Shock Of The New

Belinda Horton, Past CEO of the Post and Ante Natal Depression Association (PANDA), says honest conversations with expectant mothers and new parents can help them through times of distressing emotional upheaval.

Babies are amazing, and becoming a parent is life-changing. So why do we hear over and over again that being a parent is the hardest job in the world, but worse still, no-one else seems to struggle and it’s really hard to ask for help?

Sometimes the shock has nothing to do with the baby

Did anyone tell you being a new parent was going to be hard? That you would experience the biggest range of emotions and upheaval in your life, or that you might have days when you actually hate being a parent or can’t stand to be with your baby? Perhaps you’ve heard other parents’ horror stories, but it’s never truly real until it happens to you. It’s an enormous shock, and almost impossible to prepare for.

Sometimes the shock has nothing to do with the baby. Learning to care for a baby is huge enough, but for many new parents there can be other complicated thoughts, memories and feelings involved. When we don’t have the often difficult conversations required to support and prepare new parents, we can set them up for fear, guilt and anxiety because they don’t feel the expected happiness and fulfilment of parenthood.

New parents may also be grieving for their pre-baby life

Some new mothers can feel an incredible and unexpected desire to be nurtured by and reconnect with, their own mother. This can bring great comfort, but also powerful feelings of grief and confusion if the relationship is difficult or the mum is no longer around or lives far away. Similarly, new fathers may need to connect with their own father, and memories of being fathered, to make sense of the many changes with which they are grappling.

New parents may also be grieving for their pre-baby life and the loss of a sense of self and the expectations they held. Challenges can arise when exhausted new parents need to communicate about things they may never have encountered as individuals or in their relationship and try to come to an understanding at a time when they are probably the least equipped to do so.

Many new parents suffer in isolation

Many new parents seem to get through these normal experiences of having a baby with little difficulty. If they can work together with support from family and friends, new parents will have gone a long way towards strengthening themselves as parents and building their family. However, these experiences tend not to feature in the usual conversations we have with expectant mothers or new parents. Conversations about feelings of loss, sadness, grief, loneliness or need help rarely sit well with blue teddies, pink balloons and flowers, but they should. Without these conversations, it is easy to believe you are the only one experiencing emotional turmoil compared with other new parents.

What happens if the normal experiences of being a new parent stop being normal? For some mothers and fathers, distressing thoughts, emotions and feelings last longer than the early weeks, cause more suffering, and start to interfere with daily life and relationships. It can then be hard for new parents who are worried about their mental health to talk about it and ask for help from family and health professionals. Many new parents suffer in isolation and don’t seek help, and many partners suffer because they don’t know how to help. Extended family members may also not know how to express their concern for the new parent.

Depression and anxiety during pregnancy (antenatal) and after the birth of a baby (postnatal) are common and very treatable

Depression and anxiety during pregnancy (antenatal) and after the birth of a baby (postnatal) are common and very treatable, but they are not the same as the normal experiences of being a new parent. Finding out as much as you can about these conditions can help in working out the differences in yourself or your loved one, and help you or them take action towards understanding and assistance. Talking about antenatal and postnatal depression would be easier if we treated all new parents with greater honesty and openness, especially about the normal challenges of having a baby. There doesn’t seem to be any other way to manage the shame and guilt that comes from feeling like a failure as a new parent. There should not be any shame and guilt in saying you are struggling and need help and support.

Here are some important talking points we need to have with expectant mothers and new parents so the normal turmoil does not become so much bigger:

  • That this journey is the most amazing, confusing and tumultuous experience you might ever have.
  • That no new parent(s) should do this alone, and it is okay to ask for help, comfort and support and have it available when you need it from family, friends and health professionals.
  • That it’s okay to feel sad and lost when you bring your baby home and to have terrible days when your thoughts and feelings collide as you try to make sense of everything that has happened to you, particularly when mixed with exhaustion and/or lack of support.
  • That these thoughts and feelings usually don’t last forever, and that getting help to learn to talk about them and work through them as a couple is strengthening.
  • That sometimes these thoughts and feelings get stuck and contribute to anxiety and depression – it is important to find out as much as you can about antenatal and postnatal depression.
  • That talking about this with your GP, a counsellor or PANDA representative as early as possible increases the chances of an earlier and more complete recovery.

For a mental health checklist for new and expectant mothers and an Interview with the new PANDA CEO, Terri Smith: Mental Health Check List

For more information or support, contact the PANDA helpline on 1300 726 306 and visit PANDA where there are fact sheets, personal stories and practical information.

Run a fundraiser for Postnatal Depression Awareness Week- 10 to 16 November 2019.