By Amelia Walker from Gidget Foundation Australia
It’s hard having a baby. But for some mums and dads, there is another level of toughness to get through – Perinatal Depression and Anxiety.
Because when the structure of our family unit changes, be it from partnership or as a solo parent having a baby, or adding another little being into the mix, the make-up of our home setting changes.
The physical space morphs and becomes a literal obstacle course of baby ‘things’!
How we once interacted with our home environment has altered to accommodate another person. We have to change our outer world to adapt to becoming a family, and with that our inner sense of self has to change too.
This can be difficult for us to accept in ourselves and in our partner.
Feelings of change
Most often our relationship to work changes, with one of us going on parental leave and no longer having our career-identity, while others feel additional pressure to be the sole provider.
Levels of intimacy change. Hormonal changes in both women and men can impact desire in the early stage of parenthood. The testosterone levels in men reduce in the early days of parenthood, helping to encourage bonding with the baby.
For women, our pregnancy experience, recovery from the birth process and potential other causes such as the hormone produced to aide breastfeeding, can also diminish desire.
Sleep deprivation for any parent has enormous impact on overall functioning. As new parents we go through (mostly) short term, but significant physiological changes.
Add to this a new little being, physically coming between a couple as it grows in mum’s belly, while taking up mental and emotional energy that was one directed toward our partner or ourselves. Hence, there are many obstacles to manage.
We also know that 1 in 5 mums and 1 in 10 dads / partners will suffer from perinatal depression and anxiety (PNDA), with 50% of new parents experiencing an adjustment disorder. These figures indicate that the transition to parenthood is generally not neat and predictable. Moments of joy and wonder at the truly miraculous happenings coincide with complex challenges that impact many families.
How perinatal depression and anxiety affects the romantic relationship
These challenges can have an emotional knock-on effect for romantic relationships as we may interpret these changes as rejection, leaving us vulnerable, frustrated and possibly feeling very alone.
There are many factors that can contribute to strain on a romantic relationship when a new baby is in the mix.
The most important thing to remember is romance does not equate to sex.
Genuinely listening to your partner, creating even the smallest window of time to just have a proper hug, hold hands while taking the baby for a stroll, make a cup of tea without being asked or give each other a foot massage.
The simplest things maintain the romantic connection, so that as things begin to equalise with hormonal changes, the baby’s needs become more familiar and this new role begins comfortably coexisting with other parts of who you are, you can find each other again.
The emotional impact of being a new mum
New mums go through such an emotional journey. From conception through to the first 12 months of being a parent it is likely we experience the full gamut of emotions – from excitement, anticipation, joy and awe to worry, stress, losses to process and the weight of expectation.
Physiological changes can affect our emotional wellbeing as can the balance of our reality versus the cultural, familial and societal expectations we might carry. It is important that we also recognise that when we enter into parenthood we are often confronted with our childhood experiences and the things we wish to hold on to and repeat, and those we wish to change and repair. Working through these thoughts and feelings can take some time.
Perinatal depression and anxiety in new mums and dads
The perinatal period includes the period of conception through to the first 12 months of parenthood. Perinatal anxiety and depression (PNDA) impacts 100 000 new parents in Australia every year. It is not an uncommon experience, and possibly more prevalent since the impact of COVID-19.
What symptoms to look for
The experience of PNDA can range from mild to severe but includes a combination of symptoms that are felt for a period of two weeks or more with no real reprieve.
These symptoms may include:
- Depressed mood, including feeling sad, empty or hopeless
- Crying for no apparent reason
- Loss of interest or pleasure in life
- Physical symptoms: (changes in appetite, headaches, sweaty palms, heart racing)
- Insomnia or excessive sleep
- Moving more slowly or finding it harder to slow down
- Loss of energy or fatigue
- Not feeling attached or bonded with your baby
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, feeling trapped
- Impaired concentration or indecisiveness
- Fear that something awful might happen
- Excessive and generalised worry
- Panic attacks
- Muscle tension
- Thoughts of death, self harm or suicide
In addition, many parents have repetitive, negative, intrusive thoughts or images about their baby’s health or safety. The repetitive intrusive images and thoughts are very frightening and can feel like they come ‘out of the blue’. Research has shown that these images are usually anxious in nature, not delusional, and have very low risk of being acted upon.
