WHEN YOUR PARTNER HAS POSTNATAL DEPRESSION
Up to 30% of all new mothers, in all cultures and circumstances, develop Postnatal Depression during the first year after the birth of a baby. This is a clinical depression, and it is nobody’s fault. It will be difficult for you to understand the depths of despair, anxiety or unhappiness, unless you have, yourself, experienced depression.
It is all consuming and totally debilitating; everything feels like too much effort; the sufferer feels guilty and worthless, and totally overwhelmed and out of control. She may even believe that her life is not worth living, and that the family would be better off without her.
Why it happens to some people is not easy to explain. Generally, it is thought to be the result of a combination of factors: physical, psychological and social, and it often occurs in very high-achieving, perfectionist women, who experience the adjustment to a new baby as a time of being out of control of their lives.
CHANGES IN BEHAVIOUR
Not only is a depressed person’s mood sad. There are other major changes in thinking and behaviour. More often than not, there is a loss of interest in sex, and sleep patterns change. Some people wake, and are unable to fall asleep again; others are continually tired, and want to sleep all the time. (These difficulties are unrelated to being woken by the baby). Some people cannot eat, and lose their appetites, while others crave carbohydrates. The depressed person is often irritable, hostile, pessimistic, and unable to concentrate. It is tough living with a depressed person.
Depression is not the result of lack of willpower, or a weak character. The person cannot “snap out of it” or “pull herself together”. Nor can she cure herself by trying harder to be happy or more active, or by “looking on the bright side” or “counting your blessings”. If you are trying constantly to cheer her up, you will probably make matters worse. You will feel frustrated and discouraged, and she will feel more guilty, and that you do not understand her.
But there are ways in which you can make life a little easier for the depressed person:
GET PROFESSIONAL HELP Contact a health professional. You can’t manage alone.
LISTEN to her when she talks about her feelings. You don’t need to offer solutions, or “fix” things. Just listen; hug her; assure her that you will not abandon her.
DON’T CRITICIZE Depressed people cannot tolerate criticism; they already have feelings of inadequacy and failure. If they are criticized, they will become more discouraged, will fall apart, and become even less decisive and less competent.
GIVE UNCONDITIONAL ACCEPTANCE You don’t have to agree with her perceptions and distortions. Just believe that she is living in a dark world, and that it is real for her.
DON’T TAKE THINGS PERSONALLY Your loved one’s depression is not your fault, nor it is hers. Do not take responsibility for it.
DON’T PUSH the depressed person into doing things for which she is not ready.
DON’T PATRONISE This is difficult, because you will have to learn when your help is welcome and when it makes her feel incompetent. Remember that there is a difference between being helpful, and taking over.
STAY CALM! This is easier said than done, as she will be irritable, inconsistent and extremely needy at times. She may also seem to withdraw from you emotionally on occasion. Remember that you are the “well” one.
BE SUPPORTIVE This means anticipating the other person’s needs, and accepting her feelings.
YOUR NEEDS ARE IMPORTANT TOO
Because it is extremely frustrating to live with a depressed person, you may, at times, feel hostile and even depressed yourself. As far as is possible, try to keep your own life stable.
Take time for yourself Take a break every now and then, and explain kindly and firmly to your partner, that you need to do this. (Give her a break from the baby too, on a regular basis.)
Take care of your body Be sure to exercise, rest and eat right. You cannot afford to lose morale or become ill.
Don’t become a martyr While you will certainly want to give more time and energy to your partner and family during her depression, be sure to give it freely, and without resentment. Pat yourself on the back! You are doing a great job, and it is very difficult. Do not give up all your interests.
WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?
Depression in a parent is very difficult for children to manage, and they are at risk for developing problems, now or later. Even babies can become depressed, and older children may develop learning or behavioural difficulties. Get professional help if you are worried about the children.
