When new parents hit rock bottom: more than just the ‘baby blues’
“When she was crying incessantly I felt like hitting her against the wall to make her stop”. New parents are expected to endure their newborn’s crying through sleep deprivation and those ‘what-the-heck-do-I-do-now?’ moments. Yet for many, like Jessica Eldridge-Whyman, parenthood can become an unrelenting mental struggle. Holding four degrees, keeping an immaculate home and possessing the ability to actually carry through on her Pinterest-board, Jessica is a self-described “Type-A” personality. But her world was unravelling and no one could see it. Her struggles culminated in a note left for her husband before she intended to commit suicide. “I wrote a message to him saying, ‘Look, I’m really sorry, I can’t do it anymore. Like you guys deserve better. She’s in her cot. You’ll find her there’. And I was just going to drive way,” Jessica said. Her daughter Evangeline was four months old.
Sitting across the table cooing over her now 8-month-old daughter, Jessica shares her story with us. She said for months after her birth, Evie’s colic caused her to scream from about 4pm to 8pm each day. “As soon as she was separated from me, I would hear her scream,” Jessica said, “so I would hide in the bottom of the shower because I didn’t want to have to be around her … I think it was probably around the six-week mark when I started to think if I just killed myself, I wouldn’t have to put up with it anymore, so she could go to a better parent”. It was only one week into parenting when Jessica’s husband had reached his own mental breaking point. “He just couldn’t handle her,” Jessica said. “He’s like, ‘just take her’. I’m like out of the shower, I didn’t even have a pad on. I’m still bleeding and I had to call my mum at midnight. And I didn’t even say anything to her. I just sobbed hysterically on the phone until she came over in her pyjamas”.
Battling onwards, Jessica recalls turning to her paediatrician for help with comforting her infant daughter. “The paediatrician said, ‘I’ve never seen a first-time mother come with such a comprehensive list of things to treat their child’. ‘Go hang out the washing’, he said to me, ‘so you can’t hear her scream’. And I refused to do that,” she said. “The first eight weeks of her life I never physically put her down. So, she showered with me, I went to the toilet with her, which is hard. Very hard. I slept with her in my arms and still did really until she was five months old”. For four of those five months, her Fitbit recorded one to two hours of consistent sleep per night. “I clocked up 30,000 steps around this table once,” Jessica said. She threw the FitBit away.
Jessica’s struggle is not unusual. Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE) founder Dr Nicole Highet said about one in 10 women experiences depression during pregnancy (prenatal), increasing to one in seven after birth (postnatal). One in five women will experience anxiety before and after birth (perinatal) and one in 10 male partners experience postnatal depression (PND) or anxiety. On a more serious note, a study by Australian Professor Michael Humphrey linked maternal suicide to perinatal depression with five perinatal women committing suicide in Australia between 2012-2014. Dr Highet said parents are often too embarrassed to seek help. “I think people are trying to prove to themselves, to others, that they’ve got this motherhood thing under control. They worry others might judge them if they’re seen as vulnerable or seen as not coping,” she said. Jessica said imagining her daughter’s future reaction was her saving grace, giving her courage to finally speak up about her struggles. “My particular form of postnatal depression was quite severe because I had a plan,” Jessica said, “… most people don’t come back from that once they get to that stage.”
A shoulder to lean on…
Someone acutely aware of the value of mental wellbeing is clinical psychologist Linda Boyce. Ms Boyce specialises in perinatal and consults from an unexpectedly cosy, French provincial-styled room with a basket of toys and dollhouse beckoning from the corner. Clients sit in plush armchairs while Ms Boyce mollifies vulnerabilities by confessing her own difficulties in becoming a mum. “I was feeling pretty desperate because I had a baby who wouldn’t stop crying,” she said. “But I actually took care with how I dressed, and I put make up on and things like that. So, I had this outward appearance of looking good, but inside it was a tough time”. Ms Boyce recalls her grandmother insisting she strike up a friendship with another mother who was also struggling with a constantly crying baby. Ms Boyce said they were unaware why their babies cried so much but they would take turns holding both bubs while the other ate. “We found our children were just as miserable at home as they were out … It is a really, really tough time in your life. I don’t think anything changes quite as much in your life as when you have children. It affects things in terms of work, it affects your relationship; it has such a wide impact”.
When it comes to support, Dr Highet’s research showed an unsupportive partner to be a key factor in the risk of new parents developing PND. Mrs Boyce said many people – not only those living in rural or remote communities – struggled for support. She said adding to the problem was that some new parents’ own mothers and fathers were not always supportive of their adult child becoming a parent and struggled to respect their choices. “They’re trying to impose their own ideas on them or they might be critical of them,” Ms Boyce said. “A lot of the women that I worked with just needed a really good friend”. But Ms Boyce said making friends could be difficult when living with depression and new parents were susceptible to becoming socially withdrawn.
Oh, but that’s just normal…
Ms Boyce said when people do share parenting woes like difficulty sleeping, others might brush them aside as normal. “We know that your sleep is affected when you have children but sometimes it can actually be depression that’s causing it or anxiety.” She said symptoms of depression and anxiety can be hard to spot postnatally so it’s important to consider how long they have been occurring for. Ms Boyce said depression could be wanting to stay in bed and not get dressed, changes to appetite or weight or even feeling guilty. “It’s probably the most common emotion that comes within depression,” she said. “A lot of parents feel guilty about wanting to have time off for themselves whereas we actually do a better job parenting when we give ourselves a little bit of time … When we have a look at anxiety, it’s things like whether or not we’re able to relax. So, we often feel like we can’t settle down; even when the baby is asleep at night, it might be difficult for us to stop”. Further, Ms Boyce said anxiety can create unrealistic expectations of our responsibilities and have parents doubting whether they can cope.
Dr Highet said friends and family of new parents should watch for these behaviours as unchecked anxiety can develop into panic attacks or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). “There’s a lot of focus on physical health, a lot of focus on the birth, but very little information given to women about mental health,” Dr Highet said. “As a result, often their symptoms are missed or put down to symptoms of pregnancy.” Ms Boyce said people planning to become parents should begin discussing the impacts of pregnancy and birth on mental health even before conceiving. She said general practitioners could devise mental health care plans for each parent, providing access to Medicare-rebated or subsidised psychologist support. Rural or remote parents can also access public psychologists through Telehealth. Ms Boyce said partners should become involved as early as possible – not just to support the pregnancy but to help guard against developing their own mental health difficulties. “The spotlight’s only just really going on dads as well, so we want to have conversations as to how they’re adjusting to that transition,” Ms Boyce said.
Mirror mirror on the wall, who is the best parent of them all?
While vigilance about healthy eating and exercising can be standard advice during pregnancy, Ms Boyce recommended new and expecting parents exercise caution towards social media. She said parents most likely posted on their good days so comparing lives could be problematic. “We get high expectations from the media that we should be radiant and happy when we’re pregnant … it can really help to know that others are going through similar situations,” Ms Boyce said. “But sometimes people can then misattribute the more serious signs, so we need to know when it’s getting just a little worse than just a bad day,” she said. “Eighty-five per cent of women get the baby blues, but depression is more serious.”