Tuesday, 13 Apr 2021

Mothers reveal the darker symptoms of postnatal depression: ‘I became really scared of myself’

Content warning: This article deals with postnatal depression and could be triggering for some people. Helplines can be found at the bottom of the page.

Names have been changed.

It was decades ago, but the memory is crystal clear. A new mother trying to feed her child,thinking about a way to kill her.

Erica was giving her newborn daughter a night feed when the thought popped into her head.

“I still remember sitting on that bed going: ‘If I throw her out this window would she die when she hit the ground? If I jumped with her would I die? Could I kill her by doing that?'”

The thoughts had been building up for a couple of weeks.

“Mum said: ‘it’s okay, it’s just the baby blues’. I remember distinctly thinking: ‘I don’t think baby blues include trying to kill your child’.”

It’s been 24 years since the terrifying urge forced its way into Erica’s head, and she remains “very, very grateful” that she found the strength to seek help for the postnatal depression [PND] that caused it.

“I think something inside of me was going: ‘you need help’,” she said.

“Maybe now I would go ‘okay, it’s a higher being, it’s someone watching out for me’. At the time I had no concept of that.”

A lot of the time following that memory is a blur, but Erica remembers calling her doctor a couple of days later and admitting what had been going through her mind.

Help was almost immediate, and Erica was put on medication for the next two years to help.

She is just one of the victims of postnatal depression and its lesser known symptoms.

Just another symptom

While knowledge about PND continues to grow, many people don’t realise it goes beyond feeling sad or depressed, and can cause some women to think about harming their babies.

Clinical psychologist Jacqui Maguire said it would be particularly scary for mums to recognise they were having such thoughts, and difficult to speak up about for many.

“There are a number of reasons why postnatal depression can occur and the range of thoughts someone might have around harming themselves or their babies is as long as a piece of string,” she said.

It was “really, really important” that partners and close family members were made aware those thoughts were just another symptom of PND.

“Normalisation breaks the stigma, it takes away some of that ‘I’m a monster, oh my gosh how could I be thinking this, what’s wrong with me?’

“The more we have these conversations the more we remove the false image that new motherhood is just this amazing magical experience.”

Maguire understood how women might be afraid to seek help for fear their babies would be taken away from them, but said they needed to trust that health professionals could recognise the thoughts as a symptom of PND, rather than an actual desire to hurt the child.

Health professionals also needed to build good rapport with their patients or clients to make women feel safe opening up to them, she said.

Intrusive thoughts ran "rampant"

For Hayley, she believes much of her PND was triggered by extreme sleep deprivation.

“What I started experiencing was rushes of panic, the feeling of being at the top of a rollercoaster and dropping, flooding of uncontrollable emotions, feeling worthless against the standards of motherhood,” she said.

“I experienced particularly extreme rage and anger. I struggled most days in the first 6-12 weeks to keep a lid on my patience as my baby didn’t behave the way I expected them to, or was told they would [or] should.”

Hayley flew into fits of rage, screaming and slamming doors to release the energy she felt she couldn’t control.

When her baby went through sleep regressions, she remembers screaming in the child’s face, “just to give back to them what they were giving to me”.

“I wanted my baby to feel as helpless as I did, and take responsibility for the frustration that I was feeling – which is a ludicrous thing for a baby to do.”

Many times she wanted to shake her baby, and immediately felt ashamed of herself. Once or twice she considered throwing the baby against a wall.

“I told my support worker I was dreaming of walking my baby down to the river, leaving them there and walking away.”

Another time she put the baby down as roughly as she dared, and told them she hated them and wished they’d never been born.

“I cried so hard after I did it and asked my baby to forgive me. In that moment I came the closest I ever would to understanding why people hurt their own children.”

Intrusive thoughts ran rampant in her mind most days and made her feel “worthless” and question her “validity as a mother”. She told her partner, but was too ashamed to tell her friends or family.

She did seek help from maternal mental health, though felt the help was “limited”.

However, she feels change came about through letting go of unrealistic expectations, embracing safe co-sleeping, and getting support from other new mums and her partner, among other things.

"I was scared of myself"

The same cannot be said for other women, some of whom have never told anybody the full extent of what they were dealing with.

Lana told the Herald she hadn’t even given her husband the full picture for fear he wouldn’t trust her around their daughter.

“Sometimes I’d be there standing there alone with her in a room, holding her. I’d get these scary thoughts, telling me to drop her or throw her out of the window. She wasn’t even crying,” she said.

When the baby did cry without stopping, Lana would have thoughts telling her to squeeze, smother, or suffocate her.

“But instead of acting on those thoughts I just stood there staring at her battling those thoughts in my head. [My husband] would often walk in when [she] was screaming and I was just holding her staring at her.”

Lana said she was scared of herself and would constantly pray that she wouldn’t act on the urges, which eased up over a year.

“I never hated her, always loved her. That’s why I could never understand why I was getting these thoughts.”

She never told anyone because she was worried her daughter would be taken away.

“One time I told [my husband] and I couldn’t tell him the whole truth … he’d ask me how often and I’d lie. I couldn’t tell him it was pretty much every day.”