The children need to understand that they are not to blame for a parent’s depression. They also need to know that their mother will recover. You will help them greatly if you, as the non-depressed parent, spend plenty of time with them. Be sure not to draw them into any conflict that may develop between you and your partner. It is also helpful to encourage them to take part in activities outside the home, so that their happiness is not too closely linked to how their mother is feeling that day.
WHY HAS OUR SEX LIFE SUFFERED?
Depression flattens all positive emotions, including the libido. This is often the first sign of the depression, and one of the last symptoms to disappear. Also, some anti-depressant medications have this side effect. The fact that your loved one does not want sexual intimacy at this time does not mean that she does not love you. Mothers of new babies, even when they are not depressed, usually take up to six months or longer before they are ready to resume a “normal” sex life. This will certainly be frustrating for you, but try not to feel rejected and hurt. Find other ways of being loving to each other.
WILL OUR LIVES EVER RETURN TO NORMAL?
Postnatal Depression is a treatable illness, but untreated can become chronic. How long it takes for a woman to recover, will depend on many factors, including how quickly she receives the correct help. A combination of anti-depressant medication (which is not addictive), psychotherapy or counselling, and attending a Support Group, works very well. Your loved one will need your encouragement every step of the way. Do not pressure her to be “well” before she is well. Encourage her efforts, no matter how slight they seem. Above all, do not criticize her. And remind yourself that you are doing your best.
NEW FATHERS GET
I have focused on the depressed new mother. Research has recently shown that fathers may also develop Postnatal Depression. All the suggestions made in this article are applicable to men as well. If you are a woman, and you think your children’s father is depressed, please take his feelings seriously. Becoming a parent is a major life transition, with all the attendant risks.
SOMEONE YOU KNOW HAS
a mother is ill, it affects not only her, but also
is easy to understand with most physical illnesses, such as a broken leg.
The effects are predictable, and usually the time-scale of recovery is
defined. There is usually no stigma
attached, and people are able to discuss the situation openly.
a psychological or psychiatric illness this is usually not the case, and both
the sufferer and those close to her find it exceptionally difficult to be honest
about what is happening. They often
feel embarrassed, always feel helpless, and that it is hard to believe that it
is nobody's fault.
follows is an attempt to give you a better understanding of Postnatal
Depression, and to give you some ideas for coping with its effects.
are three forms of postnatal "mental" illness.
three disorders may be considered as lying on a continuum from least to most
affects the majority of women following the birth of a baby.
The new mother becomes weepy, tense, anxious and very emotional on about
the third or fourth day after delivery. Often
this is baffling for an unprepared new father, who cannot understand what is
happening to his normally happy wife, who has just produced a beautiful, healthy
"Blues" are thought to be due to one, or a combination of the
the cause, the "Blues" are likely to be short-lived. The reassurance that this is "normal", and that it
is the result of hormonal changes, is usually enough to help the mother (and the
family) cope with it.
Depression affects 10-30% of all mothers, and may appear as a continuation of
the "Blues", or may develop slowly over the months that follow the
birth. (It is also extremely likely
to be found in women who have been depressed during pregnancy.)
is thought to be caused by the interaction of
mother often becomes increasingly angry, weepy, tired, anxious, panicky, and
generally overwhelmed. She may be
unwilling to leave the house, afraid to be alone.
Her moods are likely to be unpredictable; she loses enjoyment of life and
of her usual interests, including sex. Her
confidence disappears; she can't sleep normally; her eating patterns change.
She feels that her life is out of control; she may want to harm herself
or her baby; she may contemplate, or even attempt suicide.
she feels trapped, and utterly at the mercy of a demanding baby, she may also
feel unable to accept help in caring for the infant, because of feeling guilty,
or because she is unable to trust anyone else with the task.
She may be overwhelmed with conflicting feelings or love for and
resentment towards the baby, and other people around her.
may perceive her partner and her family and friends as uncaring and
unsupportive. She may resent the fact that the baby's father's life is
continuing as usual, apparently unaffected by the birth.
His attempts to help her may be unacceptable and rejected.
