Babies are amazing, becoming and being a parent is life changing. ‘Growing’ babies to be amazing and wonderful young adults can been truly fulfilling. So why do we hear, over and over again, that being a parent is the hardest job in the world, no one else seems to struggle and it’s really hard to ask for help?
Did anyone ever tell you it was going to be hard to be a new parent? That you would experience the biggest range of emotions and upheaval to your life that you are ever likely to encounter? Were you ever told that you might have days when you actually hate being a parent or you feel like you can’t stand to be with your baby? Days when you are so exhausted you don’t know which way is up, or you are so overwhelmed with love for this baby that it is scary?
Maybe if you are one of the lucky ones you have seen other people go through this or heard some of these horror stories. But it is never really real until it happens to you, in your life, and the life of your partner. What an enormous shock this experience is and one that is almost impossible to prepare for.
Sometimes the shock has nothing to do with the baby. Learning everything that is involved in caring for or loving the baby is huge enough but for many new parents there can be an unexpected and distracting collision of this journey with other very complicated thoughts, memories and feelings. When we leave new parents to work this out for themselves without trying to have the difficult conversations to prepare and support them we can set them up for so much additional fear, guilt and anxiety because they don’t feel the expected happiness and fulfilment. I think this process lies at the heart of the question from overwhelmed parents – ‘why didn’t anyone tell me it was going to be this hard?’
Some new mothers can feel an incredible and unexpected desire to be nurtured by and to re-connect with their own mother when their journey is unfolding. This can bring great comfort but also powerful feelings of grief and confusion if this relationship is difficult or their mum is no longer here or lives a long way away. New fathers will go through this too, needing to connect with their own father, and memories of being fathered, to make sense of the many changes they are grappling with as a new father. Both new parents may also be grieving for the pre-baby life they knew, a loss of a sense of self and loss of 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 a common understanding and support. All of this at a time when they are probably the least equipped.
However we don’t talk about these experiences with new parents, they tend not to feature in the usual conversations we have with pregnant people or new parents. Conversations about feelings of loss, sadness, grief, loneliness or needing help rarely sit well with blue teddies, pink balloons and flowers, but they should. Without these conversations it is easy to believe that you are the only one experiencing inner turmoil compared with other new parents, from the outside looking in anyway.
What happens then if these usual experiences stop being normal? For some mothers and fathers these difficult thoughts and feelings last longer than the early weeks, cause more distress and start to interfere with their daily life and relationships. This just takes the difficult conversations up a million notches – it can be so hard for new parents who are worried about their mental health to talk about this and to ask for help from both family and health professionals. There are many new parents who suffer in isolation and don’t seek help, partners in crisis because they are beyond knowing how to help and extended family members who don’t 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, but they are not the same as the usual experiences of being a new parent. Finding out as much as you can about these conditions for new mothers and new fathers (panda.org.au AND howisdadgoing.org.au) can really help. Reading PANDA’s fact sheets, stories and practical information or calling the PANDA Helpline (1300 726 306) can help in working out the differences in yourself or your loved one, and knowing when and how to have the difficult conversation and to help 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 – an additional emotional complication! There should not be any shame and guilt in saying you are struggling and needing help and support.
So there are some really important but difficult conversations that we need to be having with pregnant people and new parents so that we can make it okay for them to speak up earlier so that the normal turmoil does not become something 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 is okay to feel sad and lost when you bring your baby home and to have terrible days when sometimes your thoughts and feelings get messy as you make sense of everything that has happened to you, particularly when mixed with exhaustion or lack of support,
- That usually these confusing thoughts and feelings don’t last forever, for you as individuals and as a couple, and that getting help to learn to talk about them and work through them together 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, as early as possible, increases the chances of an earlier and more complete recovery as well as a wonderful growth process for the whole family.
For more information about antenatal and postnatal depression or to find someone to have a conversation with contact PANDA’s National Helpline 1300 726 306 (Monday – Friday 9am – 7pm AEST).