Over ten months, I morphed from a skinny blonde into a 45-pound-heavier brunette. From being praised by my workplace boss for a great job of managing change in our organisation to struggling to explain to my husband the changes happening inside me. I went from a woman who could buy a house to a woman who could barely take a shower. Left behind a wide circle of friends and nights partying to long days living between neighbours I didn’t know and the ghosts of dance-floor memories. Nobody warned me that motherhood was likely to affect my sense of who I was as a person and how I felt about myself. Or that losing myself could lead to postpartum depression.
I didn’t know I was depressed. I just thought I was exhausted and yet I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t know insomnia was an early sign that something was amiss. I thought it was the same for all new parents and so I just sucked it up; I didn’t tell anybody. I didn’t know I was anxious. What I did know was that my stress levels would peak about half an hour before my husband came home each night and that on the days the house wasn’t tidy and he would go tight-lipped I was primed to explode. As well as protecting my fragile self-esteem, I was fighting to stay afloat, to stop myself from sinking deeper. What looked like power was panic underneath.
I desperately wanted, every day, for it to be different: to look forward to him coming home, for him to wrap me in his arms to reconnect at the end of our now very disconnected days, so I could forget the drudgery of mine. For him to be my anchor while I grew into someone I recognized. I wanted to look into his eyes and find myself again. Instead, I couldn’t meet them. Like amateur boxers we danced around each other every night, occasionally taking a half-hearted swing, not really wanting to hurt each other but not knowing how to do something else.
It had been stressful leading up to the baby. I had left my high income job and my husband was just still finding his feet in his new, lower paying one. We didn’t know that high stress in both moms and dads during pregnancy was correlated with depression after the baby came. Maybe we could have done something different if we had.
My depression made my husband more anxious. His anxiety made me more depressed. We wove through each other with tenuous threads. There were sub-clinical symptoms that wouldn’t rate a tick on a clipboard but would undermine our ability to work together and support each other as co-parents for the first few years of our children’s lives.
This is what also made me take a special interest in the perinatal stories of my clients. As a relationship counselor, I’m trained to ask my couples in a first session “when did things start to change between you?” I paid close attention to their dance. I stopped blaming my husband when I saw him multiple times in the faces sitting opposite me in my counseling room, my clients revealing the layers of themselves and seeing that he was just trying to cope too.
So I started researching, for my husband and I as much as for my clients. I found the number one factor in antenatal anxiety is a woman’s relationship with her partner and it is one of the three biggest factors postpartum – for both women and men. One in seven mothers suffer with PPD and so do one in ten dads. Fifty percent of depressed mothers will have a partner who is depressed too. That makes for a lot of depressed and anxious new families.
But I wasn’t looking for statistics. I didn’t want to be one; I was looking for a way out. I learned we, all of us, new mothers and fathers alike, are vulnerable to anxiety or depression. Because before baby, we are each other’s personal battery pack, a mutual source of comfort and strength. In the first few years of parenthood as life becomes busy and chaotic and everything changes, couples naturally go through a period of disconnection, even happy ones: it’s hard to make time and space for each other. And when partners become disconnected from each other, anxiety or depression can creep in.
I wondered if we could do anything about that. There was a wave of research done in the 1980’s by Gottman and Gottman, Cowan and Cowan and Belsky and Kelly. From this research we know that 92% of couples experience increased conflict and disagreement in the first year after baby and 67% a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first three. These researchers also gifted us some clear information on what brings couples closer together and what sends them further apart. Gottman and Gottman’s pilot for Bringing Baby Home even found that just two 40 minute relationship sessions prevented the risk for postpartum depression by 60%. I had my answer and yet relationship preparation is still not a part of traditional antenatal programs. It’s become my passion to change this.
Over the past 15 years, I have seen important issues like family violence and physical health go from private matters to a public concern. It’s only then that new programs can be drafted and rolled out. For the sake of our new families, Mental Health needs to be the next wave. It’s time to stop speaking in shamed, hushed tones. It’s time to clear our throats and ask, clearly, openly: how can we prevent this? How can we support our new families? How can we help couples bed down strong foundations for their children?
Next week I will be traveling to the U.S. to present my work with couples at the Postpartum Support International conference in North Carolina. It will be a full circle moment for me. I will be telling my audience that parents are born along with babies. That as well as infant-care, self-care and couple-care is important too, for the sake of the whole family.
Bio: Elly Taylor is an Australian relationship counsellor, perinatal researcher and author. She lives in Sydney with her firefighter husband, their three children and a bunch of pets. Her new book Becoming Us, 8 Steps to Grow a Family that Thrives has been warmly welcomed by parents and the professionals who care for them.