As a novelist, I use fiction to explore subjects that are often difficult or taboo like domestic control, racism and now post-natal depression. I must confess that as I sat on the side of the bath, crying at 3 a.m. silently begging my baby boy to go back to sleep, I wondered if I was the only one, the only mother that felt looking after a new born was just too difficult. I was exhausted and can now see that exhaustion, coupled with hormones running haywire and no immediate support, meant I was being gripped by the tentacles of the baby blues monster.
I was a mum who was struggling, and I didn’t know where or how to ask for help. I had irrational fears; if I told someone I couldn’t cope, would they take my baby away? Was he gravely ill, is that why he was crying? How would my family view me, if they knew I was finding it difficult to care for my own child?
But it got me thinking. Surely I wasn’t the only new mum who felt this way and if I wasn’t, why weren’t we talking about it? I believe in the sisterhood, in this world it is hard enough to make a mark and women should in my opinion do all we can to support other women. So what was going on? Why was there this conspiracy of silence around motherhood and Post Natal Depression?
When I started the research for A Mother’s Story, I was literally flooded with people wanting to talk about their experiences and those women came from all walks of life. My findings seemed to support my theory that every single mother has at some point suffered from the baby blues whether it was just the half an hour that she felt overwhelmed to the more extreme forms of post-natal psychosis.
Here is a sample of some of my case studies, the names of the women have been changed, but their stories have not.
- Ivy, 83. She has three children, aged 64, 60 and 58. She had three home births and remembers feeling very low after giving birth to her last two children. Her mum suggested she had ‘baby blues’ and her friends and family who lived close by, would nip in and take the children to the park and once or twice had them overnight to give her a break. Ivy never felt she could fully express how low she felt “I felt like a bad mother and I never told my husband, he was of the view that it was my job and I just had to get on with it.” Ivy’s view was very interesting, she felt that things hadn’t changed much, there was still stigma in admitting you couldn’t cope and her concern was that “nowadays you don’t have your extended family around you like I did, that must make it harder.”
- Helen, 47. Helen has two daughters aged 14 and 15. She lives in suburbia and is educated, wealthy and happily married to a professional man. She was a stay at home mum. One of those women who we might consider ‘to have it all.’ After the birth of her first daughter, she felt the slow creep of depression, but thought she could master it alone and in secret, too ashamed of her feelings of inadequacy. Her second daughter followed quickly and Helen suffered with PNP (Post Natal Psychosis). She expressed desire to harm her daughters and was sectioned. She was in therapy and relied on medication for the next seven years.
- Katie, 28. Her son is 5. A single mum who thought she was feeling down because of her circumstances. “It was only when I realised that I felt no happiness at all at being a mum and that I was faking it, I went to the doctors and asked for help. I didn’t want it to get any worse.” Katie is only just coming off medication and says “looking back it was like I was living under a black cloud, I wanted anyone to look after him, my mum, neighbours, anyone other than me. I thought everyone could do a better job.”
- Vivienne, 34. One son who is 2. Professional woman, home owner. She has not sought help and can’t understand why she can’t cope. “I am used to juggling a demanding life, busy career and I feel so guilty and lonely, I don’t know why all the other mum’s seem to be able to manage, but I feel like I’m drowning. Everything is hard. The only time I feel relief is when I’m at work, which makes me feel even guiltier…” Vivienne’s relationship with her son’s father has broken down as a result.
- Judith, 43. Two daughters 11 and 14. A midwife and married. “I thought I knew what to look out for, thought I knew the warning signs. I refused to accept I was suffering from PND, but I was. It robbed me of those early years and I wish I’d sought help sooner, but I know how women can be judged and I didn’t want that happening to me.”
- My great friend from school Ruth Jackson suffered more than most, with both antenatal and post-natal depression. She has set up a charity bluebellcare.org and works tirelessly, campaigning for better understanding of PND and asking women to talk about it and remove the stigma.
These women’s stories share many similarities, regardless of their individual circumstance. Part of the problem is that the reality is so very different from the expectation. No one tells you about the exhaustion, the self-doubt, the sense of failure. We are fed images of lithe celebrities squeezing back into their skinnys and breastfeeding from pert nipples while whipping up a soufflé within days of giving birth. Is it any wonder that we feel like failures when our babies are months old and we are still in our maternity pants, our cracked, sore boobs stop yielding milk as the baby refuses to latch on and any food you prepare comes straight from a heat and serve carton?
I remember chatting to one immaculate new mum. I was so tired I spoke like a drunk while she shook her glossy mane and shone as she told me how her daughter was sleeping through the night and how she and her husband had resumed S-E-X and that she was seriously thinking of falling pregnant again as she missed her bump. I nodded, swallowing envy as I recalled earlier that day, scraping baby sick from my shoulder and caking concealer under my eyes so I didn’t look quite so zombie-like and working out how long it would be before I could crawl under the duvet again. I just about managed to clean my teeth, let alone indulge in S-E-X.
This very common occurrence is made taboo by a lack of discussion and honesty. If society views depression in general as a weakness and motherhood is ‘the most natural thing in the world, what you were built for’ is it any wonder we feel a little reluctant to put up our hands and say, I CAN’T DO IT!
We only hear about the ‘joy’ the ‘wonder’ the ‘all consuming love’ that we are going to experience as new mother’s, and of course, this is all true, but I can’t help but feel that if that was tempered with an honest account of the lows too, it would help manage the expectation of motherhood, shattering the conspiracy of silence and helping all those who live under the dark cloud of post natal depression realise that they are far from alone.