In our journey into the unknowns of mothering we discover many things about life, about ourselves, and about our own mothers.
We learn things that are well-kept secrets in our society, where only the 'good' aspects of mothering are mentioned and the worst is not talked about, a conspiracy of silence, partial truths and omissions. It is this conspiracy, I believe, that leads women to some kind of postnatal crisis.
Only a new mother can understand the incredible frustration of the inconsolable, screaming infant who appears to be neither hungry, wet or in pain. Only a new mother can appreciate the torturous effects of another broken night's sleep, and the impact it has on her relationships and her emotional well-being. A crying baby refusing the breast becomes a painful rejection, surely the closeness of that intimate moment is the one thing that we can provide that makes everything better? Isn't that what we are led to believe?
Only a new mother can begin to understand that no matter how much she has dreamed of this moment, she is capable of feeling indescribable helplessness, frustration, vulnerability and desperation.
A partner's gambit for affection becomes another demand on her already 'touched-out' body, her self-esteem can be at an all-time low, as she feels she is failing on all fronts. She can experience an overwhelming urge to run away, to disappear, to simply cease to exist, as though that would somehow end the endlessness of this, this role that we were told to expect would be full of joy, bliss and satisfaction. And how terrible would it be to actually admit to that desire to run away, to leave, to not be a mother any more, what plagues and punishments would be inflicted on us then? How would we be judged in the eyes of society? A mother who has moments of not wanting her children, of wanting to run away, to escape? Yes, far better to avert your thinking from that course, to pretend that everything is fine, that we are all doing OK and that this is all normal. That's right, join the conspiracy of silence, become one of those who perpetuates only the 'good' in mothering, because the alternatives are unthinkable.
So, we go along to our coffee groups, and we talk about how our babies are doing, more specifically about what our babies are doing, their milestones, when we plan to go back to work, where we plan to send our children to daycare, what we will be able to do when they are through this stage, or that, when they are walking, when they are talking, when the next one comes along, always looking forward, too frightened to be in the present, because in the present the truth might catch up with us. Best to keep moving, to tow the line, motherhood is all joy and bliss, don't dissent, don't complain, don't speak out. Everything is fine.
The figures for New Zealand estimate approximately 10-15% of women will experience postnatal distress. Others put this figure at 25%, that's one in every four mothers, and some estimate it to be even higher. I wonder, if we removed the 'diagnosis', choosing to look instead for those mothers who were really struggling with the incongruence between the life they had imagined, and their new reality - what sort of numbers we might be talking about then.
Postnatal distress affects women regardless of social status, ethnicity, educational background, profession, marital status. It does not discriminate. Sure there appear to be some factors which can be said to place women at higher risk, difficult pregnancy, labour complications, caesarean, history of depression or other mood disorder, however postnatal distress also affects mothers who have no such history, who had easy uncomplicated pregnancies and births.
Postnatal distress is often missed, women dismiss what they are feeling, eager to conform to the motherhood equals bliss myth, or they are told what they are experiencing is 'normal', they are adjusting to motherhood; the bliss part must be delayed and will surely follow. Another myth, its just the hormones, everything will soon settle down, reinforcing the message there is something wrong with her, something that 'should' be fixed.
The very fact that we use the label 'postnatal distress' pathologises women's responses to the changes they are facing in their lives. Labelling women in such a way reduces their individual experience to a 'disorder', a 'dis-ease'. She has failed somehow; she must be fixed, made better; a return to normal, when everything in her life is so far from what she knew as 'normal'. Given that women are more vulnerable after giving birth to developing emotional problems than at any other time in their lives, that failure seems like less of a failure on her part and more of a failing in a society that merely pays lip-service to equality and the value of mothering.
Back at the coffee group where we dare not share how we are really feeling, women receive and reinforce the subtle and very powerful message that it is not OK to be 'not OK'. We are our own worst enemies, our harshest critics, most ruthless judges. The implicit message is clear, "everyone else is coping - there must be something wrong with me". And therein lies the issue, everyone is not coping, it's just that we aren't talking about it. A conspiracy of silence, denial and compliance and we women are certainly complicit in it.
