Adjusting to parenthood and why it's so hard.
Last week was Perinatal Depression and Anxiety Awareness Week.
Did you know that:
· 14 percent of new mums and 10 percent of new dads are diagnosed with postnatal depression each year?
· 10 percent of mums-to-be and five percent of dads-to-be are diagnosed with antenatal depression.
· And an even greater number are believed to struggle with significant parenting related anxiety.
These numbers are BIG - but they don't worry me.
Because if you have a diagnosis you have a doctor and you are getting the help you need.
It's the people struggling alone that concern me. The mums and dads who don't feel unwell. They don't see a doctor. They just feel sad.
And struggle on day after day wondering why this parenting gig is so hard.
High profile women such as Jessica Rowe and Brooke Shields shared their difficult new mum stories. They raised awareness of the mental health issues associated with new parenthood. They have done an important job and more women (and men) will seek help and support as a consequence.
I read their stories when I was a first time new mum. I checked for similar symptoms and thoughts and experience. I completed the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale in my doctor's office. I didn't have perinatal depression or anxiety.
But I wasn't loving motherhood either. I was lonely and frustrated. I had high expectations and reality was confusing and confronting.
I loved my baby. I wanted motherhood. But I was cranky. I was dissatisfied and it was more than just sleep deprivation. I had no idea just how difficult it would be to adjust to this new life and I was resentful and ambivalent.
Lisa from The Notorious Mum describes my experience perfectly.
'...my life post-baby stood in such stark contrast to my life pre-baby that I think I was in a surreal state of shock for a good two years.'
Loss and a new normal
To embrace a new life we must say goodbye to the old one. It's unavoidable. But when the old life suits you well, saying goodbye is bittersweet. You're keen to start this new adventure but you may not be fully ready to give up the old one.
This is why I struggled adjusting to parenthood. I love my independence. I built a life and career as a consultant. I was beholden to very little. No boss, no fixed workplace, no timetable. My partner is equally independent. We both worked interstate for days at a time, enjoying our time together and apart.
Motherhood changed that. I lost that prized independence because a tiny person was so dependent on me.
I knew it would change - in my head.
It was my heart and soul that took longer to come around.
Psychologists call this balancing act 'adjustment'. To let go of an old life and be fully happy with the new we must adjust our thoughts, ideas and behaviour, sometimes at a deep unconscious level. Even when we're excited and anticipating change it can bring unexpected conflict.
'I want this yet I hate it.'
'I should be loving this, but I'm not.'
Life as we knew it has been thrown up in the air and we're darting below, uncertain, anxious, angry and confused, looking to the heavens and waiting for the pieces to land. It's exhausting but it's commonplace and I'm not sure we talk about it enough.
When it takes too long or feels too hard
Like Lisa, I adjusted over time. It took a while. I don't think I fully accepted my new life until my second son came along three years later.
For many of us time and knowing that we are adjusting to something big is all that it will take to find our feet again.
But some parents will continue to struggle with this shift, for many reasons. When the feelings take over, when they become too much or last too long, that's when help is needed. That's when mums and dads need help and support. They need the expertise of a doctor or psychologist who can assess what's going on and offer treatment if required.
Putting a name on this experience is difficult and unique to each of us. For some it might be depression. For others it might be anxiety. Ongoing difficulty coping with the conflict of change can lead to Adjustment Disorder.
The label is not important. Not initially. It's the thoughts and feelings we need to pay attention to. We need to know what is normal for us and what is not and when it becomes too much we need to know what to do. We need to know that there are people and organisations who can help.
Parenting can be a struggle but you shouldn't struggle alone.
Tips for new parents
· Stay connected. Our relationships give us comfort, support and perspective. Find a parents group, seek out family and friends, chat to another mum at the park. Don't do it alone.
· Get outdoors. Physical activity, fresh air and nature are all critical to our emotional health. Put bub in the pram and walk to the shops, the park or around the block. Meet a friend, grab a coffee and pound the pavement.
· Be kind to yourself. Treat yourself as you would a friend. Be kind and gentle. Expect less and ask for help, even when it's hard.
· Seek help. If the tears come readily or the worry is overwhelming, seek help. See your GP, a maternal health nurse or psychologist. PANDA (Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia) can help. Don't be afraid to talk about your experience. The help and support is there. You just need to ask.