Tanja and Mark's story – personal stories of depression and anxiety in parents with new babies
I vividly remember my mother telling me during the late stages of pregnancy: “It will all be worth it when you hold your new baby in your arms”. After a pretty uncomplicated 12-hour labour, I looked into my baby's eyes and felt only relief that it was over. I wasn't alarmed, after a long night it was perfectly understandable that I was more focused on rest than forming a bond with my baby.
The midwives took him away for some time in the nursery and I rested. I can't recall thinking of him or wondering where he was at all. After 2 hours, I was reunited with my baby and held him properly for the first time. I looked into his eyes again and wondered if I was going to feel a surge of love. I felt numb. He was beautiful, there was no denying it. I knew that I loved him but there was something missing. All I felt was emptiness. Looking at him it felt as though I was looking at someone else’s baby.
The following weeks were very tough. In hindsight I was not prepared for the challenges of raising a baby. I had only held a baby on a few occasions and then only for a short period of time. I found difficulty with the demands of a newborn. No sleep, constant crying and a lack of time for myself. I was convinced that there must be something physically wrong with him because he seemed to cry almost constantly. I found comfort in returning to my GP so that he could assure me that he was not sick. After about my fourth visit in 2 weeks, my doctor suggested that I might have postnatal depression. I was so offended that I walked out and never returned to the surgery. As they say, the truth hurts.
My doctor’s words rang in my ears all the way home. Deep in my heart I knew that something was not right. I have a family history of depression and knew the signs. I wasn't convinced though. I kept telling myself that I couldn’t have depression. This was supposed to be the most beautiful time of my life. He was supposed to complete me.
I talked to my husband, Mark, when he got home from work and you could see the relief on his face. He knew that I had not been right for a while. He suggested that perhaps I ought to talk to someone about it. I suggested that he couldn't possibly know how I felt. It was easier to vent my frustration at my husband than admit my feelings to myself.
Six weeks after the birth, I was finally called for knee surgery that I had been waiting on for 2 years. I didn't want to wait any longer so 2 days after my very first Mothers’ Day, I had my surgery. I was in hospital for 4days and on the second day, my husband thought that I might like to see the baby. I was so angry with him; the baby was grizzly and tired, and was suffering from colic though he was the toast of the ward with all the nurses and patients doting on him. They said to me: "You must be so happy with such a beautiful little boy". Unintentionally their words made me feel like a complete failure.
In the following weeks I recovered well, thanks to my mum who stayed to look after the baby while I rested. In the end, she had to return to work and I was devastated. I felt as though I couldn't cope with the baby on my own. He didn't want me, I wasn't a good mother and he could tell that. I thought maybe that was why he cried all the time but when mum picked him up, he settled and was happy. She explained that he was picking up on my anxiety and that was why he was fretful when I held him. I could not accept this. To me, being his mother was sufficient reason for him to feel comforted. Very naive I know, but at the time the notion was very real.
It was then that mum suggested that perhaps I had depression. I broke down. Hearing those words from my mother was like being told that I was a failure in her eyes too. She reassured me that I was a great mother, but she could see the sadness in me. The next day I called a local women's health centre. The centre referred me to a counsellor in my area and within a few days, I attended my first session.
I was very nervous about my first appointment with the counsellor. I got a sitter for the baby and allowed extra time so that I could do my hair and make up. I wanted to give the impression that I had my life together. I put on a great show for the counsellor: "Yes, I felt bonded with my baby", "No, I've never thought about harming my baby", "Suicide? Lord no!” Smile and nod, smile and nod.
At the end of the session, she suggested that I had a very mild case of depression and that she didn't feel that I needed intense counselling. She referred me to a therapy group so that I could talk to other mums with depression. I gave my very best “joyous new mum smile” and went home feeling like maybe if I kept my fake smile going, I might convince myself that I really was happy. I was wrong.
Within a few days, I was down again and realised that pretending to be happy was only making me more miserable. By now, I was suffering from severe anxiety and panic attacks. I had reached a point where I needed to accept that I was not well. I also had recurring thoughts of wanting to die and escape from all the sadness. I was scared that I was losing my mind and that I may never recover.
I called the number that the counsellor had given me for the therapy group. It was the smartest decision I have ever made in my life. I met with the clinical psychologist running the group and she gave me a pile of forms to evaluate the degree of my depression. For once, I answered them truthfully, and my score was off the chart. It was almost a relief to be telling the truth. The psychologist said she was happy to give me one-on-one counselling and that I could attend the therapy group if I wanted. She also suggested that I consider talking to my GP about antidepressants.
The very next day, I made an appointment with a GP for a script for medication. I started taking it that very day. It took a few weeks to adjust and for a few minor side effects to settle. Very quickly it made a huge difference to my sense of well being. I was actually feeling happy for the first time in months.
