Dealing with postpartum depression and anxiety
Toni Cowen experienced undiagnosed postpartum anxiety after the birth of her first son. By the time her second son was born, she was seeing a psychologist who recognised the signs of postpartum depression. Toni speaks out about maternal mental health so that other mothers know they aren't alone.
"Many postpartum women don't talk about their struggles - it's considered quite taboo. We need to normalise the difficult and unglamorous parts of motherhood, and [normalise] reaching out for support," says 36-year-old Toni. She's a mother of two boys, aged four and one, and she's on a quest to make sure others know that being a new mother can be really tough - but that there is help available!
Preparing for birth during the hard lockdown period
Generally speaking, Toni had two healthy pregnancies.However, during her second pregnancy - over the COVID-19 hard lockdown in 2020 - she started seeing a psychologist.
A few months before Toni's due date, hospitals weren't allowing husbands or partners to attend births, due to strict COVID-19 regulations. "I started to get anxious that I would give birth alone, with no support afterwards. I'd heard about the horrific experiences that other moms had and panicked about having to go through that on my own," she says.
"I felt completely depleted and numb"
A few months after her son's birth, Toni's psychologist raised the postpartum depression flag. Although Toni says her symptoms weren't particularly severe, they had a significant impact on her relationships and physical health."I felt completely depleted and numb," says Toni. "I really struggled to find joy and connect emotionally with both children. I was going through the motions of mothering them, but inside I felt I was failing miserably at everything."
Toni was determined to breastfeed her son, even though the first few months were extremely difficult. "I thought it would be easier the second time around but my struggles contributed greatly to my depression. It was difficult for my family to witness, and they weren't able to offer the support I needed." Toni says that neither she nor her family would've picked up that she was depressed. "I was so chronically sleep-deprived that I didn't know what normal was anymore."
"Asking for help would make me look inadequate as a mother"
It was only after Toni had her second son that she realised, with the help of her psychologist, she'd had postpartum anxiety after the birth of her first son. "I needed to control everything. I wouldn't let people help me with even the smallest task like packing his clothes into his cupboard," Toni shares.
"I was trying to do everything all the time because I felt that if I didn't stay on top of it all, it meant I wasn't good enough. Asking for help felt impossible. I thought it would make me look inadequate as a mother," she says.
"There's a lot of pressure to be perfect and have these beautiful social media worthy moments with our children all day long. If your reality doesn't look like that then you feel like there's something wrong with you, rather than it being normal."
There are varying degrees of postpartum mental health
Toni feels that her experience isn't particularly significant. She wants other moms to know that postpartum depression and anxiety doesn't necessarily present the way it's portrayed in mainstream media. "We all have this idea of what it looks like - an extreme picture where someone can't get out of bed, can't look after themselves, feels suicidal or can't bond at all with their baby. But there are varying degrees of postpartum mental health."
Toni feels that many of the healthcare providers that deal with moms and their babies are not always equipped to pick up on and support mothers with postpartum mental health issues. She says she was brushed off by healthcare providers who she had told she was having a tough time. "One doctor said to me that she knew I'd be fine because she'd seen women with postpartum depression and that I didn't look like they did."
Toni believes that this type of treatment, along with inadequate support with breastfeeding and other postpartum issues, is one of many "micro traumas" experienced by women during pregnancy, birth and postpartum. All of these issues can cause or aggravate mental health struggles.
A psychologist helps Toni cope with postpartum depression
Thankfully, Toni's psychologist helped her put measures in place to manage her postpartum depression. She helped her to identify things that made her feel a certain way and gave her practical strategies for reconnecting with her family.
The psychologist encouraged Toni to really make use of the people in her existing support system. She and her eldest son also visited a play therapist to help him cope better with having a new sibling in his life.
"It was a long and slow process with two mental health professionals helping us with what we were going through," she says.
Exercising again also made Toni feel better. "I think it's really difficult for some moms to find the time and energy to move their bodies, but I found that exercise made a big difference to how I felt both mentally and physically."
Build a trusted support network early on
Toni is so passionate about supporting other moms through the tough parts of motherhood that she took over a studio which hosted various classes related to postpartum physical and mental health. The classes stopped due to the pandemic, but the women still support each other on a WhatsApp group.
She encourages moms to start building their support systems while they are still pregnant. "A moms' group can be really valuable because you have access to people who are experiencing the same thing as you at the same time."
Places of worship, friends, relatives, counsellors and psychologists can also provide various types of support for new moms. "Pick a group of people who you can trust to help you with your baby, but who can also watch out for you and make you feel like you've got a place to go to when things aren't picture perfect."