A few weeks ago, Adele spoke openly in the media about her struggles with postnatal depression after the birth of her son. Like so many other mothers, she struggled with adjusting to motherhood, and felt that having a baby had been a bad decision and that she was inadequately looking after her baby.
As well as being a mother myself, I have supported hundreds of mothers over the last 14 years as a postnatal doula, and I can honestly say that the majority of these women, including myself, have all, at some point, felt just like Adele. In the early weeks of motherhood, it all feels so big and at times, like balancing on the edge of a bottomless pit, clinging on for dear life to not fall down it. I can sense by being around these new mums that sometimes they are carrying on, putting a brave face on it and acting in a way that society expects us to behave as mothers. It’s in the moments, as we sit down to have a cup of tea, that I will tell them about how I felt after having my first baby, who I refer to as my ‘high maintenance’ baby, as I know my story is similar to most women’s experience of becoming mothers. I also know that I’ve hit a nerve when I see the relief in my client’s eyes, often filled with tears, as they realise that what they are experiencing is normal – they are not alone!
I clearly remember feeling like I had ruined my life, sitting on the steps of my back-door, leaving my crying baby in her cot as I had to walk away to clear my head. These feelings were soon replaced by an overwhelming feeling of guilt as I realised that she didn’t ask to be born and that I had wanted her, that I still wanted her and loved her very much. I remember the daily struggle of having a long list of things to do, yet often getting to the end of the day and not even having had a chance to have a shower. I remember the constant worry that something must be wrong because my baby seemed so sad all the time, crying, not sleeping for long stretches, and generally seeming unsettled.
This was, indeed, a far cry from the romanticised picture of motherhood that I had in my mind, consisting of long walks with the baby sleeping in her pram and coffee and cake with friends. I didn’t even want to go out and meet up with my postnatal group as their babies all seemed so much happier than my baby. Mine was the screaming baby who wanted to feed all the time and who refused to lay on the floor with the others for more than ten seconds. It was easier to just stay at home as these meetings only left me feeling like an inadequate mum - I imagined them not liking my daughter as she was “disturbing the peace” all the time. These sessions were also often filled with advice on how I should try different things, when no one actually understood that whatever they did with their babies just didn’t work with mine!
Now, I was never diagnosed with postnatal depression but I was lucky to have the most caring and loving health visitor called Mary who would pop in once a week for a cup of tea. I would sit and cry, telling her how tough it was, and she would simply sit there and listen. She would always validate how I was feeling and remind me that things would get better and I clearly remember Mary saying ‘there is light at the end of the tunnel’. As my baby turned twelve weeks, I started hearing my baby’s crying as ‘talking’ rather than a sign of pain or sadness. I stopped making to-do lists and congratulated myself if I had managed to have a shower, go for a walk or cook dinner in one day. I started realising that the struggle was not what was happening in the moment but the thoughts and expectations of how I expected it to be.
I believe that sometimes women make the early days with their baby more difficult, just like I did, because we want things to get back to ‘normal’ (i.e., how they were before the baby). Struggling to live the life we used to live before the baby arrived causes us the greatest pain. We are grieving for something that we have lost and that will never return again – because life will never be the same again! Things will eventually return to a state of ‘normality’, but it will be a new normal, and it will change regularly. The biggest lesson I learnt was to surrender to the moment, stop expecting it to be different and accept that things had changed.
Being a mum is the best and biggest experience a woman will ever have. It comes with ups and downs, but there is nothing that will ever compare to it! I see myself in so many of the new mums I work with and I do exactly what Mary did for me, listen, nod my head, make tea and reassure them that many women are feeling exactly the same and that it will get better. I don’t belittle their experience, I don’t tell them how lucky they are to have a baby and I certainly don’t give them any advice. I know that by just being there, helping them to find their own way of becoming a mum, will get them to that place of acceptance in the end.
Postnatal Depression - signs to be aware of
Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.