Having a new baby is, for most people, the culmination of planning and dreaming. Even if it wasn’t initially on the agenda, you’ve had some months to get used to the idea and to think about your new life. For many, it becomes the best thing ever. Even if a bit scary. Even though your life will completely change. Others, however, find the fear of those very changes becomes bigger than the potential joy, and the normal anxiety of the new parent turns into an overwhelming panic. From panic can come a feeling of helplessness. Negative emotions pile on top of each other and the result can be a horrible black depression. And you can just feel so alone …
I should add that even some who believe that this is the best thing ever can experience feelings of depression. They can become fearful of their capacity to care for the baby, to keep her safe and well, to feed her. The crying of the baby can become impossible to bear. The expected feelings of maternal joy don’t just appear with the birth of the baby and some women begin to believe that they will never love their baby as they should.
There are so many factors that can contribute to postnatal depression.
Some women have not experienced happy relationships with their own mothers, and don’t know how to be kind mothers themselves, with no one to model themselves on. Some women are so perfectionistic that they can’t forgive themselves for making the wrong guess when caring for their baby – changing a nappy when the baby is hungry, or feeding her when she is really too hot, or waking her from her sleep are not sins nor evidence of poor parenting, but that can be hard for some women to believe.
Some women compare themselves to others. Instead of feeling supported by other mothers, they feel judged or don’t themselves believe that they are measuring up. All of this self-talk about failure or being not good enough will lead to depression.
Some women become socially isolated once they have their baby. They may have had many of their social emotional needs met in the workplace, and maternity leave then becomes hell rather than a joy.
Some women just don’t understand that to be a mother you just have to be GOOD ENOUGH! Good enough to feed the baby when it is hungry, change it when it is dirty, smile at it and have it smile back. Singing to your baby is so good for the baby (and for you) and takes no skill at all. Your baby won’t notice that you are tone deaf! Your house does not have to be perfectly tidy, the ironing does not have to be done, the sink doesn’t have to be empty of dishes for you to be a good enough mother.
To be a good enough mother, you need enough sleep yourself. Perhaps there is someone in your environment who can allow you to have a nap during the day while they hold a crying baby?
To be a good enough mother, you have to have enough sustenance that your brain will function and you can make decisions. You have to give your baby enough food too, and if that means you can’t breastfeed, then feed your baby formula with joy, and be a good enough mother. Don’t allow anyone to judge you.
Being a good enough mother, for most women, means asking for and receiving help. It’s pretty tough to do it entirely alone. If you don’t have a supportive partner, reach out to your network and see whether there is a way of supporting each other.
What signs to look out for in others…
If you are aware of a new mother who is struggling, who is looking frazzled and intense, who is anxious about their mothering, just reach out and offer support. Firstly, practical support. Maybe cook them a meal, or offer to hold the baby while they sleep.
Support has to be unconditional and non-judgemental. That means going along with and supporting the mother in her parenting style. If you think she is making life hard for herself, perhaps indicate a different way of achieving her goals, but in a way that gives her a choice and a pathway towards doing something new and retaining her dignity.
Often, the best support is friendship. We can all reach out our hands to someone who is struggling. Sometimes, once you have done that, you recognise that your friend is still needing help and you will be in a position to direct them to a psychologist or other professional who may be able to help.
When a new mother becomes depressed, it affects her and her new baby, as well as others in her network. It can make it much harder for her to bond with the baby, which is vital if the baby is to develop well. When simple strategies of assistance and friendship don’t work, please help her get professional help, so that the proper balance between mother and baby is restored and they can joyfully grow together.