The thought of meeting other mums in a therapy group and admitting openly that I was not coping was daunting. I made sure that I showed up early for the session so that I could check out what kind of crazy people were walking in. My husband and I sat in the car for 20 minutes while I watched women and their husbands entering the place. I was so relieved, they all looked just as nervous as me. We eventually went in and I was overcome with relief that I was not alone.
The therapy group was 9 weeks long and intense. The psychologist explained exactly how chemical imbalances in the brain caused depression and how medication could assist in minimising the severity of drops in chemical levels. She also explained Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and how we could use it to control negative thought processes and self-talk.
The CBT was fantastic, and I still use its principles to this day. The greatest gift the group gave me was support from women who knew exactly how I felt. There was no judgement, no ridicule or hurt. Just nurturing and support. It was a wonderful place of sharing and comfort. It was hard to give up after the nine weeks ended.
By this time, my son was about 6-months-old and had settled into a nice routine of sleeping and feeding. I was doing well, but still had issues at times when he was crying and unsettled. I continued to see the psychologist for one-on-one sessions to deal with my anxiety. Some days were a struggle and I continually had to remind myself that it was going to take time to get well. There were still bad days, but there were more good than bad. I was on that elusive road to recovery.
When bub was about 18 months old, with my anxiety under control and feeling great and bonded to my son, I felt that it was time to reduce my medication with a view to coming off them completely. My husband and I had also been talking about having another child and I was reluctant to take medication while pregnant. Slowly over a 9 week period, I reduced my medication. At times when I reduced it too quickly, I began to feel lightheaded, dizzy and nauseous. When this happened, I returned to my previous dose until I felt stable again. Eventually, when I came off the antidepressants altogether, I was 2 weeks shy of falling pregnant with my second child. What timing!
During my pregnancy, I had to remind myself that although there was a chance that I might suffer from PND again, there was a possibility that I might not. I was frightened and dreaded the thought of having to travel that road again. Nine months after coming off medication, I gave birth to another beautiful baby boy. After a very quick 2 hour labour, my son was placed in my arms and I thought, looking into his big blue eyes: “Mum was right – it was all worth it”.
I’ve completely recovered and do not suffer from anxiety or depression. I’m immensely proud of where I am today and feel that I am a better and stronger person for having battled the depression demon.
Mark (Tanja's husband)
Tanja and I were very excited about the birth of our first child. I was anxious as I didn't know what to expect. I didn't have any experience with kids or babies, so when my son was placed in my arms for the first time, I was overjoyed but nervous.
Tanja was exhausted and sore from the birth and didn't show much interest in the new baby. She was quiet and distant. At the time, I put it down to tiredness and the many visitors. We didn't really get a chance at the hospital to enjoy our new baby on our own. I thought that once we were home we would be able to relax. Well, we did everything but that.
In the next week or 2, the visitors kept coming and the baby cried constantly. Tanja was struggling to breastfeed and would get frustrated and teary. I felt useless during these times. There was nothing I could do to help.
After Tanja's knee surgery, things got worse. Although she wasn't breastfeeding anymore, she would still get frustrated and angry at the baby. She would then take out her frustration at me for no reason at all. She became withdrawn and we hardly talked anymore. Everything seemed like my fault. Sometimes I felt like I was always taking care of Tanja and the baby.
By the time the baby was 4-months-old, Tanja got much worse. She was always anxious, crying or angry. She would wait for me to come home from work at the front door so that I could take the baby from her. I felt like I didn't get any rest – working all day and taking care of the baby at night because she couldn't stand to be near him.
Things eventually got so bad that Tanja had to see a psychologist and join a therapy group. I went along to the first partners' evening. It was great to hear from other dads that they were also suffering from the effects of their partner's PND. Tanja also went on medication and straight away there was a big improvement. She was still down some days, but seemed happier. Eventually things improved and she was able to come off the tablets 18 months later, just before we found out we were expecting our second son.
Looking back PND was the hardest time of my life. Many times I had thought of just leaving – it was too hard. But we struggled through it together and have come out on the other side stronger and happier.
Just Speak Up
Personal stories can also be found at Just Speak Up (external site), an initiative by beyondblue (external site).
Just Speak Up aims to promote awareness of depression and anxiety, reduce stigma and provide information about where to get help.
Where to get help
- See your doctor, obstetrician, child health nurse or midwife
- Talk to a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist
- Phone the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby Helpline on 1800 882 436
- Phone the Mental Health Emergency Response Line – Perth metro 1300 55 788 or Peel 1800 676 822
- Phone Rural Link, an after-hours mental health phone service for rural communities, on 1800 552 002
- Phone the Post and Antenatal Depression Association helpline on 1300 726 306 (9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday)
- Phone the Parenting Line on 1800 654 432
Women and Newborn Health Service
This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.