Becoming a mother is by far the most incredible, intense, difficult, wonderful thing that’s ever happened to me.
These past months have been a whirlwind of highs and lows. I’ve smiled and cried (in equal measure!) more than I think I ever have before!
So far this is both the longest and shortest year of my life. I pass newborns with their mothers holding them like fine porcelain in the park, while our newborn stage feels life a lifetime ago.
The lack of sleep, intense responsibility, hormone rollercoaster certainly takes its toll on all of us. But for some more than others.
13% percent of all new mums experience some sort of mental illness, most commonly post partum depression.
Someone said to me once that “Post partum depression is a perfectly reasonable response to being left alone with a new baby!” you suddenly have to wave goodbye to your old life, after what’s often a long, painful and exhausting birth, and stay awake for the next few months, looking after this precious person who everyone tells you will die if you do the slightest thing wrong!
But that’s the reality facing all new mothers, for those who suffer with PPD it’s far worse. They have to deal with all of the above, while battling a mental illness.
What are the signs?
- Feeling sad, hopeless, empty, or overwhelmed
- Crying more often than usual or for no apparent reason
- Worrying or feeling overly anxious
- Feeling moody, irritable, or restless
- Oversleeping, or being unable to sleep even when her baby is asleep
- Having trouble concentrating, remembering details, and making decisions
- Experiencing anger or rage
- Losing interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
- Suffering from physical aches and pains, including frequent headaches, stomach problems, and muscle pain
- Eating too little or too much
- Withdrawing from or avoiding friends and family
- Having trouble bonding or forming an emotional attachment with her baby
- Persistently doubting her ability to care for her baby
- Thinking about harming herself or her baby.
Why does it happen?
No-one’s quite sure. It’s not simply a case of the massive hormone fluctuations altering your brain chemistry (which is obviously a huge factor!) but a lack of support for new mothers, sleep deprivation, pain, exhaustion, and so many other factors at play.
This week I spent some time at the Johnson & Johnson Innovation Centre meeting some of their incredible researchers, working to eliminate diseases worldwide, from HIV to depression. Naturally, having been the baby care brand for over a hundred years, a key focus for them is post partum mental health. You can read more about their incredible work here.
What can you do?
If you’re a new mum (or pregnant – 10% of pregnant women experience perinatal depression) and you’re miserably reading through that list thinking “this is me!” then please don’t panic. You are not alone. You’re not broken. Your feelings are completely valid. It’s just so important that you talk to someone. It could be your doctor, a health visitor, a midwife, your therapist (you’re already ahead of the game if you have one of these!) your mum, a friend, your partner, someone you can trust who will help you get the help you need and deserve. Don’t suffer in silence thinking it’ll go away by itself.
Get out of the house, go for a walk, get some fresh air and exercise. Eat well, nourish your body which although you may not recognise it at the moment, has just done the most incredible thing! Rest. Get some sleep. Have a friend or family member watch the baby and take some time for yourself.
You might want to try therapy. The days of feeling embarrassed and slinking off to see a shrink are over! I have so many chats with wonderful friends that begin with “so my therapist told me…” and they’re always the best chats. There are so many options when it comes to therapy, the NHS recommend (and can organise for you) CBT therapy, while I’ve had great experiences with EFT therapy, but if in doubt you can just check in with your GP who will make a recommendation.
You can practice mindfulness. “With a screaming baby?” I hear you say, and you have a point! If you can rope a friend in to babysit so you can go for a walk, do some yoga, sit and have a coffee, just be you for a while, it might help. One of the treatments the researchers at Johnson & Johnson are excited about is “mindfulness-based cognitive therapy” (MBCT), which incorporates practices like meditation and breathing techniques.
If things get really hard, your doctor might recommend antidepressant medication to help.
Most importantly though, if it all gets too much, if you’re in the middle of witching hour and you start to have dark thoughts, put the baby down safely in their bed and walk away. Go into another room, get some fresh air, close your eyes, take a deep breath, so deep you think you might burst. Breathe all the darkness out. Shake it off. Literally! Shake like a wet dog. Let it all go. Take a few moments for yourself. Even if the baby’s crying, if they’re in a safe place they’ll be absolutely fine, just focus on you. It all gets too much for everyone sometimes. If you have people around you who you can ask for help, ask! They want to help, I promise.
Everyone else can help too. If you have a loved one who’s given birth (not just recently, could even be a year ago) who seems withdrawn and not like themselves, you need to check in. Signs to look out for –
- frequently crying for no obvious reason
- having difficulty bonding with their baby, looking after them only as a duty and not wanting to play with them
- withdrawing from contact with other people
- speaking negatively all the time and claiming that they’re hopeless
- neglecting themselves, such as not washing or changing their clothes
- losing all sense of time, such as being unaware whether 10 minutes or 2 hours have passed
- losing their sense of humour
- constantly worrying that something is wrong with their baby, regardless of reassurance
Talk to them, see if they’re ok, encourage them to tell you what’s going on. Help with household tasks, cook, tidy up, babysit, listen. If you’re worried talk to a doctor, if you think they or the baby are in immediate danger, obviously call 999.
Mental illness is a disease like any other and deserves to be taken seriously.
As does your mental wellbeing. As a mother you don’t have to suffer from depression to need help and you should never feel afraid to ask for it.
If I could share just one tip to all new mums, it would be to find your village. Raising a baby used to be an incredibly social thing, a duty shared by the entire extended family and village. With our busy modern lives it can now be one of the most isolating times of your life. You need to get out, go to a baby class, the playground, the local coffee shop, take your baby and meet people. Meet other mums. I already told you how I met my best mum friend, I had just given birth a few days earlier and waddled to the park with Lily, where I met a pregnant woman who popped two weeks later. Since then we’ve walked almost every day together. Shared every up and down, commiserated over sore nipples, night feeds, nappy fillings, rashes, colds and temperatures. We’ve each calmed the other as their baby screamed blue murder! She’s one of a small handful of friends I’ve made as a mum and my journey just wouldn’t have been the same without them. Some things you can really only say to another mum!
My mum and I have become closer than ever because I love and appreciate her help and wisdom. Ok, so literally every guideline has changed since I was a baby, but her calm knowingness is so reassuring. I know some people feel bad asking their mum for help, but in my experience they’re generally thrilled! If you’re lucky enough to have a mum, don’t be afraid to say “mummy I need you!”
And remember that the nights are long but the years are short. Or as mum puts it “babies don’t keep!” Before you know it your little baby will be all grown up and these few months will feel like a distant happy memory.
The best way to care for your baby is to take care of yourself. So be gentle with yourself.
Supporting others. Like most mums I know I Googled “is this normal” at least 10 times a day for the first weeks after giving birth! I had a whatsapp group with my midwives (my birth story is here if you missed it) and a hotline to granny. We are so unbelievably lucky to live the way we do, with immediate access to the internet but more importantly reliable healthcare, help and advice. For most of the world, this just isn’t the case. That’s why, since 2010, Johnson & Johnson has been supporting mobile messaging programs designed to target low-income mothers in 10 countries—programs like MomConnect, an initiative of the South African National Department of Health that has reached 1.8 million moms in three years and is now available in 95% of health clinics in the country. It’s a service that texts or whatsapps pregnant women and mums with advice and answers all those niggling “is this normal” questions, that are of course, quite normal!
Another partner, Mothers2Mothers is also expanding its incredible footprint. Born in 2001 at the hight of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, m2m supports mothers with HIV and is committed to ending HIV-related stigma, helping mothers with healthcare, childcare, education and finding them meaningful employment. To find out more and support the initiative, follow them on Instagram.