First let’s deal with the (newborn) elephant in the room. In some circles postnatal depression, or PND, just doesn’t exist. It’s another example of people suffering from a partly disbelieved ailment. Now, I’m not going to pretend to tell learned men and maybe, who knows, even an occasional woman what constitutes a real mental health condition. However, in my enlightened country PND is recognised as a real issue of mental health so, we’ll just go with that.
The birth of a baby is a wonderful thing. The event enriches the lives of everyone touched by the new baby’s arrival. The creation of new life, a new citizen of the world, etc, etc. Everything about welcoming new life into the world drives us down the same narrative. However, what if the journey towards a happy childbirth somehow turns down a different avenue. When the birth of a baby simply isn’t the happy ending it was meant to be, PND is where most people end up. Let us be clear about one thing: the ‘Baby Blues’ is not what we’re talking about here. Feeling anxious and having the occasional tearful outburst, and even feeling a little down is reassuringly common in the first couple of weeks after the little bundle of joy arrives. After that initial period of an anxious, weeping, emotional jamboree most new parents will settle into the feeling that something special has happened to them. They will relish the task and cherish the love they lavish on their new child. Although they will eventually be just as much a loving parent, for some that place will be a longer journey to travel, sometimes much longer, before they too are full of the joys of parenthood.
The onset of PND can be a frightening experience. Sometimes it is a sudden clanking switch bringing down an almost instantaneous depression, whilst in others they experience a slow dawning of darkness. Reading stories of real people suffering real experiences reveals how misunderstood and misdiagnosed the condition can be. Of course, there are other stories where help was quickly available and the sufferer begins a tough journey back but here there is a familiar refrain, that sufferers of mental illness often receive poor treatment and even mistreatment, until they are in the hands of the expertise within the mental health service. PND is certainly no different. Whilst, a “good night’s sleep” is definitely a great idea for new mothers [sic] it certainly isn’t either terribly likely, nor the start of a cogent treatment strategy to deal with the sometimes nightmarish thought-palaces of postnatal depression.
The reasons a mother falls into depression are numerous and the depths of that depression figuratively ranges from snorkelling close to the shore, to the darkness of deep sea diving. Whether skimming along the surface, or clumping along the sea floor beneath the whole weight of it all, depression is depression. New motherhood can feel daunting. All of that pregnant expectation is finally over, perhaps the greatest life-changing event a woman ever experiences has produced the sudden, complete dependence of another life. The demands of a new baby seem endless especially as time off seems to amount to zero. As well as all this, normal life is also expected to plod along as normal. Yes, that does sound daunting to me too. In fact seen set against a blank canvass, instead of a rich support network, it may seem impossible, even though it isn’t. Self-help and community support, the therapy of talking to trained professionals and the additional help that may be offered by medication are the spokes of a recovery wheel. Time and attention, help and support, and the understanding of those around you are all signposts along the road to recovery, along with a sympathetic mental health service.
You could be forgiven for thinking, well that’s PND: it’s something which affects a proportion of new mothers, and of course it is, but you may be surprised that it is something that affects new fathers too. Although there are clearly some pressures of new parenthood that can only truly be felt by a mother, many of the very same pressures have a similar effect on fathers and can result in the same episodes of depression, postpartum. The usual likely triggers for depression, such as hugely emotional events and stressful life moments are very prevalent in childbirth. If you then consider the deprivation of sleep, the constant and overbearing workload, which can lead to changes in home relationships and maybe a financially unstable lifestyle, it becomes easy to see how consequential postnatal depression can readily appear.
Neither with PND, nor depression of any kind, is there a recipe you follow that reliably results in clinical depression. Rather, it is something you fall into, like not watching your step along a tricky pathway, being the poor soul who just happens to put your foot in that wrong place. We fall, and those who love us peer into the abyss trying to reach us. There is no recipe, but there is a preventative checklist that you can use to help yourself to maybe avoid those missed steps along the way, or at the very least lessen the severity of the fall.
Firstly, depression can appear during pregnancy so in the lead up try to take plenty of rest. Talk through your anxieties with those around you, particularly if this is your first birth. Try to maintain a good diet and definitely avoid as far as possible very stressful situations. As the day of arrival approaches it is a good idea to know where your support network lies. Speak to people close to you about the heavy workload and agree how much help you will be comfortable with. After baby arrives Try to maintain dialogue with your partner and set your relationship expectations: it is okay for ‘normal’ to be redefined for a while. After the arrival try as far as possible to avoid falling into gender roles by sharing the shareable. Remember that superwoman and superman only exist in comic books. You can’t do everything and be everything to everyone, so don’t try. If you have identified your support network, use them because they will probably be ready and willing to help. Finally, talk. Talk about anything and everything. Talk to everyone and anyone who will happily listen.
However, even with all of your careful planning PND might still affect you because mental health is a bit like Cupid’s arrow, it just strikes wherever it strikes. However, don’t let PND happen with a whisper, but rather make it as loud as a klaxon because the world is listening for your call, as long as you can make sure it hears you.