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Postnatal depression – a local mom’s take

The Postnatal Depression Support Association of South Africa (PNDSA) says 10% to 30% of all mothers, in all circumstances, will suffer from postnatal depression and anxiety. Yet stigma is still keeping mothers from seeking help, or sharing experiences that could help others. This is the story of one Breede Valley mom, who believes more “real” conversations about parenthood can help a great many mothers:

When my daughter was born, I went to the delivery room brimming with excitement – a new journey; a baby; that child we tried to conceive for three years, loved since the day the test was positive, and would love even more once she was in our arms.

Three weeks later I was being treated for severe postpartum depression. I felt completely helpless and completely hopeless and all I wanted to do was turn back the clock. I cursed myself over and over for ever wanting to be a mother, and saw no way of rectifying this terrible mistake I had made. It was a very deep, very dark place that lasted for weeks. Thoughts crossed my mind that do not exist where there’s light. I wanted ME to end.

But I had an army fighting for me. I was taken to the right doctors, got the right medicine, and was supported with prayer, faith, friendship, counselling, love and a heck of a lot of arrangements with the husband and his bosses and grandparents and other helping hands. And one game-changing thought from a dear friend: “I know you don’t feel happy being a mother right now. But look at it as your job: Even if you hate your job, you have to be there every morning and then you do the best job you can. Just keep doing that until you know what should come next. The answer will come.”

The answer did come. I worked hard at my new job. And I worked hard at being well again. And guess what? I am. In fact, I’m miles and miles ahead of the woman I was before I fell pregnant three years ago. I’m a much wiser and more patient human being. I’m a far more mature wife. A more confident employee (I went from not wanting to speak in meetings to leading regional managers’ brainstorming sessions). I’m less afraid of life’s curve balls. More compassionate towards others. I know stuff the former me didn’t. And learnt lessons so many people will never learn. I’m a way happier me! And the great mother I always KNEW I would be.

What I didn’t expect – at all – was the crappy bit in between.

So here’s what I’m dying to say to new moms:

Be well prepared.

You might not sink nearly as low as I did, but there’ll still be the babies who cry more than others, who are harder to breastfeed, who sleep less, who spit up more, who turn out to be allergic, who need special care. Even the “easiest” baby will change your life abruptly, radically and irrevocably. You don’t really know how you’ll take it until you do, so rather brace yourself.

And don’t be afraid to talk. A school friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, “I think every first-time mom at least has that ‘my life is over’ moment at some stage. Knowing it is normal and that it will get better can be the difference between carrying on and slipping into something deeper.”

I’m a facts-and-figures person who has never taken uncertainty well (man, does a baby rock that boat!). I still wish someone had sat me down, away from all the pink stork-tea fluff, and had a real-baby heart-to-heart before my daughter arrived.

Click here for the PNDSA’s online test for PND.

To moms who do end up in the hellish place called postnatal depression:

1. Find help: A loved one who takes postpartum depression seriously enough to spring into serious action. That one person who will support you in weeks and months to come, and who will rally up more loved ones to do what is needed to help you. And find professional help as soon as possible! Depression is debilitating; you will not be able to fight it alone.

2. While you’re being treated, block out everyone who expects you to just pull yourself together. They don’t and won’t understand. Don’t waste time trying to justify anything to them. And try not to waste time nurturing feelings of guilt. You’ll need all your mental effort to work with the people who actually want to help you and your baby.

3. Being practical is important, so if you’re not fully functional, ask someone to be practical on your behalf. Help might mean someone who can do “night duty” with the baby every other night. Or help you remember to go to, and get to, the well-baby clinic. Someone to do the laundry or dishes. Or cook dinner, go pay your bills, bring over milk or simply give you tea and a sense of calm while you’re in a state of anxiety.

4. WORK. You might not believe it now, but it will get better. Unfortunately (and I say this with all the sympathy in the world) it will not happen magically. You will have to work at it, and work at it HARD. Start by setting yourself an ultimate limit, like “no matter how I feel or what happens, I will not go a day without showering”. It’s a fixed marker that will let you know you have some fight left in you.

Then set yourself little goals like “today I will go without asking my mom over”, or “baby and I will go to one store on our own, and then come back”. If you make it, it’s a victory. Force yourself to do more and more of the baby stuff that freaks you out. Celebrate even the tiniest victories! Gradually set the bar higher and see how practice really does make the difference.

Importantly, don’t be too hard on yourself either. Take it at a pace that lets you feel stronger, not drained (and talk openly to your support network so they know you’re making progress but still need their help).

5. Have a plan ready for dealing with runaway thoughts. To me, this was crucial. Make a deal with a real friend or two – that they’ll answer all your calls in case you’re having harmful thoughts, or if it is a particularly dark day. But also practise cutting those thoughts short (the medication certainly helps). Try to stop entertaining the thoughts and replace them with something to do, or thinking up a small, practical step towards becoming the YOU that you miss and want to be again. Forcing yourself to rather do the good stuff, might soon become wanting to do it.

6. Have faith. This one is extremely important. You HAVE TO BELIEVE that it will get better, even if today it seems impossible.

To the partners, family and friends:

Take PPD seriously. It’s not baby blues. It’s much, much more serious! Don’t ask the mom to get over it; to shape up. Help her find professional help. Listen to the doctors explaining PPD. Even if you don’t fully understand, pretend that you do. Do what the doctors say you should do to support the mom, even if you don’t feel like it every day. It’s really important to put on a brave face. You’ll both have to fake it ‘til it’s real. It’s inconvenient and taxing to be strong for a mom with PPD. But please, sometimes that’s what it takes to hold on to your people.

I’m hoping what I have to say will help someone somewhere.

Because motherhood and the joy it brings are SO worth fighting for! My beautiful, perfect little person is worth every bit of effort I put in to be a healthy, present parent.

Your little person is worth it too!

* Visit the Postnatal Depression Support Association (PNDSA) website here if you need help.

Mothers who need help can also SMS “Help” and their name to 082 882 0072 and someone from the Postnatal Depression Support Association (PNDSA) will contact them.

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