• Postnatal depression is thought to affect 1 in 10 women; PND also affects partners

  • Therapist Fiona Austin explains the symptoms of PND 

  • If you have PND or are struggling to adjust to life with a new baby, find a therapist here 

'Postnatal depression' is not a great explanatory panacea for the vast variety of feelings and people it can affect. First, it’s not just for mums, it’s for dads too and parents adopting. What is common, ironically, is that the experience is very different for each person. What is also common, is that in some way you feel out of control. The nuts and bolts of being a parent is doable, but when this is combined with the realisation that not only are you now a new person but that there is a new person in your life - forever - well the party inside your head kicks off. 

Parenting is not a skill, it’s a whole new world – one you can’t see. You are hurled into a parallel parent universe. For some, complete with a swirl of chaos of alternate rumblings of thunder and sunlight. It’s self-doubt, love, not love, confusion, anger, insecurity, disconnection and deep lows – we’re talking an internal world, like nothing else you’ve encountered! With little respite. 

For others it’s just one aspect, all else feels normal. You can’t pinpoint why you don’t feel like you anymore or can’t shake a mood. Either way, everything is compounded, ultimately affecting the connection to your child. In turn making it all spiral the wrong way. With the birth mum – you’ve got an atomic bomb of hormones rocketing around your system, then, leaving your system! You are essentially being bombarded like a lonely rock in the asteroid belt. Putting the physical aside, there’s the reality. A little person, no hair, doesn’t even bark – but is entirely and totally dependent on you (and then give it time, will devour all your money, make laundry and eat all your food!) There’s no going back. No laughing matter. So let’s get clear on what this PND is.

Little talked about it’s often not explained that it can arrive with a best friend – PNA: postnatal anxiety, as if there wasn’t enough! And they swap places regularly. Postnatal anxiety, the lesser discussed aspect to this post baby blues, is a feeling “in which you feel in a constant state of high anxiety, (with worries about everything from your child’s health, feeding, and your ability to parent); PN obsessive compulsive disorder (can involve experiencing distressing thoughts and concerns about harm coming to your baby); and PN health anxiety (which is a preoccupation that there may be something wrong with a baby’s health)”. 

Postnatal depression is all over Google, for good reason. People mostly pretend it’s not happening. So the internet can end up being your only reassurance that you’re not alone. For your ease here’s a selection of things ‘people’ check for:

  • a persistent feeling of sadness and low mood
  • lack of enjoyment and loss of interest in the wider world
  • lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • trouble sleeping at night and feeling sleepy during the day
  • difficulty bonding with your baby
  • withdrawing from contact with other people
  • low to zero sex drive
  • problems concentrating and making decisions
  • frightening thoughts – for example, about hurting your baby

So now we’ve identified simply that after having a baby, you’ll feel different, no matter who you are, with a menu of accompanying hell! What’s the good news? Well it’s not the 1950s anymore, where women were signed into asylums regularly for simply having feelings or pumped with high grade valium to get them ‘Stepford wife’ manageable. Horrific. We’ve come a long way! In fact many celebrities are standing up and admitting to the vulnerable. It’s fantastic, it’s underlining that it’s OK to feel ‘not you’. It’s always been OK, but because we’ve got smartphones, we think we’re now at the smartest point in history. Unfortunately, we’re at the least intuitive point. So we’re disconnected and alone when we need help most. 

It comes down to how it should be ‘women helping women’. We will make this OK, by being with other mums. It’s the age old wisdom of the tribe. We have to put down our phones and reach out. If you don’t want to admit it to your self, know that meeting other mums is good for your children’s social world. But once there, you’ll soon see simply being with people who get you, you start to trust, means you ‘get back to you’ quicker.

If it’s severe, your mum pals will tell you. Feeling safe, you will then feel Ok to admit it to yourself, to get help. As a therapist, my opinion is that CBT is a good form of therapy to help with these difficulties. This is a type of practical therapy. Medication too, is still very popular. But be careful, that’s a train that once you get on, you may have to ride for a long time. Just remember, you are not ill if you’ve got PND – you’re simply becoming a new person. 

As a caterpillar turns into a butterfly, that too is happening with you. You’re going into a cocoon and you will come out the other side – but only if you’re gentle to yourself. Don’t force it, relax and reach out.

Fiona Austin is a verified welldoing.org therapist in W10, London

Further reading

Postnatal depression: what it is and how to deal with it

How to help a friend with PND

In search of the meaning of motherhood

The supermum myth: why good enough should be the goal in motherhood

Maternal isolation: it takes a village to support a mother