'I thought my husband was having an affair.' The postpartum realities we're not talking about.

This post discusses postnatal depression and could be triggering for some readers.

For Nathalie Steinmetz, it felt like butterflies. 

It started in the last trimester. A constant feeling like she was being called to the principal's office. 

She just thought she was overthinking as her due date loomed. It was easy to just put her down to normal symptoms of pregnancy.

But postpartum, they intensified. She would find herself looking down at her sleeping baby feeling like her body was demanding she run away from the tiger chasing them. 

Nathalie had been warned about postnatal depression, but she wasn't feeling flat, sad or blue. No one had mentioned postnatal anxiety, so she was blindsided when her GP told her, 'oh yes, anxiety is part of postnatal depression.' 

On the other end of the spectrum, there's Beck. Her postpartum reality felt like a stream of scary images constantly filling up her mind. Her mania and psychosis saw her spend three months in hospital. 

"I feared I would be sexually assaulted. I believed men would attack me. I thought my husband was having an affair. I physically tried to hurt him when he visited daily with our newborn baby. I threatened innocent nurses. I walked lonely corridors at night picking up books, colouring in, looking out windows and through cracks in doors trying to find things that weren't even there or real in the first place," she told Mamamia.

Beck with her now two-year-old son. Image: Supplied. 

Both Nathalie and Beck's experiences fall under the umbrella of postpartum psychiatric illness, a corner of women's health that often gets explained away as just being "the baby blues," a common experience of teariness, anxiety or irritability that usually resolves within a few days with the right support. 

According to Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA), more than one in seven new mums and up to one in 10 new dads experience postnanal depression each year in Australia. But there are so many shades of blue in and around that diagnosis. The less serious tend to go unnoticed and underdiagnosed as either symptoms of pregnancy or just the reality of being a new mum. The more complicated are often misdiagnosed or simply misunderstood.



Rebecca McQueen thought her family would be better off without her. 

Now, as a Perinatal Mental Health Nurse, a profession she gravitated towards after her own experience, she understands this is a common destructive thought pattern that can invade the minds of women suffering with postnatal depression and anxiety.

Her own symptoms of anxiety started in pregnancy. As she told Mamamia, "I didn’t even consider that it could have been a part of the mental illness picture – I just thought the insomnia was a part of pregnancy, and I pushed through, going to work super tired. But at the same time, quite racey. It insidiously made its way into my life."

After the birth of her son, Rebecca's anxiety turned into depression. She'd spent those long newborn nights "wired but tired" and says there was the perfect melting pot of circumstances that led to her own situation: A difficult birth, minimal support, a husband who worked away a lot, financial pressure, and a little boy who wouldn't stop crying.

"I also remember having strong feelings of just wanting to run away – to disappear," she said.

For Courtney Hercus, postnatal depression felt like being trapped underwater in a violent stretch of coastline where she was continually being dumped.

She was being churned in a washing machine full of foam and she couldn't find the surface. There was no reprieve. 


"On my darkest days, I didn’t know how I could keep on living. The weight of consciousness was so heavy and exhausting, I didn’t know how I was physically going to do it. The gnawing despair was combined with an inability to feel much else at all. My favourite foods tasted like cardboard, and my daughters’ giggles were a balm for only a moment. I’d stare at the TV, 'These people had a baby. They seem to be happy. They’ve retained the will to live,'" she told Mamamia.

Courtney describes her postnatal depression as feeling like "being trapped underwater." Image: Supplied. 

Courtney's diagnosis came after a horrible experience with breastfeeding that sent her under. It took 11 months to receive the right treatment, but once she did it felt like a burst of energy in her legs, a lightness in her chest, and excited, joyful bubbles in her stomach. 


Lucy* experienced what felt like disassociation.

Her home looked like her home, but it didn't feel like it normally did. Parks, roads she was used to driving down, her mum's house; it all didn't feel right.

She never got diagnosed officially, but the foggy reality she found herself in eventually went away at around seven months postpartum when, "a grey cloud hovering suddenly lifted, and my life was my new normal and I finally felt okay."

For Anna Comben, PND felt like wanting to leave her husband and her child. Sleep deprivation, a history of depression and an unsettled baby soon had her in the depths of a depression that left her struggling for four months until she found the right combination of counselling and medication.

Looking back, she thinks the stigma of not loving new motherhood as much as she was ‘supposed to’ and was ‘expected to’ was a big part of the problem. 

"Because most of our friends are our 'age-peers' we have much less exposure to birth, newborn babies, and all of the issues/difficulties [before we get to it ourselves]. I just wish I had more of that insight before I fell pregnant," she told Mamamia.

Jamie spent 10 weeks in a private psychiatric facility after the delusion and paranoia got so bad she honestly believed her husband was sexually abusing her child. He wasn't. 

Her initial diagnosis of postnatal bipolar was incorrect, she was eventually told her symptoms were caused by a combination of having OCD, an eating disorder and postnatal depression. Throw in two kids who didn't sleep and Jamie says she was "a disaster waiting to happen."


