What does postnatal sadness look like to you?
You may have spent many years dreaming about having a baby, or perhaps this decision was only made once you or your partner became pregnant. You may be aware of all the dreams you had of what being a mother or father would look like, or perhaps it didn’t enter your mind and now you feel like you’re winging it.
Parenthood is one of the BIGGEST life changes you can ever go through, and the strangest part is that no one really tells you how much of a life changer it is. Some might say they don’t tell you because it may put you off having children. Some might say it’s because you wouldn’t really believe them anyway. And some people might say it’s an experience you need to go through in order to really understand, however, I feel that as a society we could do more to prepare new parents for the reality of parenthood, and provide you with the skills to navigate some of the difficulties.
But here you are. You’ve had a baby and your expectations of parenthood have flown out of the window in the face of reality.
How you or your partner birthed your baby can have a huge impact on the beginning steps of this journey into parenthood. Even the calmest and smoothest of births will take a huge amount of energy and emotional input, and the reality is that many women do not have the birth they wanted.
Your birthing story may leave you with much sadness - you may have had your birth plan go out of the window, and perhaps the medical staff, as skilled as they are, didn’t leave you feeling empowered and in control. You may even feel anger about this experience - anger is rarely an emotion talked about in birth, but it does exist and can inform you where your boundaries were crossed. At the other end of the spectrum, you may have had a traumatic birth and have been left emotionally and physically overwhelmed with nowhere to turn to - no one to listen to your experience.
And, strangely, after the birth of a baby, it is common for people to move on very quickly and turn their attention to the baby. Of course, in some ways this is appropriate, but when you understand the family as a system, rather than a bunch of individuals, it becomes apparent that mum needs as much, if not more, attention than the baby. A baby's needs, whilst very high, are most commonly not complicated to meet. They are time-consuming, energy and sleep-draining and sometimes confusing, however with the right support they can be uncomplicated.
So here you are. Parent to this small, vulnerable human being. Perhaps you are feeling overwhelmed with the choices you need to make for this new person. There are many factors to consider; safety and personal choice are two big ones.
From sleeping arrangements, feeding choices, to routine or not to routine, or even what to dress the baby in, in this erratic weather. Don’t get me started on the amount of marketing thrown at new parents, putting pressure on you to spend money to overcome the age-old challenges of parenting, most of which are a complete waste of money on an already stretched financial pocket.
Parenting can be a long list of choices to make, attempting to balance the needs of the child and the needs of the parents, including your work choices, your childcare choices, your choices about screen time, even. The decisions to be made are endless, and attempts to do so in agreement of both parents can also be a point of friction.
On top of all of this, you will have lost some, if not all, of your independence, at least in the early months, but to some extent for many years to come.
Even if you have the most supportive family and community, the likelihood is that you aren’t receiving daily meals and support, and sleep watch duty every day, or at 4am when it's most needed, and so you may feel isolated, alone, sad, and disappointed.
This doesn’t mean you don't love your child; this doesn’t mean you’re not enjoying being a parent; this doesn’t take away the joy you have when you look at your baby and get filled with love, but this does happen, and it doesn’t get talked about.
Research shows that a couples' satisfaction levels reduce by 85% with their partner after they have a child, so the likelihood is that your partner is not meeting your expectations of the support you thought they would be.
It’s no wonder you’re feeling sad, angry, disappointed, alone, tearful; not forgetting the millions of hormones rushing around mum's body, and the brain changes taking place in both partners' heads!
Some simple ways of managing this overwhelm
1. Take stock of everything that has happened so far. You’ve had a baby! You’ve grown and birthed a beautiful baby - nothing can be more miraculous than that.
2. Your success as a parent is NOT based on your baby’s weight, your baby's sleep pattern, how quickly your baby smiles, sits up, crawls, walks, or whatever. Measures of success are very different in parenthood than other parts of life.
3. You’re doing your best. Remind yourself hourly. Write it on a post it on the fridge.
4. It’s ok to feel the darker emotions. In fact, if you didn’t, you would be just about the first mum or dad in history to not. It’s perfectly normal. Allow yourself time to cry - to say how you feel.
5. Find someone you know who will offer you compassion and empathy, and talk to them. It could be a friend, a family member, another new mum from NCT, or a baby group if, by some miracle, you manage to leave the house dressed.
6. Take time for you - five minutes, even. Ask someone to hold the baby and sit on the loo (lid down - you don’t want to make those piles worse, mum!) and just breathe and, whilst you’re at it, give yourself a little hug and a pat on the back for getting through another hour.
Having a baby crying, screaming or moaning at you for minutes and hours on end when you’re exhausted puts the body into fight or flight mode. Your thinking mind knows it's just a baby, but the body doesn’t, so you need to soothe that part of yourself.
7. Boundaries. Become aware of them and practice them. This is your motherhood experience - take the advice that helps and let go of the rest.
8. Take magnesium. This will be vital to give the body the minerals it needs to restore when you do finally get some sleep.
9. Rest. Especially for new mums. Yes, there is the need for baby to be close to you; fourth trimester and all that. But YOU need to rest. Chances are you were exhausted from the pregnancy before the baby came. Exhaustion is accumulative.
10. Be clear about your needs now - very clear - and state how you need them met. If you don’t, you may hold onto resentment for a very long time.
11. Be aware there may be other forces at play. Feelings from your own childhood experiences can come back very strongly.
12. Come off social media. It rarely helps people to feel good about themselves as parents, or to feel connected. If you do find some needs of connection being met, only follow accounts that empower you or offer something that meets a need. Being a parent leaves you vulnerable, and social media can pray on those vulnerabilities if we are not conscious of what we are consuming.
When we scroll and we’re tired, the images seep into our unconscious and change our thoughts, feelings, and decision-making processes without us even knowing it!
13. Build your village. No, it's not right that we don’t live in communities that are set up to support mums and dads, and it’s not fair that when you are already exhausted and stretched you have to do this yourself. But that social change is a long time coming, and so - for now - do what you can to arm yourself with groups of supportive people. Your emotional well-being may depend on it.
14. Dance and sing. Invite silliness into your life. It's even better if you can do this in nature.
15. Get professional help if you need it. There is no failure in wanting and needing help. There is everything to gain from talking through your feelings, both for your own well-being AND for your relationship with your baby. Therapy can give you not only space to talk, but space to learn new skills, how to manage emotionally.
If you are experiencing feelings of wanting to harm yourself or your baby, or are feeling persistently depressed, feeling unable to connect with your baby, have frightening thoughts or want to withdraw completely from people and the wider world, please see your GP to discuss postnatal depression or postnatal psychosis.