'I always viewed rage as a male trait'

Natalie felt like a switch would flick in her head and send rational behaviour out the window.

“In the beginning I didn’t know exactly who or what I was angry at. It was an intense rage that I couldn’t see anything clearly through.”

She soon realised being unable to get her daughter to sleep was a “huge trigger”.

“I wanted to throw her against the wall, or out the window, smother her with a pillow and shake her.”

Once the thoughts became daily, Natalie accepted she needed medication to help her through.

“I always viewed anger, aggression and rage as a male trait. To experience it for myself was terrifying. I didn’t recognise myself and I was so scared of doing something terrible that I would never be able to undo.”

She felt frightened, ashamed, weak, and thought she was a failure. When she did start asking for help, people were too busy.

“So, I had to explain exactly how bad my situation was for people to make time for me.”

She also felt let down by the health system, with her midwife going MIA after four weeks and not returning her calls.

Other failures included when a referral to maternal health services was declined, but nobody informed Natalie that it had been declined.

“I struggled on my own for another two months before I went back to the doctor and got some medication.”

The fourth trimester

For Jess, a fleeting moment where reality forced its way back into her mind might have saved her and her child’s lives.

It was a rough start to motherhood with her baby being born via emergency c-section with a congenital malformation. Her son’s heart stopped during birth and he had to have surgery the next day.

“I wasn’t allowed to hold him until he was three days old.”

They couldn’t take their boy home for about three weeks, and then had the added struggle of caring for a sick newborn.

“I began to hate myself and have intrusive thoughts, including thoughts like ‘if I drive into that fence then maybe I could have a few days in hospital alone and my son would be happier’ … ‘if I rock him harder it might force him to sleep’.”

The thoughts became increasingly worse, “to the point where one day I placed my screaming baby on the floor, went to the shed… I heard my son’s screams and called my husband.

“If I didn’t have that fleeting moment and call him I don’t know if I or my baby would be here today.”

The first time a health professional asked Jess if she was okay was at a specialist check up when her son was more than four months old.

She broke down and talked about her feelings, and was finally able to receive help.

“We learn at antenatal classes how birth works, how to swaddle a baby … but we don’t learn the most important part of having a baby: The fourth trimester, what triggers to be aware of, what to be prepared for, and how to get help,” she said.

This is not your fault. You are not alone

Other mothers who spoke to the Herald described thoughts of wanting to the burn down the house with themselves and the baby inside, or experiencing moments of uncharacteristic white hot rage.

Anna said she would become furious when her daughter wouldn’t stop crying, and would scream and throw items across the room in response.

“I’d just feel so frustrated, and resentful that I was giving all my energy into caring and supporting this tiny infant, but there was no one caring or supporting me, or looking out for my needs.

“I’d feel guilt for being so selfish, and like a useless mother, because literally millions of other women have had babies and coped with it, so why couldn’t I?”

Some of the women sought help, some were too fearful. Others, like Anna, did not want to because they didn’t want to go on medication that could potentially stop them from breastfeeding.

Of those who did seek help, some felt supported and cared for, and others felt completely failed by the system.

They all felt shame and guilt, with the knowledge society expected women to be nurturing and to love their babies immediately.

Everyone’s message was the same: “It does not define who you are, and it is not your fault.”

Their advice included opening up to a trusted loved one, letting go of expectations of how parenthood should be progressing, and not “hyper focusing” on the thoughts.

Some believed medication was the way to go, while others felt for themselves they wanted to work on lifestyle changes.

They also felt there should be paid parental leave for partners to stay home longer after the birth of the baby.

The women encouraged friends and family to ask questions of new mothers to see how they were coping.

Erica said it was important that women dealing with PND found the strength to open their mouths and speak to somebody who could help them.

“I would love to be that person to all people. I would just be wrapping them in my arms and going ‘you are going to be okay’.”

Things for loved ones to ask to open the conversation

• How are you finding bonding with the baby?
• On a scale of 1-10 how has your mood been today?
• How many times have you cried today? How many times have you cried over the same thing?
• How are you finding the role of motherhood?
• You can be open with me, I’m not going to judge you.
• Are you having any negative thoughts?
• Is that something that would be useful to bring up with your midwife?

Symptoms of postnatal depression can include:

• Feeling low, sad, or depressed
• Having thoughts about harming yourself or the baby
• Losing interest or pleasure in usual activities
• Becoming irritable or angry for no reason
• Not feeling bonded or connected with your baby
• A change in sleeping patterns, even when baby is settled
• Feeling anxious or panicky about the baby
• A change in appetite
• Decreased energy and fatigue
• Feeling worthless or guilty
• Having thoughts of helplessness or death
• Having trouble thinking clearly
• Feeling anxious

Where to get help

Contact your midwife or GP if you have one

Call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor

Call PlunketLine 24/7 on 0800 933 922

Depression helpline: Freephone 0800 111 757

Healthline: 0800 611 116 (available 24 hours, 7 days a week and free to callers throughout New Zealand, including from a mobile phone)

Lifeline 0800 543 35

Samaritans – 0800 726 666

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