These include sudden thoughts (for example, “what if I drop the baby on the stairs?”) or sudden images (for example, picturing the baby falling off the changing table).
It is reassuring to know that PNDA it is treatable and temporary and that there is support for you and your partner.
How perinatal depression and anxiety affects a couple
PNDA can impact the birth parent and a non-birthing parent.
Anxiety or depression can temporarily compromise our ability or desire to connect in the same way we might once have done. Our energy often becomes focussed on how we are going to get out of bed and get on with the day. Or consumed with thoughts or worries about the baby.
Either the couple can find it hard to be honest, for fear of burdening the other. Or letting on how terrible they really feel due to shame.
While one partner may be suffering with anxiety or depression, that can feel consuming at times, the other partner may be wondering where the person they once knew has gone. In turn, their sense of self is knocked off balance.
The foundation of our relationship can feel shaken. They can take on a lot more responsibility to heal at the cost of their own health at times too. It is important to employ compassion, both for each other and ourselves. And remember that you don’t have to navigate this alone.
How parents can support each other when they have a baby
A baby’s needs are overt, immediate and need attending to. Our own needs necessarily get put on the back burner.
Some simple ways to support your partner:
1 // Taking the smallest moments to connect
A quick squeeze of the hand, taking a moment to just hold each other, reminiscing about when you first met or a funny memory you shared, book a favourite restaurant for a few months’ time to look forward to.
2 // Notice the little moment of connection between your partner and the baby and compliment them
“She was really unsettled and I can find it so hard to be with her when she’s so distressed, but you were so patient and gentle with her”/ “I loved seeing you just gazing at him”/ “he’s really starting to respond to your voice when you talk to him”.
3 // Believe your partner if they say they are struggling with physical or emotional wellbeing
Advocate for them by taking time to sit with them, listen and be with them while they seek support.
4 // Create uninterrupted space for your partner to unwind
Encourage them to go for a walk, take a bath, call a friend or listen to a podcast while you settle the baby.
5 // Help each other
A partner can feed and settle the baby in the night-feed to give the other some extra sleep, depending on feeding methods.
6 // Watch your language
It can be helpful to shift our language from the ‘working parent’ and the ‘stay-at-home parent’, to the ‘paid worker’ and the ‘unpaid worker’. These are both imperative roles that keep the family unit functioning. Both deserve respect and both require breaks.
7 // Hold space for them
Remember that if your parent has gone from a paid workspace to taking care of the baby, they may feel quite lost without their career-identity.
8 // Share household duties
Cleaning the house, doing laundry and cooking a meal for the adults, should continue to be a shared duty.
9 // Give yourself space
For the person going to paid work, give yourself permission to get off the train one stop early, walk, go to the gym, treat yourself to a yummy lunch, find some green space if you can. Recalibrate between work and home. Then when the work-day ends, step into the room with the parent doing the unpaid work and give them a proper break.
Check in on your partner’s mental health
Along with the above mentioned symptoms, another indicator might be that you ‘miss’ them. This goes beyond the fact they are busy with the baby. Rather the sense that the person they once were, is not as ‘visible’ to you. They might need support to be ‘found’ again.
If you don’t know, simply ask, and listen well. Sometimes we are just waiting for someone else to notice, validate our feelings, to really ‘see’ us. When we feel overwhelmed it can be really hard to articulate. So it helps to have someone notice, gently reflect back, and offer support.
Call in the cavalry if you need to. If things are feeling out of control or you don’t know how to help your partner, call a trusted friend or family member who can help with a supermarket run or pop around if you’re at work. Be mindful of who you bring into this bubble as the aim is to diminish stress. Not to add to it.
Check out some material on the Gidget Foundation website or other mental health supports. Have a look together to see if any of it resonates. This separates us slightly from the personal issues and allows for some conversation and normalising around the experience.