postnatal depression
When Jessica Elise Bull confronted her postnatal depression, she realised she had been struggling in the dark. Eighteen months on, she asks what it will take for new mums to feel supported during the momentous transition into motherhood.

I am one of the one in six Australian mothers who have experienced postnatal depression or anxiety. I am no stranger to anxiety. The year before I fell pregnant with my eldest son, I experienced an incredibly intense season of unrelenting anxiety which involved flying home from a work trip certain I was going to die of either panic or humiliation.

But in the postpartum period following the birth of my second son, my anxiety presented differently. It was a subtle tic that left me with a faint unease within myself and the world around me. A feeling so easy to dismiss as a symptom of nights of broken sleep, or adjusting to the juggle of having two children under two.

Because I felt so connected to my boys, I dismissed the possibility of postnatal depression. I naively assumed that women who experienced postnatal depression or anxiety had difficulty getting out of bed or felt disconnected from their babies. Neither applied to me, so I was fine, right?

It wasn’t until an unrelated major life event caused my anxiety levels to skyrocket that I was forced to concede I was not, in fact, fine. Gripped by fear that my mental health was going to decline so badly I would be left unable to look after my six-month-old baby and toddler, I visited my GP. As my cheeks burned with humiliation, she gently gave me recommendations for local psychologists (which I resolutely ignored) and wrote me a script for an antidepressant. I rushed out of the clinic so fast she was left in a cloud of dust.

As the country went into lockdown (the first of many), I quietly swallowed the prescribed pills, did the recommended exercise, ate well and tried not to gulp wine once the kids were in bed.

Eighteen months later, off the medication and relatively free of anxiety, I realise how secretive I was about my experience. My silence around my mental health struggles speaks volumes about the stigma and shame experienced by so many women during their transition into motherhood.

Research by Beyond Blue reveals one in 10 women experience some degree of depression during pregnancy, and around one in six in the year after the birth of their baby. Women are more likely to develop mental health problems during pregnancy and the postpartum stage than at any other time in their life.

The prevalence of postnatal depression and anxiety should come as no surprise given that pregnancy, birth and early motherhood are periods of a woman’s life charged with bodily changes, hormonal shifts and the abrupt adaptation to the constant around-the-clock biological demands of a baby. Given that such challenges are universal to new mothers, why is struggling still shrouded in stigma and silence?

Part of the challenge is that our collective expectation of early motherhood is skewed by the highlight reels of other mothers on social media platforms. The reality is often far messier and more stained by bodily fluids than Instagram would let us believe. Certainly, we need a cultural shift to normalise the difficult transition into motherhood and reframe what it means to become a parent, so that new mothers aren’t silenced by shame when their experiences don’t measure up to the ideals of what motherhood should look and feel like.

Alexandra Sacks, a leading reproductive psychiatrist, believes discomfort in these early stages of motherhood doesn’t always equal disease. In her TED Talk A new way to think about the transition to motherhood, she explains that the spectrum of discomfort associated with the physical, psychological and emotional changes during the transformational process of new motherhood means there are many new mothers who don’t fit into the statistic of being clinically depressed, but aren’t exactly thriving either.

It’s difficult to truly thrive during a time of body morphing and hormone upheaval. Meeting the needs of your baby, adapting to a new family dynamic and juggling necessary household chores leaves little room to meet your most basic needs, let alone socialise or practise the often-cited necessary “self-care”. It’s a heavy mental load to carry, especially when coupled with endless nights of broken sleep and the isolating experience of trying to keep it all together. Not to mention the pressure on mothers to “bounce back” to their pre-baby state and the financial burden of returning to work once the paid period of maternity leave is over.

The saying “it takes a village to raise a child” is one that collectively resonates. Except in our modern society, the village is usually at work, living interstate or busy trying to keep their own families afloat. Dr. Oscar Serrallach, author of The Postnatal Depletion Cure, believes our modern society sets new mothers up to fail. Traditional cultures and communities honour new mothers with differing customs, and all are universally focused on the mother receiving deep rest and quality nourishment during the months post birth.

This confinement period supports the shift from maiden to mother, which is neurologically complex as well as physically demanding. Women’s brains form new neurological pathways in response to pregnancy, birth and early mothering, a process that Dr. Serrallach kindly refers to as a “brain upgrade”. Mothers are, quite literally, wired differently and it can take a few years for a woman to adjust to her new mother brain. It’s no small wonder that feelings of loss of identity during new motherhood are so pervasive. With “mother” mode well and truly activated, it often takes new mums time and practice to be able to shift gears and re-establish connections with themselves and relationships outside of their children.

Thrust into the new role of motherhood, it’s common for women to encounter the personal crises of “who am I?” “what on earth am I doing?” and “how do I know that I’m doing it right?”, but such worries are often overlooked or treated as an initiation into motherhood. Dismissing these crises as simply part of the process leaves vulnerable women exposed to feelings of inadequacy and questioning their maternal instincts, or lack thereof.

Traditionally, we lived in societies where new mothers observed and absorbed motherly instincts from other mothers within the community. In our modern society, traditional methods of learning have been replaced by an abundance of contradictory (mis)information that we can access at the tap of a thumb. Instant access to information can be helpful for specific queries, such as at what stage a fever poses a risk to a baby’s wellbeing. Much less helpful when searching for answers, however, is where opinion polarisation can add to the general sense of overwhelm, creating questions around your capability as a mother.

It’s natural not to have an instinctive pull towards trending methods of parenting like “baby-led weaning” or “elimination communication” (an early method of toilet training). Doing motherhood your way does not make you a failure. By normalising these feelings of uncertainty, we create space for mothers to have honest conversations with themselves and those around them without fear of judgement or shame.

A candid conversation with a lifelong friend in the early stages of my mothering journey profoundly changed how I felt about motherhood and whether I was measuring up. I voiced feelings of constantly feeling like I was winging it and never being certain I was getting it right. My friend laughed and told me that as soon as you feel like you’re nailing a stage of motherhood, the game changes. I felt instantly relieved.

We must acknowledge that when a baby is born, so is a mother. This process of rebirth is one that continues to evolve with each child a mother bears. By culturally recognising this time as a developmental arc in a woman’s life, we can reduce the emotional suffering of new mothers. Just as babies don’t stay babies, the progression from maiden to mother is not a stagnant or final state of being.

The mother you were in the first days, weeks and months of your child’s life is not the mother you will be in a few years’ time. You will look back on those early days of mothering fondly and with a wry sense of humour about your feelings of inadequacy. You will be able to laugh about the time you picked up your swaddled baby in the dark and, in your sleep-deprived haze, attempted to breastfeed his feet. By sharing your own experiences, you can empower the next generation of mothers to meet their new mother selves with compassion, empathy and understanding.