I was scared people would think my son caused my postnatal depression

The other day, I bumped into a couple of friends I hadn’t seen for a lifetime — more specifically, my son’s lifetime. 

The last time I’d seen them, in fact, was on one of mine and my husband’s first dates, about three years ago, when we were still childfree.

While my 15-month-old son played with plastic cups on a patch of grass by our table, I tried to relay the past few — literally — life-changing years, which had seen me transition relatively quickly from single woman wanting to have children to married woman and mother. 

As a pretty open book, I don’t tend to shy away from telling people about my struggles with mental illness. That meant telling my friends about the fact that during the year that followed my son’s birth, I suffered with postnatal depression and anxiety (PND/A).

As the conversation began to wind down, my friend shared that their mother had PND after their birth and asked whether or not I’d one day tell my son about my experience. His question was kind and curious, without even a smidgen of judgement. 

I joked that given the nature of my job as a journalist, it’d be hard to hide and left it there. 

As I walked away, though, I couldn’t stop thinking about the seed it had planted. For days and even weeks after, I was mulling it over. It seemed to me that the question itself articulated better than I ever could quite why PND caused me so much pain. 

And that’s because society, and myself included until recently, still seems to connect the feelings someone experiences with PND to their child. Or rather, we label the child as the cause and the illness as the effect.

The most pervasive worry I had about my illness — the thought that brought me to tears more than any other during that time — was that anyone who saw me suffering might ever think that my depression was a reflection of how I felt about my son. 

Even writing this down makes me experience afresh the sentiment that almost suffocated me over and over during that year: shame.

A particular kind of shame that emanates from the fact that the only ‘acceptable’ emotions those who have a child are able to share outwardly are joy and gratitude — and that any feeling that contradicts or interferes with that narrative is wrong or bad.

The shame that I might not be enjoying every moment of my new role, or my beautiful son, infected my mind

Because of course my depression and anxiety had absolutely nothing to do with how I felt about my son. I love him and I had an illness. Those two things, in my experience at least, were not even slightly connected. 

I’m aware that others who suffer with PND/A may struggle to bond with their babies. But reducing their experience to the idea that they aren’t loving their child adequately will serve only to intensify any shame they might be feeling. 

Postnatal depression and anxiety are illnesses just like any other mental ailment, with a complex matrix of causes and effects. Excluding the existence of real trauma, there is seldom one singular event, person or experience that provokes an emotional reaction of the strength that can floor someone for months on end. 

In my case, there are a range of different contributing factors that collided post-birth — some directly relating to my role and identity as a mother, but others not.

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And yet the shame — the shame that I might not be enjoying every moment of my new role, or my beautiful son, infected my mind, leaving me unable to eat, sleep or even leave bed on a few occasions.

I had spent my whole life wanting to be a mother, and knew that to be able to do so had been relatively lucky. So why couldn’t I just feel happy? 

I was lucky that it was caught early because I had experience of mental illness and knew something wasn’t quite right. So I self-referred to the perinatal mental health team in my hospital trust, and thankfully they sped into action. I was prescribed medication and then had talking therapy with a specialised therapist.

At least one in four new mothers suffer with some form of perinatal mental health complication in the UK, many of whom struggle to access support, and it pains me to think of how much easier the transition into motherhood would be if we were all a bit more honest.

And of how much the pressure to be happy (and only happy) once you have a child is both causing and compounding our emotional difficulties.

Because the truth is that having a child is both beautiful and incredibly difficult. That the bad days can sometimes — although not always — outnumber the good. And that if you are struggling in any way with any of it, there is nothing wrong with you. You are not faulty. And you deserve support.

It’s because of this that I would – and will – tell my son about my experience without hesitation. And because of the fact that I know that it had absolutely nothing to do with him and everything to do with me.

I know enough about his personality from the small flickers that are starting to appear that he will feel empathy for me. And I also know that the strength of my love for him and how that will shape his life will leave him no reason to doubt how I felt about him after he was born.

By doing so, I would hope that I can explain to him honestly what the experience of having children is like. So that if he decides to do so when he is older, hopefully he will be more gentle with himself than I was if he finds it hard.

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