The moment I gave birth to my first child, Olive, I was hit with a deep sense of panic and anxiety. Instead of elation, I felt terror and confusion. Where was the overwhelming joy so many mother’s had shared about? Where was that sense of post labour empowerment and “I am woman, hear me roar?!” I felt relieved that my baby was healthy and the birth was over. As I fed her and stared at this mini human who felt so familiar yet was unknown to me, I knew something was wrong. My heart pounded with uncertainty of not knowing what was coming next. The unpredictability of this new motherhood journey and the mental intensity of a traumatic birth darkened those first moments. It was strange, unexpected and devastating. I had hoped and prayed for this little one, I was so grateful for this precious child. But I felt like I needed to get out of there and run!
BY NATASHA WILTON
I had my daughter when I was 28 years old. Happily married to Steve for 4 years and so grateful for a smooth pregnancy. Being pregnant finally helped me to grow a backbone! I had worked as a community dietitian for 6 years. I was more assertive in my workplace, strengthened by the baby growing inside of me. I felt I needed to speak up and advocate for myself after many years of falling in the shadows. She unknowingly empowered me to have more confidence in representing my patients, team and profession.
I had always been “that” friend. The one who rushed to the new mum’s side, excited to hold a fresh, squishy baby until my arms were frozen in the same position. I babysat our friend’s kids, taught Sunday School, Youth Group, mentored kids in primary school and taught kid’s cooking classes. Yet when my own daughter was born, I was hit with an overwhelming sense of darkness, fear and anxiety. It bubbled up my throat two days after Olive was born, showing itself in a debilitating panic attack. And from that moment, I knew that I did not “just” have the three day post baby blues.
1 in 7 new mums and 1 in 10 dads experience Post Natal Depression (PND). When I learnt of these statistics after recovering from PND, I was struck by how common this mental health concern is. Yet, why did I not know more about it during pregnancy? After the birth, I repeatedly told the nurses that I was not feeling myself. I vividly remember looking over to Steve and Olive, sleeping soundly in the night, everything was ok. Yet my heart pounded like I had run a marathon, I couldn’t relax despite my husband changing all the meconium nappies, helping me recover from a posterior labour and third degree tears! I couldn’t sleep despite my baby being so placid and content. My usually good appetite was powered by necessity and fear that I wouldn’t produce enough milk. So I force fed myself. The intensity of being the main source of nourishment and a Mum of a dependent little child hit me hard. To the point that I believed I was not fit to be a mum and that Steve and Olive should leave me. I was becoming ritualistic in my behavior, following the information given to me by the nurses obsessively. I wanted a PHD in baby care when I hadn’t even mastered the basics. The confusion and lies of this depressive state reached their full peak when I stood infront of the mirror, hair wild like Hagrid, blackened eyes, milk stained clothes and no pregnancy glow in sight. I didn’t know who I was. I was a shadow of who I was and I wanted it all to end.
Through this experience, I learnt that we have a great medical system, if we speak up. But in those early days, it is so hard to identify what is happening and advocate for ourselves. The confusion, sleep deprivation, post birth recovery, “mum brain”, transformation from pregnant woman to a deflated belly, leaking boobs….. all the emotions of change can be a lot to process! But for those walking alongside these new or seasoned Mum’s who just aren’t feeling themselves, there are a few steps you can take to support them to wellness.
- Awareness that this isn’t “just” three day post baby blues.
Signs and symptoms which may present themselves in some degree or combination for a persistent amount of time:
- Panic attacks (a racing heart, palpitations, shortness of breath, shaking or feeling physically ‘detached’ from your surroundings)
- Persistent, generalised worry, often focused on fears for the health, wellbeing or safety of the baby
- The development of obsessive or compulsive thoughts and/or behaviours
- Abrupt mood swings
- Feeling constantly sad, low, or crying for no obvious reason
- Being nervous, ‘on edge’, or panicky
- Feeling constantly tired and lacking energy
- Having little or no interest in all the normal things that bring joy (like time with friends, exercise, eating, or sharing partner time)
- Sleeping too much or not sleeping very well at all
- Losing interest in intimacy
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Being easily annoyed or irritated
- Feeling angry
- Finding it difficult to focus, concentrate or remember (people with depression often describe this as a ‘brain fog’)
- Engaging in more risk taking behaviour (e.g. alcohol or drug use)
- Having thoughts of harming your baby
- Having thoughts of death or suicide.
(Courtesy of Panda Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia)
- Cocoon the Mother
Just as she has brought a new life into the world to nurture and protect, cocooning the mother can help her feel safe, secure and supported. This may come in the form of providing emotional, nutritional, spiritual, physical support in her newborn bubble. Restoring her physical health post birth can be a practical way to assist.
- Support the partner
Being a new parent can be a shock to the system for more than the mother! Their partner may be feeling overwhelmed with the changes they have seen in the mother and be the receiver of many negative words, behaviour and situations. Making sure the partner is having some respite from this time is just as important so they can be a patient support person. Offering to take them out for lunch, sending them to the movies, looking after mum and bub so they can rest or catch up on some much needed sleep can all be helpful offers during those early months. We all have those people in our life that don’t like to accept help, so sometimes it’s a matter of dropping off a cooked meal, hamper of essentials or even just showing up on their doorstep when you know they are too embarrassed to ask!
You are not there to offer clinical advice, but emotional support is so important. Listening to someone you know well, express themselves in ways that is unlike their usual self, can be hurtful, sad and difficult. It is a challenging time for all involved and can only be treated with extra grace, patience and forgiveness. It is a time where they need the impartial listening ear of a trusted friend or family member. Remember that this is a season and they will recover. That they are unwell and affected by the mental illness. Carers are also able to call the PANDA Helpline for support (1300 726 306).
- Advocate for chatting to GP and mental health support
Encourage the mother to ring the PANDA National helpline (1300 726 306) or support them to talk with their GP, Maternal Child and Health Nurse or Obstetrician. It is a hard step to take if the mother is unsure or unaware she requires help. Be supportive and encouraging towards sharing her story, feeling like her voice can be heard and help is available. If you feel she is a danger to herself or the baby, do not leave them alone. Seek medical help or contact 000 if you feel there is immediate danger.
So how did my story end? After feeling like I had lost my voice during the birth process, it came back in full force! My desperation for help and to stop the negative, irrational thoughts and unbearable anxiety reached its peak. I repeatedly explained (repeatedly being the key word, as I was forgetful and disorientated!), my feelings of not being myself, feeling mentally unstable and depressed. Within 9 days post partum, I was admitted to a Mother and Baby Unit where I received treatment for PND and Anxiety. It was what saved me and my relationships with my baby. Not to mention, the women I met in the unit are my friends to this day. Through the Unit’s expertise, support, medication, mindfulness education and counselling, I was able to protect the bond and attachment my daughter and I had. I was supported to pushing through those horrible adjustments of breastfeeding for the first time, and continue to do so until Olive was 14 months old. I was able to relearn who I was and embrace the new role and purpose as a Mother. I learnt about the stigmas, pride, disappointment, frustration, shame, anger, exasperation and unity of living with mental illness. It is a season. It doesn’t have to be intense forever, and it definitely does not have to be experienced alone. Recovery can be possible, it may be slow, it may come and go, but there will be light again and you are still there buried beneath it all.
If you feel this has triggered any difficult memories or you feel you need to speak to someone, I encourage you to call PANDA Helpline (1300 726 306) or Lifeline Australia (13 11 14).
Head over Natasha Wilton’s blog to read more about her journey with mental illness, motherhood and experiencing PND for a second time around after the birth of her son, Ezra in 2018. www.natashawilton.com