If you’ve recently had a baby you may feel as if you have been hit by a tornado. Unless you have live-in staff or helpful, non-judgemental family staying, this might also apply to your home. Everything’s a mess, there’s no food in and you’ve run out of nappies.
If this is the case, relax. Things will improve. The most important thing for you to do is rest. If the thought of visitors is overwhelming, then say no. Family and friends might be desperate to see the new arrival, but they will have to wait. Certainly don’t feel you need to tidy up for their visit. If someone offers to help, or bring food, accept. You may want to be Superwoman and do everything yourself, but you already have done the extraordinary feat of bringing a new life into the world, so coast on that for a while.
The received wisdom is that you might get baby blues just for a few weeks, but the reality can be different. I think ‘baby blues’ should be permanently retired as a phrase, it belittles the rollercoaster of emotions that a new mother will go through, good and bad. On some days you feel you could charge up a mountain, on others that you could only lay at its feet. Both these states are completely normal and are a result of the various hormones surging round your body.
A new mother’s diary recorded:
My hospital bag remained unpacked for five days. It’s the afternoon and I still haven’t brushed my teeth. I lurch from excitement to despair.
Why did I wake up in blind panic, because ‘the baby was lost inside the bed’, when he was safely next door?
Who could I tell this to without being considered mad?
That first-time mother was me. I remember the sensation of being marooned in a big tunnel straight after the birth, cocooned from reality by the epidural. I wanted to get cleaned up, eat and sleep. The midwife said, ‘let’s get Mum up to the ward’ and I thought, ‘my Mum’s not here, is she?’ I couldn’t get my head round the fact that I was ‘Mum’.
A few weeks after giving birth the mother may be questioned about her emotional state, most particularly if she feels she is at risk of harming herself or her baby. Who would want to answer 'yes' to this and have herself branded an unfit mother?
I’ve had many tearful mothers confess their fears that they might drop the baby downstairs or out of the window, but not felt able to admit this. How can you, when so many thousands, including your own mother, have managed and there is still the stigma around mental health issues? The Association for Post Natal Illness estimates that ‘as many as 10% of all recently delivered women develop postnatal depression.’(1)
This is just an average of cases that have been reported. The blogger Katherine Stone compiled her own list of rates of post-natal depression in response to a piece that suggested it doesn’t exist in non-industrialised countries.(2) One survey showed post-partum depression was as high as 20% in certain countries, such as Southern Brazil. (3)
In fact, I have a different take on the situation. In the course of my work I’ve spoken to several hundred mothers, from many different cultures and backgrounds. They all felt they couldn’t find an adequate outlet for their feelings at the beginning. Sometimes they wanted to rant, but a lot of times they wanted to celebrate and share how much they loved being a mother. They didn’t describe themselves as depressed then.
I think the majority of new mothers have ‘new motherhood syndrome’. The list of the symptoms and feelings this might encompass are endless but might include:
- Giddy excitement, despair, boredom, joy, fear, tearfulness. Guilt, low self-esteem. Overwhelming pride and delight.
- Wanting to go out partying.
- Wanting to stay under the duvet forever.
- Wishing you weren’t a mother.
What is NOT normal is being capable and serene at all times. Both the terminology and attitude to this period of motherhood is wrong. The mental health of a mother following a birth is as important as her physical health beforehand. If you feel you might harm yourself or your baby, you should seek help. If however, you feel a mixture of the emotions above, that is new motherhood syndrome. Eat, rest, be with your baby without expectations. And take some time to nurture yourself. The rest will come.
- Association for Post Natal Illness, 2014: Post Natal Depression. www.apni.org
- K. Stone, 2012: Is Postpartum Depression Non-Existent in Other Cultures? The Facts. From Postpartum Progress. http://www.postpartumprogress.com
- Tannous, Gigante, Fuchs and Busnello, 2008: Postnatal depression in Southern Brazil. From BMC Psychiatry.