‘Post-natal depression’ is an imposing expression. You may have also heard it referred to as post-partum, or perinatal depression.
When we think of someone with post-natal depression, many of us picture a person unable to complete simple tasks, unable to get out of bed, unable to find any happiness whatsoever.
For some women, that unfortunately rings true. Post-natal depression can indeed be crippling and all-consuming. It can even be life-ending.
For others, however, post-natal depression looks very different. It can be dreading the moment your baby wakes up from its nap. It can be cloudiness or anxiety or just an ‘off’ feeling you can’t quite put your finger on.
Because, like many other mental illnesses, depression exists on a spectrum. You might not be constantly bubbly, or consistently down-hearted. It’s unlikely you’ll be elated at everything, or inspired by nothing. You’re probably going to be somewhere in the middle.
That’s the truth. But unfortunately, we’ve created a narrative; one whereby post-natal depression always looks like an inability to leave bed or put on clothes or feed a child. Many mothers are neglecting their mental health, and insisting they are fine on the basis they have the will to breastfeed their child.
And that’s a worry.
“We have this perception of what post-natal depression looks like,” clinical psychologist Kirstin Bouse says on Mamamia’s Year One podcast. “It doesn’t have to look like ‘not getting out of bed’… we can go through the motions; we can do the feeding; we can do the nappy changing. It doesn’t mean we’re not depressed while doing all of that.”
In other words, women are incredible at doing what needs to be done. Clinically depressed or not. Just because you have the will to breastfeed your baby doesn’t mean you are okay.
Christie Hayes, actor and mum-of-two, understands this all too well. Within the first few weeks of giving birth, Hayes felt something was wrong. Her friends, however, convinced her that her symptoms weren’t ‘severe’ enough to be post-natal depression.
“I was thinking ‘I feel like I need help’, but I got mixed messages from people who said, ‘Oh if you had [post-natal] depression you wouldn’t be able to get out of bed.”
Hayes goes on, “There’s this scary expectation that the baby’s meant to come into your life and you’re meant to fall instantly in love and everything’s glorious… that certainly didn’t happen to me.”
Hayes knew something was ‘off’ almost straight away after giving birth. She was always exhausted. Days melted into nights. Although it could be said they’re normal symptoms of having a newborn.
Each night at 8 o’clock, however, Christie felt dread. She felt tearful and sad at the fact the wouldn’t get a real break and wouldn’t get a full night’s sleep.
“Night-times are often the hardest time for most mums,” says Bouse. “Usually we’re doing those night-shifts on our own, and our partners are asleep.”
While aggravation and impatience and sleep deprivation might be normal, indifference and frustration and hopelessness on an ongoing basis aren’t.
Bouse, who also works in Perth’s Centre for Perinatal Psychology, says the toughest part is “figuring out what’s ‘normal’; figuring out how you feel and measuring it against how you were told you’re supposed to.
There’s no one ‘look’ of post-natal depression. Listen to Kirsten Bouse discuss the many shades, and how to cope, on Year One, Mamamia’s podcast for new parents. Post continues after audio.
A good person to talk to, says Bouse, can be your GP, an obstetrician, or a psychologist. “If you’ve had any of those mental health issues… the reality is… you are more vulnerable during your pregnancy and those first couple of years following birth.”
In addition to seeking medical help, Bouse has several strategies to help mums struggling post-partum. First and foremost, she says, is consistently remembering that the tough times are temporary. “This is a season of our lives. This isn’t something that lasts forever. It feels like it’s going to… but they do sleep. It does get easier.”
Bouse says another strategy for coping with depression is asking for help – from our partners and family members, as well as doctors.
“Sometimes as mums, we really are pretty good at martyrdom, and setting the expectations for ourselves at an unrealistic benchmark… we need to reach out and ask for help: ask for the night off; if you’re breastfeeding, switch to mixed feeding so your partner can bottle-feed your baby.”
Bouse goes on, “Another strategy might be very safely co-sleeping, so that you’re actually not getting out of bed then wandering to another room and feeding… for those who do wish to continue breastfeeding – as long as it’s safe – it can be a way to manage that better.”
“It might be sleeping during the day. I meet mums who are in that 2-3 hourly around-the-clock feed cycle and they still will not let themselves rest during the day… I think some of that is caused by the expectation of what a ‘real mother’ is. But one thing I know is that ‘good enough’, is good enough… our kids will be okay if we just do a ‘good enough’ job on them.”
“When we put the oxygen mask on ourselves first, we are going to be the best version of ourselves that we can be.”
In other words… when we put our own mental health first in the short-term, our babies get a better parent in the long-run.
You can listen to this week’s full episode of Year One, all about taking care of YOU as well as your baby, below.
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If you or anyone you know needs held and support for postnatal depression or you just need to talk, call the PANDA National Helpline on 1300 726 306 or visit panda.org.au, call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or visit beyondblue.org.au, or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.
Parenthood. There is no guidebook, but there is a support crew. With a wide range of baby feeding and care products Philips Avent are here to support you and your baby every step of the way. Setting up for healthy futures begins with Philips Avent.