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Post Natal Depression or Normal Response to New Motherhood?

Post Natal Depression? Nothing to do with me. Apparently my friend’s second cousin once had it. It’s out there. I know that. It happens. But not to me…

In the throws of early pregnancy, we easily push aside any initial ambivalence, and happily distract ourselves with the hundreds of things we now need to think about. From birth classes to hospital appointments, to baby clothes, cribs and prams, not to mention the tireless hours flicking through baby name books where the only name we can all mildly agree on is Bert. There is no end to this new world in which we suddenly find ourselves immersed in. Our interests and priorities have already shifted such that our old friends find it hard to relate to us as we enter this new stage of life.

In all the excitement and despite the irony, the last thing on our minds is actually what it will be like to care for a real live baby, let alone considering the possibility that we may have to contend with post natal depression.

First of all, perhaps we should be careful in labeling the feelings surrounding this major developmental crisis as ‘depression’? This is a frightening label to be given when we are often feeling at our most vulnerable, never mind the social stigma attached.

Let’s look at the facts. We have just gone through one of the most major transitions of our lives. We have become a mother. And with that our whole world has been rocked. Our lifestyle, all of our relationships, our role, our working life, the way others perceive us, our very identity…no part of our lives remains untouched. Even our bodies have often changed beyond recognition. Our hormones are raging, we are totally exhausted due to this new little life who depends on us for their very survival and no one told us it would be this hard!

We haven’t even got over the exhaustion and sometimes trauma of the birth, another huge milestone for which we are often mentally ill prepared. And now we have been plunged into an existence where time is no longer our own. We are on a runaway train and no one has told us where the breaks are. If we thought we had any control over our lives before, now there is no doubt that we are totally out of control, at the mercy of our new little bundle who we are supposed to love and cherish, yet we can’t even see straight with our painful nipples after hours of unsuccessful breast feeding, aching bodies as we recover from the birth and all this on just 2 hours sleep, for which we are told we should be grateful!

With no one to turn to and at the end of our tether, we find ourselves crying at the drop of a hat and we and others have the audacity to ask, why?!

Whilst I in no way want to dismiss or play down the suffering that many mothers go through in early motherhood, my wish is rather to normalise it. It is understandable and perhaps even expected that many will experience some pretty turbulent emotions, especially given the hormones flooding our body post birth

I therefore would like to suggest that we could approach this period and experience entirely differently. I wonder if we could stop being so frightened by the term ‘Post Natal Depression’ and instead realise that these feelings are normal and natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Of course this doesn’t make them hurt any less, but perhaps we could move through them with more grace and understanding, without judging ourselves so harshly. Dare I say it, perhaps we may even develop some compassion towards ourselves.

Believe it or not, it’s often our thoughts about the ‘depression’ that cause most of the problem, not the bad feelings themselves. Left alone, these thoughts and feelings will simply pass. That’s just the way our mind works. Thought is temporary and therefore getting freaked out by our depressed feelings and beating ourselves up for it, is just as irrational as chastising ourselves for having a bad dream.

And so we can see that all the well-meaning relatives telling us to snap out of it and just be grateful for our healthy baby, as well as our own judgmental thoughts insisting that we really should be stronger, have the unfortunate effect of keeping us in our low state.

Besides if we took an honest look at ourselves and were really true to our experience, we might even be lucky enough to notice the truth of what’s really happening, which is that we are forever going in and out these thoughts and feeling states. We have good moments and we have bad. We can feel strong in a moment of quiet, perhaps whilst grabbing a quick shower when the baby is sleeping, where we recognise that we are ok, we can do this, our resilience comes through. We bounce back and feel ‘normal’ again if only for a few short minutes. The next moment we can feel totally broken over something as simple as split milk (especially if it’s expressed breast milk!!)

Furthermore, we all have the unhelpful tendency to compare ourselves to others. We look at mothers, either friends or even complete strangers in the street, and wonder how they are coping so well which just adds to our feelings of low self worth as we begin to feel that perhaps we are just not cut out for this role. Feelings of guilt and shame can overwhelm us. It is worth keeping in mind that often many are having the very same feelings as you are. Perhaps you have caught them at a time when their contaminated thinking has released them from its menacing grip. Or perhaps these women are allowing these very same thoughts to flow through them like a passing river without getting too attached or letting them define who they are.

In short, the intensity of emotion that we go through as a brand new mother can certainly feel challenging at times but as we recognise that we are in actual fact having a whole range of experiences, the bad ones begin to frighten us a little less. Plus we begin to get a feel for our emotional resilience which is always there under the whirlwind of negative thought we often innocently torture ourselves with. That’s just life and part of the richness of being a human being. We can certainly begin to lighten the load by reminding ourselves, that ‘this too shall pass’!!

Deborah Binun BSc MA MBACP Psychotherapist specialising in Tokophobia, Birth Trauma & Post Natal Depression

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