For friends of ours, a traumatic labour thankfully resulted in the birth of a healthy child. Unfortunately, it didn’t result in a healthy mum. Within a few days of the new arrival the situation reached crisis point and they were admitted to a specialist unit. The unit staff support new mothers when birth has resulted in a negative change in their mental health.
Listening, mostly helplessly, as our friends struggled, it really brought home to me how pregnancy and childbirth is a real contradiction. Fragile yet hugely destructive; incredible pain followed by amazing highs; happy expectation quickly overset by the grim slog, induced by sleep deprivation. There can be very few experiences in life which condense so many emotions into a single, intense physical event. It is little wonder many parents take a long time to pick up again.
Reading up online, I have discovered that more than 1:10 women will suffer from postnatal depression, whilst 1:1000 women will suffer from postpartum psychosis. With almost 700,000 births in the UK last year, that translates to over 70,000 cases of postnatal depression and 700-ish cases of postpartum psychosis. Postnatal depression doesn’t just affect new mothers either. Research by the NCT shows a similar rate of postnatal depression in new fathers too, although this tends to develop slightly later post-delivery, when the baby is 3-6 months old.
And that is just those cases reported. It shouldn’t be surprising that many people don’t recognise or respond to their symptoms by seeking help; mental health has long been the poor-relation in terms of socially acceptable illnesses. Regular, high-profile campaigns have taken place over the last few years to raise public awareness and challenge what is socially acceptable in the perception and treatment of people with various mental health issues. Several celebrities have joined these campaigns and spoken publicly about their struggles to maintain ‘normal’ levels of mental health.
I don’t know how such campaigns measure their success, but one which I came across long before we considered starting a family ourselves, was awareness of postnatal depression (PND). I can see why an awareness campaign would be necessary.
As we told family, friends and colleagues the good news that we were pregnant, those with children tried to warn us how wonderful, yet physically, emotionally and mentally demanding, new parenthood would be. Despite knowing that PND existed, we had no concept of just how gruelling we would find the early days even without this complication. Amazing and delightful, but a sleep-deprived, exhaustion-numbed-mind-battle to complete even the simplest tasks. At times it was a case of knowing ourselves to be happy rather than feeling ourselves to be so.
Looking back now, I realise that I probably did suffer from a minor degree of PND. Tearful, anxious, angry with myself for (I felt) not being good enough at my new role of mother, I spent several months feeling guilty. Guilty that, after the ups and downs of pregnancy, and a failed induction followed by emergency caesarian, I had my beautiful, happy and healthy son in my arms, and yet I wasn’t always happy.
The pressure to feel only the positive is huge. For some people, the idea that there could be any negative is totally anathema. You’re reminded how lucky you are, how others would kill for the chance to have a baby of their own, how you have it all. And yet, no matter how true that may be, those words aren’t a magic spell. They cannot make you feel the way others expect you to feel.
Rather than thinking too carefully about it, and before those feelings had a chance to poison the early days, I decided to begin this blog. Mainly it is a tool to record as many as possible of the fun, charming and unexpected moments we have with Reindeer each day. But it is also an outlet, a chance to get things off my chest or to make sense of my jumbled thoughts. And it works, if not in the way I expected. You see, I write about the difficult times but, normally, I don’t end up posting them. Just the act of writing it down allows me the opportunity to take those ideas, examine them, reflect upon them and then put them away again. It takes the sting out and allows me to regain equilibrium.
This post is an example of that. I started writing because I was trying to make sense of the difficulties confronting our friends. Trying to understand, even a little bit, the incomprehensibility of going through the emotional tumult that is pregnancy and childbirth, only to have your mental health crumble around you for no apparent reason at the point when you should be able to enjoy the safe arrival of your child. I’m probably no closer to understanding their situation, but I’ve realised that they don’t need me to understand; how can I, when they don’t understand either? Rather, they need their friends to provide practical support. To assist with the mundane so that they can focus on finding their way through the chaos of expectation denied. So they can deal effectively with the reality of now and the support of their child and themselves.
For our friends, progress has been good (if frustrating for them) the last couple of days. There is every reason to be hopeful that they will soon be home and back to the normal new-baby-at-home chaos most of us experienced. But this is only possible because of the support received from the midwives and doctors and the availability of this specialist unit. Once again there is cause to be grateful for the cradle-to-grave vision of Bevan and the NHS that was born from it.