by Jen Milligan
“Have you considered that it might be postnatal depression?”
That’s what my GP said to me when I went to her when my third baby was 10 weeks old. I went so that she could “fix my crying baby”, not me. My precious little girl had been trying to tell me for about 6 weeks that I didn’t have enough milk to feed her. She had been ever so polite at first, just letting me know after the feed that she was not quite satisfied. With a little protest and the need for 2 hourly feeds 24/7, she'd tried to send a hint. After being very patient with me for several weeks, my little treasure said “seriously mum, I’m getting nothing. From here on in, I refuse to feed from your warm and nurturing, yet very empty breast, and I will no longer even settle in your arms. I would rather settle in your best friend Kate’s arms, because at least she doesn’t smell like milk”. Despite being a midwife, I was too tired, too emotionally invested and too overwhelmed to comprehend that the 2-litre bleed I had experienced at birth had affected my body more than I had realised. I went to my work colleges and said “fix my baby!” The beautiful midwives said “Jen, she’s hungry”. Oh.
There is a history of depression in my family. I had very difficult pregnancies and I had a traumatic postpartum period for my third delivery. I had all the red flags for needing a bit of extra care in my postpartum period, but “midwives should know what to do”, “I help others with postnatal depression”, “I’m organised”, “I’m in control”, “it won’t happen to me”. Turns out it did.
When that GP asked me if I had considered that it might be postnatal depression (PND), it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I had all the symptoms - constant crying, wanting to just curl up in a ball and not do life, sweeping the floor constantly (that was my way of having some control in my life ... at least the floor was clean!). However, the guilt was my biggest battle. Guilt that I wasn’t being a good mum to my other children. Guilt that I wasn’t a good wife. Guilt that my house wasn’t perfect. Guilt that my newborn would be a runt of a child as we hadn’t bonded through breastfeeding. Guilt that she would be perpetually sick as I had “failed” and had to bottle-feed her. Guilt that a midwife had dared to bottle-feed.
Everyone with PND has differing symptoms. Some cry a lot, some feel nothing - neither happy nor sad, some are very protective of their precious baby and others don’t want to see their baby and may even want to harm their baby. Some mums may want to harm themselves. It is often those around you that see or recognise your emotions before you do. The official diagnosis describes PND as feelings of sadness for most of the time, for 3 or more weeks. In reality, it is often far more than 3 weeks before we end up chatting to someone about how we are truly feeling.
Why why why?PND is sometimes triggered by difficulty conceiving your baby, a stressful pregnancy or a traumatic delivery, but it may just come your way out of the blue. For me, there was a family history of depression playing a role too.
What do I do now?It was a big step heading to the GP, but I had the blessing of a GP who was compassionate and understood the truth and reality of PND. It wasn’t just in my mind. There was something going on that was outside my control. She told me about the Mental Health Plan offered here in Australia, where I could visit a psychologist for next to no cost, to talk through my feelings.
I ended up needing more than weekly sessions and had to explore the idea of medication. This was a huge step for me. I was so worried that medication would change my personality and that I would be under the control of drugs!
What that medication actually did (after holding it in my hand for about 2 hours before I actually swallowed it) was 'bring Jen back'. After a few weeks of managing the side-effects that often happen with new medication, the enormous cloud of guilt started to lift and the old Jen was back. I could think rationally about how much I loved my baby, how she was thriving on a bottle and how we had developed a beautiful bond. She would pull off from the bottle teat, give me an enormous grin and then start sucking again. “You did it Mum! You worked out that I was starving! I’m so proud of you. Love you, Mum”. I smiled again, laughed again and was able to start to manage my PND.
Is medication a life sentence?So many mums have a period of time on medication and happily come off the medication after a few months or years. Some mums just need counselling and never require medication. Some mums have a need for medication long term. This is me. I would LOVE to be off my medication, and I have tried several times. I work very hard on having good gut health as the link between good gut health and good mental health is becoming clearer by the day. I eat very well, I exercise and I pray. But for now, I am still at my best when I'm on my medication.
A note on exercise: I hate exercise! I know how incredibly important it is for good mental health, so I had to find a form of exercise that I enjoyed. That was a challenge. I finally committed to a gym and I go to classes with other mums. Camaraderie, great music and an encouraging instructor have been the key for me.
A note for dads: Postnatal depression can hit dads too. Don’t underestimate the feelings you are going through. A great GP is a fantastic asset when navigating life as a dad.
There is hope.There is definitely hope. When I felt so low that I wanted to self-harm and had no confidence at all that I would ever feel better, I did not believe there was hope. But there is. With the right professional care, friendships and support, you can come out the other side flourishing as a mum, partner and individual.
Don’t lose hope.
Love Jen xo
Beyond Blue: www.healthyfamilies.beyondblue.org.au
Jen is a midwife with almost 20 years experience in a Sydney birthing unit. She now lives & works on the Central Coast, supporting new mothers as they transition into motherhood.
Ingrid is a birth & postpartum doula, living and working on the beautiful NSW Central Coast.