected to the baby, couldn’t breathe unless she was in my sight, but I didn’t feel particularly happy about it. I didn’t feel love.
A day or two after getting home from the hospital, the real trouble started. My baby was a screamer. She didn’t sleep, day or night and she was never settled. Sleep deprivation hit hard. At about 4 weeks of age, my GP diagnosed her with reflux and gave me a script for medication. It didn’t seem to help much, and the Paediatrician doubled the dose at the 6 week check up, and again at a subsequent appointment. We eventually discovered a diet that helped her, but it was 15 months before she slept through the night and settled for sleeps without a battle.
The very early days are a bit of a blur to me now. I remember feeling physically sick if someone I didn’t trust came near the baby. I was incredibly anxious and the difficulty with my daughter’s allergies, the elimination diet I had to be on, and a troublesome relationship with my in laws, as well as recurring cases of mastitis, all served to compound the problem. I would wake up and everything was grey. There was no light, no joy, nothing to look forward to. Just a crying baby and 12 hours of emptiness while my husband was at work. My family lived a fair drive away and the baby didn’t travel well. I had lost touch with many of my friends, and others didn’t have children so just didn’t understand why I wasn’t available to them anymore. The days stretched out in front of me, filled with an endless lazy susan of feeding, settling to sleep, walking the halls with a crying baby, worrying about her nutrition and diet and so on. Rinse and repeat.
It’s really hard to describe what depression feels like. It’s like slowly sinking underwater. You don’t even realise that you’re drowning until one day you look up and you can’t see the shore. It starts with feeling a bit off, having a rough week, crying a bit more than usual. Then the gaps between feeling good start to get longer. One day you realise that you are crying more often than smiling. You worry about everything and feel incredibly guilty all the time. You don’t want to get out of bed, but you have to, who else will feed the baby. I remember spending hours staring blankly in front of me. Most of the time I spent faking it. Smile at the baby, animate your face. I’d read all the studies on the effect a depressed parent has on a baby. I’d spend hours singing to her, reading to her, forcing myself to smile, all while feeling dead inside. Then there were the days when I couldn’t stop crying. I’d hold her and walk her with tears pouring down my face for hours. I would set her up on her playmat then sit in the corner and sob until my husband came home. Because I knew exercise might help, and also because my daughter would sleep no other way, I spent hours and hours each day walking. It did help a bit.
I sought treatment many times in the first 6 months, from GPs, to my obstetrician, to a couple of psychologists and even the maternity hospital. No one wanted to support me unless I was willing to take medication, which I didn’t feel comfortable doing. They would promise to send a referral to a sleep centre, or a psychiatrist. The referrals never materialised. The private system was too expensive and I couldn’t afford the ongoing weekly appointments so was forced to quit. I tried acupuncture, exercise therapy, light therapy, supplements of omega three, anything that I read anywhere that could possibly help.
In the end, at about 11 months, my daughter was starting to settle and I started to improve when I returned to work 2 days a week. I remember enjoying parenthood for the first time around about then. By 15 months she was doing well and was sleeping through the night fairly regularly. It was a long road without treatment or professional support. I got through it primarily with the incredible support and friendship extended to me by a few members in an internet chat room for babies born in the same month as mine. I’ve met quite a few of them and I have even attended the wedding and gone on a family holiday with one of those members. Several others I chat to daily. They were there to listen to my woes about a non sleeping baby, they were there when I had my eighth case of mastitis in 12 months. They were there when my husband and I had to sleep on the floor in my daughter’s room and were surviving on 3 hours of sleep per night. They’ve been there, over the past 2 and a half years, for the happiest moments of my life and also the worst.
As I write this, I’m 6 and a half months pregnant with my second baby and have just been diagnosed with antenatal depression. My sincere hope is that this time, I can set up enough support systems to get me through it without such a cost to me and my family. My most fervent desire though, is to break the stigma. To stand up and admit that I need help, that I'm not perfect and it's ok not to be the stong one all the time.