I had a 'good baby' but still suffered from postnatal depression

"It just seemed implausible to think I could succumb to depression."
"It just seemed implausible to think I could succumb to depression." Photo: Getty Images

It was an innocent enough question, the man interrupting me mid-stride as I pushed my newborn around the park in her pram.

"Excuse me," he said politely. "You haven't seen a black dog around here have you?"

While I shook my head no and moved on, what I really wanted to answer was "Yes!  It's snapping at my heels and I'm trying desperately to outrun it every day." However doing that would mean admitting a truth too troubling to face.

The reality was I'd been struggling with undiagnosed postnatal depression since my daughter had been four days old, but I couldn't bring myself to acknowledge it. Because why would I have PND? I had a much wanted precious baby girl who I adored, and as she was my second child (and had arrived in a much less traumatic fashion than my first), surely I should know what I was doing by now?

Adding to it all was the fact that she was what people called a 'good baby' who slept well, self settled and was mostly content. It just seemed implausible to think I could succumb to depression.

Jenni Richardson, acting CEO of Post and Antenatal Depression Association Inc (PANDA) – an organisation which has spent almost 30 years trying to raise community awareness of perinatal depression and anxiety – confirms that no parent is immune.

"Postnatal depression and anxiety doesn't discriminate. It can affect women and men of all ages, cultures, economic status and personality types," she explains. "There are many myths around the causes of perinatal depression and anxiety. You can have the world's most settled baby, supportive partner and family, and still become very unwell."

Even though I initially refused to show the outside world that I too was unwell (just as I had done six years before when my son was born), eventually the cracks began to appear in my public facade. Yes, my baby was settled and I had a wonderful husband and family who would visit when they could to lend a hand. But my husband also had to work long hours, virtually seven days a week, and with no family living close by I was juggling a newborn and a preschooler on my own – and, in my opinion, failing to do it well.

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I'd never felt more vulnerable and alone.

What I didn't realise at the time is that it wasn't just me who felt this way. The statistics are staggering. This "black dog" affects one in every seven new mums and up to one in 20 new dads - and those are only the cases that are reported.

"The total number is likely to be even higher, as we know that many parents do not seek help due to stigma or a lack of awareness," Richardson acknowledges. "Stigma, shame and the fear of being labelled a bad parent prevents many men and women from seeking help.

"Expecting and new mums often put huge expectations on themselves to be 'perfect mums' and believe that everyone else is coping beautifully and that they should be able to as well. These 'shoulds' can be powerful silencers."

It was also why I kept quiet for so long. Grappling with guilt on a daily basis, I'd save my tears for the shower and write in my journal to expel the anxiety from my mind. So many other mums had it all seamlessly under control – or so I believed – that I wanted the outside world to think I did too.

But as Richardson articulates, it's often society to blame for our silence. "We are surrounded by messages and images that portray motherhood as natural and blissful, but don't show the potential challenges that come with pregnancy and parenthood. Our culture of celebration doesn't leave much room for challenging conversations."

Thankfully, PANDA offers a safe space for anyone struggling to express their fears. "We help parents understand that perinatal depression and anxiety are treatable," Richardson says. "We also encourage parents to think about their mental health in the same way we think about physical health.

"We wouldn't question getting help for a physical issue and it should be the same for our mental health, although we know it's not easy.

"It takes bravery and courage to take that first step and call PANDA or tell a friend, family member or doctor, but it's worth it."

Richardson could not be more correct. By the time my daughter was three months old, I finally found the courage to speak up – almost five years on from when the symptoms first appeared after my son's birth. I started seeing a psychologist, and after the first few sessions light began filtering back into what had become a dark world.

It's been a long journey, punctuated with highs and lows. And while I am still not completely free from PND, facing my truth head on instead of living in denial has brought with it a welcome return of peace and joy in my world.

I only wish I knew then what I do now: that we are all susceptible to postnatal depression, and just because you succumb to it doesn't mean you have to suffer in silence. All it took was the courage to start a difficult conversation so my road to recovery – and rediscovery of the old me – could begin.

Postnatal Depression Awareness Week runs from November 16-22, 2014. For more information visit panda.org.au or phone the PANDA Helpline on 1300 726 306.

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