'Selfish is not a bad word': The key lesson to recovering from postnatal depression

Natasha Stewart suffered from postnatal depression for a year.
Natasha Stewart suffered from postnatal depression for a year.  Photo: Running Under the Sprinkler Photography

Natasha Stewart thought she was a spectacular failure when it came to motherhood. Drawn and exhausted, with unwashed, scruffy hair, every day was a joyless and teary struggle.

When she took her son for his six-month vaccinations the nurse took one look at her and suggested she speak to a doctor about her mental health. Stewart's doctor asked her to complete the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression test, a set of questions to gauge how parents are feeling.

She had postnatal depression (PND).

"At first I didn't know why the nurse was suggesting I talk to the doctor, but I'll never forget how kind she was," said Stewart, a mother-of-two and founder of Business Jump, which helps mothers create online businesses.

She was prescribed antidepressants and, initially, this made Stewart feel even worse.

"I felt such guilt at the thought of having to take antidepressants just to function. I thought, 'everyone else can do it so easily, why do I need medication to do what they can do?'"

In reality, "everyone" is not doing parenthood "easily". More than one in seven new mothers and up to one in 10 new fathers experience postnatal depression each year in Australia, and according to Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA), many of these new parents don't even realise it.

"We know that one of the key reasons many expecting and new parents struggling with perinatal anxiety or depression don't seek help is because they don't know what's happening to them," states the PANDA website for Perinatal Depression & Anxiety week. "Many people still don't know its signs and symptoms."

Not only did Stewart have a baby who barely slept, she also had a three-year-old daughter craving her mother's attention. Added to this was financial pressure that saw her working day and night on her clothing and graphic design businesses, and a husband who didn't understand that she was suffering from depression.

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"My husband didn't understand my PND at first. When you feel so low it's really hard to say that you need help. And then when you do find the courage to ask for it and they don't understand, then it sends you back down even lower."

Stewart's doctor referred her to a mother-baby clinic, which also didn't bring the immediate help she so desperately needed.

"I went to the clinic and we talked about a plan to help me. I was starting to feel a bit hopeful that I might get the help I needed and then they said they couldn't see me for six weeks. That almost broke me. How was I going to get through six weeks?"

Stewart suffered from PND for a year and her recovery was slow, taking a further six months to turn things around. It took her numerous attempts to find the help that was right for her.

"Recovering from PND was like tuning a TV. Bit by bit the static fades and the clear picture emerges."

It's not as simple as just going to see a GP, she said. "Sometimes you have to knock on a few different doors to find what's going to work for you. But when you're in that state of mind, it feels like the hardest thing in the world to do that."

Stewart credits her recovery to finding the right antidepressant – the side-effects from the first drug her doctor prescribed outweighed the benefits – plus regular exercise, prioritising sleep and self-care, developing time-saving strategies by working smarter not harder and learning to lower her standards.

"As a mother you're expected to be perfect, to feed your kids organic vegetables every night. I was on the phone to PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia) crying that I didn't have the strength to cook my kids dinner and the woman from PANDA said, 'Give them Weet-Bix. It doesn't matter. Give them Weet-Bix every night until you feel able to cook for them again'."

Dr Karola Belton, a clinical psychologist who specialises in perinatal psychology, says postnatal depression can be a dark, lonely and traumatic illness. However, through the recovery process, some of her patients learn an important lesson. 

"They have stopped striving for perfection, be it the perfect mother, partner, friend or daughter, which frees up time, energy and emotions," says Dr Belton, who is a member of the Antenatal and Postnatal Psychology Network.

"Selfish is not a bad word, because looking after yourself enables you to give the best version of yourself to the people you care about," she says.

Stewart says that PND robbed her of precious moments such as her son's first steps and watching her children smile, but it also taught her tough and valuable skills that she draws on every day.

"I learned to forgive myself for not being perfect. I learned to say to myself, 'Tomorrow I will try again'."

Kasey Edwards is the author of Guilt Trip: My Quest To Leave The Baggage Behind.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

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