THE BUNDLE of joy that has been growing inside you is finally here. Everyone around you is bursting with joy - except you.
For many women, giving birth is associated with happiness, beginnings and a moment of exhaling after gruelling months of pregnancy, but the reality is that for some women, and some men, this period can be characterised by feelings of sadness, anxiety and exhaustion.
Research shows that in South Africa up to 30% of women who give birth develop post-partum depression (PPD) or post-natal distress (PND) - a serious, long-lasting condition that is more than “baby blues”. This mental health condition, which is marked by feelings of sorrow, moodiness, lack of sleep and exhaustion, can happen to anyone and knows no class or race.
Celebrity moms such as TV star Lena Headey form part of a long list of mothers who have spoken out about their post-partum experience following the birth of their first-borns.
Headey had given birth to a boy, Wylie and was filming season 1 of Game of Thrones in 2010 when she was diagnosed with PPD.
Ané* Lewis, a communications specialist who lives in Cape Town, faced this reality when she gave birth to her first baby, a girl, six years ago.
“I was incredibly tired - which is natural, I know, for someone with a new baby - but I had no energy to do anything. I was weepy and irritable. I found it very hard to control my temper, which is completely out of character for me. I felt as if there was no light at the end of the tunnel. I felt hopeless and the negative thoughts were completely overwhelming,” she recalled.
Lewis admits that not only did she feel “completely alone”, but “incredibly guilty” having such negative feelings. A combination of triggers including sleep deprivation, poor breast-feeding and predictions that there might be complications with pregnancy exacerbated her feelings of incompetency.
Although she experienced negative feelings with her first pregnancy, Lewis acknowledges she was initially in denial that she had had PPD until her second pregnancy.
“Looking back, I realise that I did experience some PPD with my first baby, but it was more noticeable with the second one, and I think this is because my children were born so close together that I did not really have time to overcome it the first time around. There is only 16 months’ age gap between my children. In both instances, I was in complete denial. I thought I was just tired or overwhelmed. But the feeling did not dissipate and I was finding myself in tears more often than not,” she recalled.
A Cape Town journalist, who wanted to remain anonymous, said if it was not for her husband noticing the symptoms of PPD, she wouldn’t have known that she suffered from it.
“I had read as much as I could about pregnancy and I knew that PPD was among the topics I covered. It did not occur to me that I might be suffering from it. I felt ashamed but I couldn’t change the way I felt and I had still not developed any feelings towards my daughter a week after giving birth. Eventually my husband realised something was amiss. He had read about PDD in one of the books he received as a gift,” she said.
As a Muslim woman from a conservative family, many people and friends were shocked to learn that she had PPD. Some were judgemental and encouraged her to turn to God. “Others were shocked and fascinated, and then there were very few who understood,” she recalled.
But thanks to the support of her husband and doctors, her condition improved after she received counselling and medication.
“About a two weeks after going on the medication I had seen a dramatic change in my mood. And one day I remember falling in love with my little girl. I was breast-feeding her and will never forget the way she looked at me. There it was! The spark everyone had told me about. I will treasure that moment forever.”
But Linda Lewis, a psychologist who specialises in perinatal wellness at the Post Natal Depression Support Association, which recently merged with SA Depression and Anxiety Group said PPD was still under-reported here, with many women too ashamed to tell of their experiences of baby blues for fear of being judged as “inadequate mothers”.
Some didn’t have resources to report cases or seek treatment.
“A lot of women are silent about their experience of post-natal distress. They just put up a mask and don’t talk about it even though the condition affected them and their babies negatively,” she said.
Lewis, the author of When your blessings don’t count - a guide to recognising and overcoming post-natal distress, said her book was inspired by her personal experience with the condition.
She said postnatal distress was becoming more prevalent and it is estimated that one in three women may suffer from it.
“It knows no boundaries and affects women of all ages, religions, ethnic, social and economic backgrounds.
“Women with this condition often feel like their emotions are on a roller-coaster and may be feeling anxious, angry, tearful and have negative thoughts that are irrational,” she said.
Bronwyn Miller, who lives in Joburg, said she felt exactly this way when she gave birth to her first child, Ruby, nine years ago.
For someone who had never experienced depression before, having these sudden negative feelings was a shock.
“I cried for about two to three weeks, then I went quiet. I felt like an unnatural mother. I loved my baby but I didn’t like my life. I was expecting to be an Earth mother but then failed at natural birth, struggled to breast-feed.
“I felt like a failure. I was exhausted for two years and had terrible visions of my baby being killed. Sometimes I’d visualise myself doing it. It was horrific.
“My mom-in-law kept telling me all that mattered was a healthy baby, which made me feel so guilty that I was so unhappy over the birth experience (emergency C-section). My husband said I just disappeared and became an empty version of me,” she recalled.
Although devastating and debilitating, both experts and mothers agree that PPD can be overcome.
Linda Lewis says it’s important to note the risk factors such as family history, birth experience, unresolved trauma, physiological and psychological factors such as history of infertility or depression as these could be triggers for the distress.
Apart from seeking professional help, she also recommends taking care of yourself (lots of rest, exercise, good diet and spirituality). “The sooner you get help, the better you will feel,” she said.