The parenting books don't tell you how to cope with postnatal depression. And right now, six months after the birth of my second son, I have postnatal depression (PND), and I'm finding it hard to cope.
I have a long history with depression, and though I've been mostly well for the last four years, in the last month I've had to accept that the depression is back. It’s harder than ever to deal with now I have a three-year-old and a little baby.
I'm lucky – I have a loving partner, lots of family support and close friends I can confide in. I have a fantastic GP who knows my history, who helps me manage my medication and who has given me referrals to a psychologist to talk to, and a psychiatrist in case my medication needs further management. Asking for help, I've found, is always the first and hardest step.
During both my pregnancies my mood dropped, and my maternity hospitals provided consultations with psychiatrists; this was really important to managing my medication and mental health. Making the decision to continue taking an antidepressant during pregnancy isn’t the choice that every woman would make, but it was right for me. That early management prepared me for the possibility of postnatal depression, making it easier to address it now that it's eventuated.
Over the years of managing depression, I've learned self-care techniques that help me. I can push myself to do the things that I know will help make me well again. Maintaining routine is important. This is a lot easier when you have small children who insist you get out of bed in the morning, and who must be fed, clothed and entertained, but it goes further than that. I make myself take the kids to the park, or see friends, or go on play dates. Staying inside all day is probably one of the worst things I could do, and getting a little sunshine, Vitamin D and exercise can only be good for me.
I have a support network in place, and that's essential. Speaking honestly and openly about how I'm feeling, even on the days when I'm very low, stressed-out and anxious, is a help. It's tempting to bottle up all my worst feelings, but that's like letting a wound fester. Talking to my partner, friends and family is cathartic, and sometimes just saying that I feel terrible is like letting some of the badness out. Sometimes saying aloud the things I'm feeling anxious about reminds me that this feeling is temporary; I haven’t always felt this way, and I will feel better again in the future.
As trite as it sounds, faking it also helps. If I'm feeling flat, I try and enthusiastically play with my kids anyway – cuddles and tickles are remarkably therapeutic, and putting on a happy face for them means I'm not dwelling on my problems too much. It doesn't negate the depression, and I'm not saying it's a quick fix – it’s just that I can find positive moments even on my worst days if I keep trying.
Getting more sleep is integral too, because everything feels so much harder when I'm exhausted. I go to bed earlier, even when I'd love to just keep fooling around on Twitter, and try and snatch a nap when the kids are sleeping. I make myself eat well, and take a little time to myself each day, whether it's to have a relaxing bath or just reading a book. Self-care is about taking a moment to centre myself, free from the kids and their demands, away from the housework and emails.
At the hardest moments, I accept that I can't do everything, and that's okay. If the kids are screaming and I’m stressed out and not coping, I can leave the room. As long as they’re in a safe place, I can forgive myself for stepping outside for a breather, for walking away. Sometimes it feels like I'm failing as a parent, because I'm depressed and can’t listen to the crying for another minute, but I know that's completely irrational – it's better to walk away than fall apart completely.
I've taken the big steps of getting medical and psychological help, of letting those around me know what I need. But these are the little things that get me through each day: trying to be kind to myself, to take a moment to wind down, to enjoy my children even if I'm not enjoying my life much right now. Structure and activities with them make me feel like I have some control, and reminds me that this will get better over time.
Could you have postnatal depression? Fill out a check list of symptoms at Just Speak Up. For support, advice and more information, contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Post and Antenatal Depression Association (1300 726 306) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636).