I sit here today with what most people would describe as a pretty average family – two happy, well-adjusted daughters aged seven and five and a wife of more than 10 years.
To most observers, we would be viewed as a pretty normal family – whatever normal is! We have our ups and downs, but so does every other family.
Much of what I write below is done with the benefit of hindsight. As we lived through each experience, we were often too immersed to take time out and analyse what was going on – we lived for each day, moment by moment.
The birth of our first child was an amazing experience for both of us. We both had a bit of anxiety bringing a new baby home but that is a scary time for any new parent! As time went on though, we thought we were coping OK.
In hindsight, my wife had postnatal depression with our first child. She only just managed to stay on top of it through the huge amount of support from her mother. There were weekly trips to stay down at her Mum’s house as well as a lot of support from my parents. With support in place, she managed to scrape through and not become ‘one of those mothers’ with postnatal depression.
When our second daughter was born we were overjoyed. The levels of my wife’s anxiety seemed to be a bit lower than with our first which, from speaking to friends, seemed to be a normal experience. Things changed when, at around six weeks old, our daughter had a bad case of bronchiolitis which ended in her being hospitalised for several days. I know that any form of illness often sent my wife into a bit of an anxiety spiral and hospitalisation certainly achieved that. But, we soldiered on, coping as best we could. Not seeking help but definitely needing it.
When our youngest was 10 weeks old, my wife’s sister was admitted suddenly into intensive care with a rare form of autoimmune disease. This threw her birth family into chaos. Our house became the central hub for family travelling into the hospital as we lived close by. The total lack of structure and real unknown of whether her sister would live or die created an extremely intense environment around the house.
Whilst this was bad enough, the main thing that, again in hindsight, triggered my wife’s postnatal depression was that all of a sudden her mother was not there to support her physically or mentally. Everyone was kept busy in and out of hospital so there was no time to think about where my wife was at. It was when her sister went into rehab and we could relax a bit that things really started to go downhill.
It is at this point that, using hindsight again, I can see where I really wasn’t there to support my wife and I was just buying into the stereotypical stigma of postnatal depression.
It started with more and more phone calls saying she wasn’t coping. I thought she would be OK – each day she gets through it should get better. Then she started asking my mother to come over to help – that’s great, Mum can help her snap out of it.
Then she was asking my mother to come over every day and not speaking to any of her family at all – hmmm… that is probably not great but she will get over it. She is strong. I knew it was getting bad but I had work to do. We had our own business so if I couldn’t do anything how could we survive? Plus I always loved how people knew how strong she was – how could we let people know she was weak – how would that make us look?
I remember specifically where I was when I received the phone call from her wailing, telling me she had to go to hospital. She was low – so low that I was starting to not even recognise the person on the phone. In the background she had been reaching out for help and this culminated in getting her admitted to hospital immediately with our 14-week-old daughter.
I remember hanging up. Angry. How could she do this to us? I sat down in the park and just cried.
How could I get my wife back?
At that moment a wave of reality and acceptance came over me. I gained clarity that this was not her fault. She was crying out to me, her husband and best friend, for help and support – what I am supposed to provide in times of need.
I am a pretty normal kind of male in that my first instinct is ‘how can I fix it?’. So I decided that the best way to fix this was to give in to the process and put all my efforts into supporting her as best I could – 100 per cent devoted to caring for her and our youngest in hospital and our eldest daughter at home.
I felt a huge relief as I first sat down after leaving my wife and youngest daughter in hospital. They were being looked after by the experts and that made me feel they were safe. Now my time and thoughts were to be totally devoted to making sure our eldest daughter (at two and a half) made it through OK. It was going to be hard, but I could fix it all on my own.
It was a phone call from PANDA late one afternoon that changed my perspective.
They were unaware my wife was in hospital. We had a bit of a chat about how things had transpired and then she asked me a question that changed me …
“So, how are you going?”
That made me stop and think. How was I going? In reality I was heading for a meltdown trying to do everything on my own despite the offers of help from family and friends. Visiting hospital, looking after our eldest daughter, and running a business all without help was only going to end up with me being able to help no one. So I reached out and even asked for help – something I had never done in my life but something that enabled us to get through the eight weeks in hospital as best we could.
Through the weeks in hospital there were ups and downs but we made it through on the back of the courage and strength of my wife.
One of the main observations I took from that time was that the fathers would generally fall into one of two camps – those who were there to support the ‘process’ and those for whom having their wife or partner in hospital was a major inconvenience. I am no doctor, but to me it was clear which group was progressing better …
Once my wife was out of hospital a lot of the hard work for her really began. Giving my support and understanding was still vital for the first six months. To this day we still have to work on strategies for our family but her strength and courage ensured that less than two years later she was classified as ‘well’.
I often get asked what we would have done differently. In general, the answer would be not much – we made it through!
If I think about what may have helped us do things better, then …
- having awareness prior to having children about postnatal depression and what it looks like would have made a difference in picking it up the first time around.
- Having a resource I could have used as a partner would also have helped me to understand what was going on and how I could really assist.
- I would also have sought assistance from family and friends much sooner.
- In an ideal world there would also not be the stigma attached to postnatal depression and mental illness in general. Someone in hospital summed it up perfectly: “if someone has a broken leg, people can see it and understand exactly what is wrong – people get scared of a brain that is unwell.” People who overcome serious physical illnesses are seen as brave and heroes. People who overcome mental illness should be viewed in the same way.
Which brings me back to today. We got through it.
It was the toughest thing our family has done. We had to work together and develop strategies to cope. My wife had to work extraordinarily hard and be inspirationally strong. But all that work means that five years down the track we view the postnatal depression experience as one that made our family even better and stronger – the reason we can be described as ‘normal’ family, albeit one that, I think, is extraordinary.
People concerned about postnatal depression should visit Howisdadgoing.org.au or www.panda.org.au. Help is also available by calling PANDA’s Helpline 1300 726 306.
PANDA has been raising awareness of antenatal and postnatal depression for 30 years and has helped tens of thousands of Australian mothers and fathers get much needed information, support and treatment to aid their recovery. To make a donation to PANDA go to www.panda.org.au/donate-to-panda