"I met some beautiful mums though in the postnatal ward, some of who are still very close to me now. We have a shared experience of something extremely difficult and frightening. This space is not advocated for enough, and I think the more it's spoken about - hopefully the more it can be normalised," Jamie told Mamamia.


One in seven mums experience postnatal depression. 

One in five experience anxiety.

One to two in every 1000 experience postnatal psychosis.

PTSD as a consequence of childbirth is a reality in six percent of all deliveries. 

Suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in Australia during pregnancy and the 12 months following birth. This is despite the fact that women in this period have regular contact with care providers including midwives, GPs, obstetricians, and maternal health nurses.

As the CEO of PANDA, Julie Borninkhof told Mamamia, "we are always cautious of overstating the risk of more complex mental illness and perpetuating stigma."

The downside of that is, when women do find themselves in those extreme situations, they often feel alone in their experience. 

For Lucy, a lack of understanding and awareness led to insensitive comments from her husband who she distinctly remembers turned to her one morning and said, "pull yourself together."

"It was like a punch in the gut, as I naturally expected him to be the one person who would see that I wasn't my usual self postpartum. I didn't expect he'd understand, but I expected some compassion. To this day, I still feel hurt by that comment, and I know that rationally I shouldn't, but to have my mental health brushed aside so callously in such a vulnerable moment of my life was cutting. I believe that he now has a greater awareness of the seriousness of postpartum mental health issues, having since witnessed several of his friends go through it too," she told Mamamia.


The motherhood 'bliss myth.'

After having her babies, and recovering from her own postpartum health journey, Anna has found herself reflecting on how platforms like Instagram are helping to make women feel even more ostracised when they do run into trouble. The so called 'highlight reel' sends a false sense of perfection to our friend's feeds. 

"I’ve actually been in communication with two new mamas over the past few weeks who have shared ‘so in love’ pics on Instagram, but in private conversations have gone over all the struggles with feeding and unexpected emergency C-sections and those types of things," she said.

Recently, Mamamia contributor Kelly McCarren wrote about her frustration with falling pregnant and realising that she'd been sold a lie.

"For over two months, I’ve wondered every single day why more women don’t talk about how shit being pregnant is. Not for every woman, of course. But for so many women, they only tell you after you start complaining about your own symptoms. Otherwise, it seems to be this big secret no one wants to admit. I know why. It’s because women are just fundamentally nice. They don’t want to complain about being pregnant in fear of upsetting, hurting or insulting women who are struggling with their own fertility. It can seem really disrespectful to complain about something that many women would do anything for," she wrote.


Mental health nurse Rebecca McQueen also thinks it's the motherhood "bliss myth" that needs to change.


"There's no doubt that being a mum can be magical - feeling those kicks, meeting your baby, seeing them smile, the delicious smell - those are the things we are allowed to talk about as mums. But there are other things that often aren't discussed, like the concerns, and stresses and uglier moments that becoming a mum can bring. It's almost like these stories are pushed down, and left untold, and women can often feel ashamed to speak openly for fear of being judged or labelled bad, ungrateful mothers."

We have fantastic resources in Australia: PANDA, COPE, The Gidget Foundation and Beyond Blue to name just a few. But as Rebecca explains, there are some real gaps in the conversation.

First, given the extent to which becoming a mum upends your body, life, finances, career, identity and relationships, she believes we need to start talking about 'matrescence' - a term coined by anthropologist Dana Raphael to explain the physical, emotional, hormonal and social transition to becoming a mother. Like adolescence, it is a transitionary period. The difference is, with teenagers we understand it as a challenging and awkward phase. As a new mum, people expect you to be happy while you're losing control over the way you look and feel. 

In terms of support, it's estimated that only about one percent of the Federal mental health budget is spent on promoting mental wellbeing and preventing mental health conditions, and the rest is spent on mental healthcare (which includes early intervention, recovery support and suicide prevention). 


Of course, it's a fine line. We don't want to scare women before they've even celebrated the two pink lines on the stick. But the current system of 'don't ask, don't tell' just isn't working. 

For Beck, who ended up needing treatment in a mental ward, one of the hardest things for her family was the fact that she was trying to recover from two things: both mental and physical trauma, alone. There were no other new mums on her ward. 

It was Easter when she was finally discharged. Her baby was born on Boxing Day. And that feeling of being alone just continued.

"I never joined a mother's group... what would I say? 'Hi, I'm a first time mum but I haven't really mothered yet because I recently had post-partum mania and psychosis, was in hospital, and doctors wonder if I'll relapse again to be classified bipolar.' Not quite the happy picnic-rug chat they'd be expecting," she told Mamamia.

But it's for the women like the ones in this article that we need to change this conversation. 

A good way to start is by telling their stories.

"While some new parents are considered at higher risk of developing post-natal mental health issues than others, it’s important to know that many new mums or dads can develop them even if they don’t have any risk factors – it’s one of those things that really can affect anyone," Rebecca told Mamamia.

*names either changed, or last names omitted, for privacy reasons. 


If you think you or someone you know may be suffering, contact PANDA – Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia. You can find their website here or call their helpline – 1300 726 306.

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