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Post natal

Thursday, 17 November, 2011

Here's something I meant to post a while ago but never quite got around to it. This year's Black Dog Institute writing competition was on the topic of post-natal depression. Even though I didn't really have it, I decided to enter. You can read the prize-winning and highly commended entries online (I particularly like the one titled “Vacuuming with the Black Dog”). Mine didn't win anything (which is fine; I wasn't expecting it to. I just wanted to write it). So I thought I would post it here. It's about 1500 words.

When we became three

When I was pregnant, my worst fear was that I'd get post-natal depression. I was a prime candidate: I'd suffered bouts of depression in the past; my husband was a fellow sufferer (and, according to one friend, the birth of the first child is usually when men who struggle with depression get it the worst); having a baby was one of the hardest, most disruptive and life-changing things ever; and if I was down and my husband was down, who would look after our child?

So throughout my pregnancy, I prepared for the worst. As well as reading Kaz Cooke's Up the Duff and What to Expect When You're Expecting, I also perused Vicki Glembocki's The Second Nine Months and Rachel Power's The Divided Heart: Art and Motherhood. As well as attending ante-natal classes, my husband and I did a church-run marriage course to work on things like communication and conflict resolution. As well as talking to friends about what the initial months were like, I arranged for my husband and I to have coffee with another couple who had experienced severe post-natal depression. As well as keeping track of OBGYN appointments and questions related to birth and labour, I blogged about how I was feeling physically and mentally. As well as purchasing maternity clothes and nursery furniture, I tried to get myself an iPhone at a friend's recommendation, because you could operate it one-handed and use its social media capabilities to get support or find company during lonely night feeds.

Nine months passed and delivery day came. After six hours of uncomplicated labour, we got to meet our little girl, and our family expanded to three. From the beginning, it wasn't as bad as I'd feared. Sure, I was sore and bleeding, and it felt like an earthquake had ripped through my body, leaving fissures and stretch marks, but according to my midwives, my post-natal recovery went like a dream. Sure, the fatigue and interrupted sleep took some getting used to, but as long as I got enough rest (albeit in two-hour doses), I functioned okay. Sure, it was all new and we were very much learning as we went, but the physical tasks of caring for a newborn weren't particularly hard to master, and I was fortunate not to have any problems breastfeeding.

Little things made the initial months easier. My church organised a meal roster for friends to cook us dinner or buy us takeaway. My mother very generously paid for a cleaner to come once a fortnight. I got our groceries home delivered so I wouldn't have to take my baby to the supermarket and then lug everything up three flights of stairs. My husband worked freelance from home, and was available to take over when I needed a break. I never felt isolated because I had social media and I joined a local mother's group. But the thing that made the biggest difference was my daughter: to my surprise, I discovered I had a fairly happy baby who fed well, slept well and only cried for good reason.

Nevertheless, further down the track when most of the attention, interest and concern had died down, I found myself struggling. Some days were relaxed; other days, I felt trapped, but couldn't pinpoint what was wrong. Some days I accepted my life and looked forward to what lay ahead; others days, all I could envisage was the never-ending treadmill of feeds and dirty nappies, and I couldn't help thinking, “What have we done???” Some days I embraced motherhood; other days, I wondered if I had done the right thing in quitting work, and felt irrationally compelled to ring my boss to beg for my job back. Some days my husband and I were united, working shoulder to shoulder as Team Awesome Parents; other days, we sniped at each other and argued about the right way to do things. Some days I found myself grieving—grieving the loss of my old life, my figure, my independence, good sleep, physical functionality (as I was still experiencing pelvic girdle pain, carried over from the pregnancy), my social life, my semi-disposable income and my wonderful job; other days, I wouldn't have it any other way. Above all, I wondered who—or what—I was now: a milk factory? A housewife? A burden on society?

Unlike some other women, motherhood did not come naturally to me. Aside from clothing, feeding, changing and bathing my baby, I did not quite know what to do with her. I was a classic introvert who was used to spending my days alone in an office, so being around someone else all the time was really confronting. I had friends with kids, but I didn't really understand the full nature of what family life was like: the mothers I knew seemed to disappear off the face of the earth after giving birth, and when they resurfaced months—or even years—later, they acted like disaster victims, still reeling in the aftermath. I'd ask how things were going, and they would reply in vague platitudes or maddeningly pithy statements that offered no insight into their experiences. No one really talks about the reality of life with kids—at least not with non-parents. Furthermore, I found my options regarding mommy-dom to be most unsatisfactory: I could either be an over-involved, over-invested helicopter parent who sacrificed herself on the altar of family, or a working woman who sacrificed family time on the altar of career.

It was then that I realised two things. Firstly, I had taken one step on the road to depression, and if I didn't do something, I'd find myself in a very dark place. The bright side (if I can put it that way!) of having previously encountered melancholia was that I knew what it looked like and could take measures to deal with it. Secondly (and this was terribly obvious), having a baby was the biggest thing that had happened to me since getting married: my husband and I had entered the so-called “third” stage of life, and the challenge now was to “embrace the daunting roles of parents and to absorb the impact of Her Majesty the Baby's dramatic entrance [while at] the same time [working] to protect [our] privacy”.1 No wonder things were hard. No wonder everything was affected. And no wonder I felt the way I did.

So I started taking measures to do something about my mental state and to adjust to the change of becoming a mum. I gave myself permission to mourn what I had lost. I read books (Anne M Smollon's MIA Missing in Action: How Mothers Lose, Grieve and Retrieve Their Sense of Self was particularly helpful). I learned to rebuke false thinking, and stopped comparing myself to others. I tried to sidestep the politics, and taught myself to ignore unwelcome and overly prescriptive advice. I reduced my expectations of what I could achieve on any given day, and tried to become more flexible. Most of all, I made sure that every week I scheduled in time for my husband and I to enjoy our marriage, time for myself to rest and relax apart from my family (and time for my husband to do likewise), and time for me to cultivate the non-mommy parts of my life (like writing). It seems to me that being a parent is like running a marathon: you're in it for the long-haul, and you have to do things to keep your strength up so you don't pack it in halfway through.

I realise I'm still in the early days of parenthood: I don't have it all together, and I will keep learning as my little girl continues to grow, change and turn life upside down. Even now, I'm anxious about what's to come—crawling, walking, weaning, toilet training, the incessant chatter of toddlerdom, the crushing fatigue that comes with having two, starting school, teenage dramas, perhaps marriage and leaving the nest—but I know I'm getting ahead of myself. The future comes one day at a time. The important thing is to focus on (and enjoy) the now.

But even though I am a newbie mother, I want to say to other newbies that given the hard yards begin after labour, in the midst of all the nesting and baby things shopping, it's worth investing some time to make things a bit easier for yourself. My preparations did not arm me for everything; it surprised me that the mental change of motherhood was harder to deal with than the physical and the practical stuff. But I think the things I did cushioned me somewhat so that I did not experience post-natal depression as severely I could have. It's okay to feel sad—to grieve the passing of your old life and the change in your circumstances. All change is loss, and with loss comes mourning. But mourning helps you to face what's ahead, and once you've worked through it and come out the other side, you're more than ready for what's in store, and can enjoy motherhood and your baby unhindered, unruffled and undistracted.

1 Taken from Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee's nine psychological tasks for building a successful marriage in The Good Marriage, Warner, New York, 1995, p. 28.


Kinds of Blue: Cover art

And while we're on the subject of depression, let me plug my book again, which you can read in its entirety online. (It's also available to purchase in both soft and hard copy form. Um, yes, I meant to mention that on my blog sometime …)

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