Often there is no extended family around, many grandparents still work full time, often no adult company at all, the woman is alone for long periods of time, alone with a baby, who can't communicate its needs verbally, just with cries, and in no time at all the lack of sleep combined with constant second-guessing herself as to whether she is doing the right thing become an assault on her self-esteem and morale.
No-one expects postnatal distress, no-one expects not to cope, to feel miserable, to feel out of control, to have no hope for the future, to have frighteningly dark thoughts, to long for our pre-child lives and bodies. And in not talking about the dark side of motherhood we participate in a conspiracy that sets pregnant women everywhere up for a huge and unpleasant surprise. A few hours of antenatal classes are woefully inadequate in terms of emotionally preparing women for motherhood, in short, we don't prepare women emotionally at all. A few hours for labour and birth, a few hours for baby's needs. If you are lucky your childbirth educator spends about half the time on post-natal topics, that's 6 hours all up to cover this huge life change, and in that time she needs to get across to you breastfeeding, vitamin K, safe sleeping, vaccinations and a whole host of other things that don't have anything to do with your emotional wellbeing once this baby arrives. And if it did - how much would we be able to take in? - So focussed are we on the labour and birth.
Disappointingly, I don't have the solution, we live in a society obsessed with information, the answers to pretty much all of our questions are available at the touch of a button, we can Google anything and everything. The issue now is that we have lost our inner knowing, so reliant are we on the 'experts' to tell us what we should be doing, how we should be feeling, how best to cope. Undoubtedly this is a part of the problem.
Part of the solution, I believe, lies in exposing the myths surrounding mothering. As women, as mothers, we must ask ourselves if the time has come for us to reclaim our inner wisdom, our intuition, and to talk openly about the realities of motherhood, the pleasant and the not so pleasant, to support and nurture each other instead of competing with each other, to form a community of women, of mothers, to bring mothering to ourselves.
How do I know it's post-natal distress?
These feelings are from Karen Kleiman and Valerie Raskin's "This isn't what I expected: Overcoming postpartum depression" - a symptom checklist from the postnatal distress spectrum;
▪ I can't shake feeling depressed no matter what I do
▪ I cry at least once a day
▪ I feel sad most or all of the time
▪ I can't concentrate
▪ I don't enjoy the things that I used to enjoy
▪ I have no interest in making love at all, even though my doctor says I am physically able to resume sexual relations
▪ I can't sleep, even when my baby sleeps
▪ I feel like a failure all of the time
▪ I have no energy: I am tired all the time
▪ I have no appetite and no enjoyment of food (or, I am having sugar and carbohydrate cravings and compulsively eating all the time)
▪ I can't remember the last time I laughed
▪ Every little thing gets on my nerves lately. Sometimes I am even furious at my baby. Often I am angry with my husband
▪ I feel that the future is hopeless
▪ It seems like I will feel this way forever
▪ There are times that I feel it would be better to be dead than to feel this way for one more minute
Kleiman and Raskin suggest that most new mothers will be able to relate to one or two of the feelings above, however, they add, these mothers will also have periods of good feelings along with the sense that things are improving as their transition into motherhood progresses. A mother with postnatal distress on the other hand will likely identify with many of the feelings above, if not all, generally experiencing them for the most part of most days. As a guide, they suggest that if you can identify with four or more of the feelings above you may have postnatal distress, and generally speaking these feelings need to last for 2 weeks or more.
Emma Green is the mother to three lovely children and has personal experience of postnatal distress, she is an antenatal educator and currently facilitates the support groups for the Postnatal Distress Support Network. She is passionate about raising awareness of PND and in supporting other women in their experiences of mothering, their struggles and joys.
For more information and support you can visit www.postnataldistress.org.nz
Karen Kleiman's website has a great further reading list and some self help ideas (go to www.postpartumstress.com)