It is a sad fact that for many mothers, a time is supposed to be one of the most magical in their lives, pregnancy, birth, and the first years of their child’s life, can be marred by suffering from pre or postnatal mental illness. I know this only too well. Although I have suffered from depression and anxiety on and off all my life, I was lucky to be healthy during my first pregnancy and for the first year or so after the birth of my eldest daughter. During my second pregnancy, I had a major relapse, and nearly twelve months after my youngest daughter’s birth, I’m still in the process of recovering. I’ve learnt a lot along the way, as has my partner. He hasn’t always been able to support me as I would have wanted, and I wasn’t always in the right frame of mind to even know what might have helped. At times we’ve both felt overwhelmed, frightened and isolated. So I’ve written down a few insights in the hope that others might learn from our successes and mistakes.
1. Educate yourself
Perinatal mental illness comes in many forms. Prenatal depression strikes during pregnancy. Postnatal depression, anxiety, OCD, and the most severe and thankfully rarest, postnatal psychosis, are all well studied and documented illnesses. They are not the ‘baby blues’ (a relatively short period of tearfulness and mood swings caused by hormonal changes in the few days after delivery). They are not something she can ‘snap out’ of. They are not a reflection of her, of you, of your baby or her ability to mother. And unfortunately, they are not something you can fix. If your partner has received a diagnosis of a mental health issue, or you suspect she might be suffering, do your homework. Ask your GP, her midwife, or your health visitor for information. Read up online (see below for links to support organisations). Get a realistic idea of what she is dealing with, and how she might be supported by you and others. Don’t rely on her to educate you – do your own research so you know just what she’s up against.
2. Take the load off
A new baby brings with it an extraordinary amount of extra work. Feeding, changing, washing, soothing, entertaining – it is relentless and can seem overwhelming even when a mother is healthy, especially as she is likely doing it on very little sleep. Add this to what already needs doing to maintain a household; the cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, bills and admin and looking after any older children or relatives. Maybe she’s already back at work too. For someone suffering with a mental illness, trying to balance all these plates is a recipe for disaster. One would hope you’re already doing a fair amount as a twenty-first century father, but be prepared to take as many extra household chores and parenting tasks on as you can. If you don’t know how to programme the dishwasher, find out. If you can’t cook, now is your chance to learn, or get better acquainted with your local takeaway delivery drivers. If you’re already back at work after your paternity leave, talk to your employer about temporarily reducing your hours or even taking additional leave to be at home more to support her. If that’s not an option, look into hiring some domestic help if you can afford it. The key here is not to wait to be asked for help: chances are she is not in the right place to act as operations manager for your family. Even the smallest tasks and decisions can feel completely overwhelming. If you see something needs doing around the house, do it. If the baby needs changing, change it. If the kids are bouncing off the walls, take them to the park. The idea is to allow her time to just be, ideally to take some time for her (a walk, a bath, a nap, a phone call to a friend), and for her to feel like you’ve got her back.
3. Keep listening
On top of the general stigma of mental illness that regrettably still permeates society, mothers who suffer from mental illness often feel an additional level of shame and guilt. There remains an idealised notion of women and motherhood, of the ‘perfect mother/housewife/lover’ with dinner on the table, lipstick on, ready to welcome her husband back to her immaculate home, while a happy baby sleeps quietly upstairs. The stereotypical housewife of dubious nineteen-fifties advertisements has been replaced by an almost identikit Instagram version, all home-made jam and baby-wearing while doing yoga. A lot of women genuinely feel they are letting their partners and their children down if they aren’t reaching some unattainable ideal all the time. Encourage her to talk to you about how she’s feeling, what she’s thinking, how her day was. Validate where she is by meeting her there and listening to her in a non-judgemental way. And to balance any skewed ideas she might have about her own ‘performance’ as a mother or partner, reinforce to her just how much she has already done, and continues to do.
4. Be her advocate
Any mental illness requires proper medical assessment and care. One of the things that sucks about mental illness is it’s so hard to ask for the help you need: it’s not like you can point to where it hurts, and you might not be able to put it into words, in fact you might not be able to face going to the doctor’s office in the first place. Even if she’s lucky enough to get a quick diagnosis, access to the treatment she needs might not be forthcoming, and she’s not necessarily going to be in a position to fight for it. If she’s agreeable, attend any appointments with her. Ask what treatments are available in your area. Medication can help, especially in more severe cases, but talking therapies are often more beneficial and unfortunately sometimes far harder to come by on the NHS. If the GP or Health Visitor can’t get her access to appropriate therapy or counselling, find out if there are any local practitioners or charities operating. If you’re on a low income, you might find they offer a sliding scale of rates. If either of you have got health insurance, or can afford to self-fund, consider going private as the waiting lists are often far shorter. It can still be a tough fight to get the right help and support services often aren’t adequately advertised, so be prepared to do some research and fight her corner.
You might also find you need to be her advocate even among friends and family. If at all possible, try to help her deal with anyone close to her who might have unhelpful ideas about mental illness and motherhood, or better still, try to educate them yourself on the reality – ideally you want her to have as wide a support network as possible.
5. Look after yourself
Supporting someone through a mental illness can be incredibly tough. While you try to do as much you can for the person you love, you also need to make sure you keep yourself healthy. As well as making sure she’s getting enough sleep, fresh air and eating well, make sure you are too. She might want to isolate herself and hide away from friends and family, but try to make sure you stay connected to other people who can support the both of you. It is not going to be appropriate to share all of your own worries, fears and frustrations with her right now, so make sure you’ve got people you can rely on to listen if you need to decompress. If you don’t think friends or family are going to cut it, seek out safe spaces online where people share their experiences and support one another. And keeping your own hobbies and interests going, even if you can’t do them as frequently as you might have otherwise, can help to keep you in a better place to help her.
One final note. It’s not often talked about, but fathers can suffer from postnatal depression too. If you are worried that you might be suffering, please don’t hesitate to seek medical advice and support, and reach out to those around you for help. The stigma around mental illness will only be beaten if men and women are brave enough to speak out and share their experiences.
Written by One Angry Mother who is a mother of two young daughters living in Suffolk, U.K. She writes at https://oneangrymother.blog/