For those who want and are able to, having a baby can be the most rewarding experience in the world. It can also be the most challenging. Days are long and nights are sleepless. There might be trouble with your baby’s latching, burping, breathing, sleeping. Panicked thoughts ensue: why isn’t this working? What am I doing wrong? How long will this feeling of helplessness last?
For some women, these feelings can be described as ‘baby blues’, and usually go away after a few weeks. For others, however, these feelings can be indicative of a more serious underlying condition such as postnatal depression. According to WHO, 13 percent of women who have given birth may experience it, while in developing countries the number is even higher at 15 percent.
To mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, we asked four women to share their experiences of postnatal depression, how they learned to cope with it and the advice they would give to those currently going through it.
Linn-Beate S, 25, Norway
“A big part of my postnatal depression was down to our daughter going through a sleep regression at four months, which caused her to wake up at least once an hour to breastfeed. She was also struggling at the breast, which made me frustrated. The nights became sleepless for me, and I began to feel like the worst mother ever. I felt a sense of helplessness, and I was scared that this feeling would not go away.
“I’d read about a mother who came close to hurting her child, and I knew I was nowhere near that but I was afraid of it escalating. I knew I needed help. So I told my partner and healthcare worker. The second I said it out loud, I felt a sense of relief. The next day I had a conversation online [due to COVID-19 restrictions] with my doctor, followed by a couple of sessions with a psychiatrist, where she helped me with my mindset, most of all by telling me it will pass.
“The fact that two days after asking for help I had my first session with a psychiatrist says a lot about the resources in Norway. If I had held my feelings inside, it could have ended up much worse. We have to ‘talk it to death’, as we say in Norway. Let people know it’s normal to have feelings like this and that there is help. It doesn’t mean you are a crappy mother.
“The advice I’d give to mothers who are going through the same thing is: it will pass. You will sleep again, and you will be the best mother for your child if you ask for help.”
“Let people know it’s normal to have feelings like this and that there is help. It doesn’t mean you are a crappy mother”
Yasmin Regan, 33, Australia/New York
“Having postnatal depression has been the most challenging thing I have ever gone through. At a time where you are ‘supposed’ to feel joyous, I was completely miserable.
“My first warning sign was immense rage when I was 30 weeks pregnant with my second baby, who is now 15 months. So it began as perinatal depression and manifested into postnatal depression. I remember holding my toddler, heavily pregnant, and my dog would not stop barking. The sound of his bark triggered something inside me because the next thing I knew I was banging on our glass back door and the glass broke. I knew there and then that something was seriously wrong.
“After those feelings of rage and being overwhelmed, by two weeks postnatal I was suicidal. I was convinced that my babies and husband would be better off without me. With a 16-month-old and a newborn to care for, I was beyond exhausted. My husband works shifts so I was home alone a lot with my babies. I felt shame, guilt and embarrassment. All I have ever wanted was to be a mother, so I was completely confused as to why I was experiencing these symptoms.
“Now I couldn’t imagine my life without them. I am still in therapy once a week and I am now starting a new antidepressant for the third time. The previous two weren’t a good fit. But, honestly, what I find the most cathartic is talking about it on my Instagram page. I document the downs as well as the ups of having postnatal depression. I find it important to surround myself with people who won’t judge. A lot of women are suffering in silence because they are so ashamed. I also have a podcast called Mothering Through Postpartum Depression.
“My advice would be: no matter how embarrassed you may feel, there is no shame in what you’re going through. There are a lot of women who will know how you feel. I wish I’d known that it’s more common than I first thought and that I am not crazy. We need more than a six-week check-up with a health worker: in every doctor’s office there should be leaflets about postnatal depression and the risk factors involved if you get it.”
Rachael Phillipson, 29, UK
“It started when I was in hospital with Lara, she was born six-weeks premature. I remember having a crying fit in fear of her getting poorly, thinking she was infected and that she was going to die. My low mood and lack of emotions seemed to last longer than the usual ‘baby blues’ I had experienced with my three older children. I felt completely dead inside, nothing else mattered other than protecting this baby.
“My relationship with my other children declined. In the evenings I would sit in the bathroom and cry—I couldn’t stop. My nightmares were horrific; I would dream that my husband was falling down the stairs holding Lara, or that I was beside the road and pushed the pram into traffic. It was as if a voice was commanding me to act on these dreams. I started to believe there was only one way out [and become suicidal], but I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving Lara behind—she needed me because I was breastfeeding—so I felt that my only option was to take her with me.
“My husband had already noticed things were not right and kept reminding me to talk to him about how I felt, so when I had these thoughts, I told him. Then, we told our health visitor who alerted my GP, who arranged for an emergency perinatal mental health nurse to visit me. She prescribed antidepressants.
“I found talking to the mental health nurse extremely helpful and she helped me understand that while having intrusive thoughts is frightening, they are not actually an indication of how I was feeling. She made me feel listened to and understood. My biggest fear of owning up to how I felt was that my children would be taken away from me. I also had a nurse come to help repair the bond with my older children, mainly my six-year-old daughter who was most affected.
“My husband was my biggest support. He encouraged me to take walks to help clear my mind and to take care of myself. He also actively made an effort to form a bond with Lara gradually as my mind and mood improved. His bond with her now is beautiful to watch.
“My advice to new mothers is to get educated on postnatal depression during your pregnancy; get fathers to as well—just so you know the signs to look out for. Also [if you do feel low] talk to someone, anyone. The consequence of not talking about it and letting your mind go to the darkest of places can have a devastating effect.
“I wish I had known at the beginning of my depression that it is okay to be honest with how you feel, nobody will judge you. You are not a bad mother, you are human.”
“I wish I had known at the beginning of my depression that it is okay to be honest with how you feel, nobody will judge you”
Kamerya Hanohano, 34, Hawaii
“I have experienced postnatal depression and anxiety after all five of my children. Each experience was hard in its own way. I wasn’t able to identify it until I went through therapy after having my second baby. I only sought help then because I realised how unstable and erratic my emotions were and I noticed how similar that experience was to my first postnatal experience. It was through therapy that we were able to break down both postnatal experiences and the symptoms I was going through.
“I coped as well as I could. I did cope a lot of the time through postnatal by myself, which was incredibly hard. Eventually, I sought professional help and self-educated myself so I could take charge of my own mental health. My support system got stronger and so therapy, medication, plus a support system has made postnatal easier to cope with.
“If it weren’t for the professional help that I have received, I don’t think I would have been able to overcome it. My spiritual faith has played a huge part in helping me to get up for another day and keep moving forward. It has always been a hard process, even after five children. But you can overcome it.”
If you think that you may be suffering from postnatal depression, you can contact your doctor or local support group.