She feels abandoned when he goes to work, resentful when she has to
prepare meals and take care of the home, and, at the same time, feels guilty
because she knows that she is not being a good enough wife or mother.
She may, in fact, be so overwhelmed that she is unable to continue to
take care of herself, her home or her other responsibilities. If there are other children, the depressed mother may behave
resentfully, angrily, and unfairly towards them.
this is not her fault. She cannot
help it. She is ill with Postnatal
Depression, and it is nobody's fault.
While the following section is directed at the partners of PND sufferers, suggestions may be useful for other people close to the depressed mother.
depressed mother is in a state of helplessness, isolation and confusion, and
those close to her will probably be experiencing these feelings too.
The family is living with a mother who is irrational, weepy, often
bad-tempered, and ungracious about accepting help.
Although she may be unable herself to keep up with domestic chores, she
often feels too guilty to thank those who try to assist her, and withdraws into
angry silence, or loses control.
with a depressed mother is likely to cause depression in her partner.
(In fact, PND has been found to occur in fathers with the same frequency
as it does in mothers, even if the woman, herself, is not depressed.)
The new father often cannot understand his partner's feelings.
He thinks she ought to be happy, particularly if it is a
"wanted" baby. Where
previously she was his lover, companion and best friend, his wife now seems to
reject him, and is unavailable to him. He
tries to tell her "Pull yourself together", but she apparently cannot,
or will not, hear him.
the mother, the new father is probably not getting enough sleep.
Unlike her, if she is a stay-at-home mother, he has to perform well in
his work each day. When he comes
home, he may find the house in chaos, and no dinner.
He may have to undertake household chores and take care of the children,
in addition to his normal workload.
her, the partner of a depressed woman may feel guilty and inadequate.
He is probably socially and sexually frustrated.
Many men feel unable to discuss intimate personal problems with other
people, and so carry their burdens without support.
He may also feel embarrassed because his wife is "mentally
ill"; he may feel that it is somehow his fault.
He may draw away from his friends and usual recreational activities, or
he may look for reasons not to go home, because it is so unpleasant when he is
there. He may feel that discussing his partner's condition with
other people is being disloyal. He,
too, may be depressed, because he cannot help his partner or because he is
making his own adjustments to new responsibilities.
is difficult for him too, in that even where medical advice has been sought,
experts are usually unable to predict how long this disabling condition will
last. Anti-depressants, Support Groups and therapy are all useful
treatments for the woman, but there is no quick cure. It is also important that the partner takes care of himself
too, and seeks similar help for himself, if necessary.
YOU CAN HELP A PND SUFFERER
are some other practical ways in which you can help:
care of the baby, and encourage the mother
help her with ANXIETY and TENSION:
help her with IRRITABILITY and DISTORTED THINKING:
only the baby, but the older children too, will be affected by a parent's
Postnatal Depression. Their mother
will not be as available to them as she was previously; she may be making
unreasonable demands on them. They
may also feel that their father, too, is cut off from them by his worries. They may be left for long periods with friends and relatives;
their social and emotional behaviour may change as a result of the ongoing
family stress, resulting in bed-wetting and misbehaviour.
Coping with the older children may be an additional burden on the father.
to find someone who can talk to the older children in an empathic way, and
who can explain to them that their mother's illness is not their fault,
re-assuring them that she will recover.
children need someone skilled, who will listen to, and help them to express
children need someone skilled, who will listen to, and help them to express
extremely serious condition is relatively rare, affecting 1 or 2 new mothers per
thousand. Here the mother loses a
sense of reality, may hallucinate, hear voices and think in a bizarre manner.
She may believe that people are trying to harm her, that she has given
birth to a monster. She may become manic, out of control and very excitable,
alternating suicidal with homicidal thinking and behaviour.
mother needs urgent psychiatric help, usually involving hospitalisation.
She may be dangerous to herself and those around her, and will certainly
need medication and professional supervision.
The mother may have to be separated from the baby, which is difficult for
everyone. Treatment is usually very
EVERYONE CAN HELP
© LIZ MILLS