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Parenting with mental illness – A journey

BY RORY BANWELL


The list of things they don’t tell you about parenting far outweighs the small list of information you get before you embark on your parenting journey.


My first experience with pregnancy related mental health issues was while I was pregnant. The overwhelming feeling of anxiety that overtakes your every choice is rarely spoken about. I was paranoid about anything I ate that wasn’t prepared at home. I weighed up the pro’s and con’s of how much caffeine I was willing to “risk” to get through my day, is that bag of lettuce safe?, how long ago was this sandwich made?




Our society gives little allowance to mothers in general, but especially to first time mothers who are “only” pregnant. Pregnancy is treated in a medicalised fashion by health professionals but as a lifestyle choice by everyone else. Pregnant women don’t deserve concessions because they did it to themselves and so we expect women to exist in a vacuum where pregnancy only affects them privately.


In order to qualify for Centrelink’s Paid Parental Leave, mothers are required to work 10 out of the previous 13 months before their child is born, so if you have any complications and need to take time off work, you risk losing the social security safety net that is designed to support parents navigating the hardest time of their life – the first few months of their child’s life.


Not only is your child unbelievably fragile, but parents are most at risk for developing mental health in the first few months after a child is born.


A 2016 study found that mother’s mental health in the postpartum period is a “major public health problem”. The study, published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists, cites a survey of Melbourne mothers, that found 16.1% reported depressive symptoms in the first 12 months after birth. It also concluded over the last ten years, in NSW, that hospital admissions for psychiatric disorders have doubled from 1.16% in 2001 to 2.28% in 2010.


So, what is it actually like to live with post-natal depression, ongoing depression, and how do you find your way out of it?


To start off with, nobody told me about the “baby blues”. I remember laying in my hospital bed and bawling my eyes out and I wasn’t sure why. A midwife overheard my sobs and came in to see if I was ok. When I told her I was feeling extremely down and I wasn’t sure why, she told me it was day 3, right when the baby blues set in and offered to make me a cup of tea.


The baby blues? What the fuck are the baby blues? Why did no one tell me this would happen?


The Western Australian Department of Health cites that roughly 80% of women will feel the baby blues in the first week after birth. Wait, 80%? That’s pretty close to everyone, so why don’t they tell us beforehand? The article further states that the “blues” generally occur between day 3 and 5 and will subside. They’re caused by hormonal changes post-birth and your body saying WHAT THE FUCK is going on?


After day 5, if you’re still feeling ‘blue’ what could it be? Did anyone give me a pamphlet about this? Did anyone let me know that I would go through a grieving period for my old life? That half the time I would be guessing what I’m doing and making choices that may affect the well-being of my child with advice from Dr. Google? Did they tell me about the hickies on my nipples? The fact that I will look at my partners worthless nipples and resent them for it? That your body is no longer your own and you will be being touched at all times? Even if it’s the middle of summer and you don’t have air conditioning? Did they tell me how to wash a reusable nappy? That’s what I’m supposed to be using right? Disposable nappies are bad for the environment… but they’re so convenient… and I’m so tired… DID ANYONE TELL ME ABOUT THE SLEEP DEPRIVATION? Like the actual reality of becoming a walking zombie? Did anyone remind me that I need to regularly check that my child is breathing? Am I being over the top? No, SIDS is real. SIDS is scary. SIDS is always lurking around the corner. Did the midwife tell me that I SHOULD rock my baby to sleep or should I feed them to sleep? Wait, I don’t think I’m supposed to do either of those things.. But if I don’t the baby won’t go to sleep. Am I already creating a bad habit? Oh god I’m so tired. I’m so, so tired… Where is my nipple cream? Do I really need to sterilise the dummy? OMG WE HAVE PEOPLE COMING OVER TOMORROW AND THERE IS SHIT EVERYWHERE…….


I know I am not alone in this being a regular train of though over the first few weeks. It is such a blur; I can barely remember it. I remember setting myself these targets where everyone says things will get “better”. The first month, the first twelve weeks, the first six months, the first year. These feelings will subside, you will find your groove and parenting will just be a part of your life. But then the milestones come, and pass, and you still feel the same. You still feel the weight of the fact that you’re a parent.. and who are you to be a parent? What do you know? The responsibility of an entire person’s existence sits on your shoulders now whether you like it or not. And in my opinion, we aren’t equipped pre-pregnancy to transition into this new part of our lives.


I did the ante-natal classes, the parenting groups, everything that the hospital recommended me to attend. I chatted at pregnant-woman water aerobics, I joined “due date” groups on Facebook. I found friends of friends who were due around the same time as me who I could chat to, but I would rarely get an honest opinion on if I was feeling was “normal”. So many people were focusing on only the positives and so few were discussing the negatives and struggles of first time parents.


For me, after six years, I am not sure that I have found my way out. Although I now have just “depression”, I feel like having a child sparked a new type of depression and guilt that I had never felt before. Not only do you deal with the peaks and troughs of depression, but you also deal with the overwhelming guilt of knowing that you brought a child into the world that you are unable to care for “appropriately” because you’re too busy being pre-occupied with your mental health.


It is the beginning of a vicious cycle where your brain loses its veil of self-preservation and begins a self-destructive pattern as you spiral through self-loathing and self-condemnation while simultaneously trying to maintain the most important relationship in your life, that with your child.


There are days where I have laid in bed, planning what I am going to do with my daughter, knowing full well that the chances of me actually being able to do any of it, is minimal. Why? Because my brain prevents me from believing I am worthy of the unconditional love that a child gives. Who could love someone as messed up as me? How is that beautiful baby girl going to forgive you for all of the days where you have not been able to do what she wants? And even though the rational side of your brain can see the love that your child has for you, it doesn’t mean that it breaks through the wall.


And thus, the cycle begins again.


And this time your brain brings up that time you made a bad joke ten years ago, or that friend you never said sorry to, or that relationship breakdown that you still blame yourself for. It’s irrational. There is nothing you can do to change these things in your past, but your brain forces you to replay them over and over and decide how your life could have gone differently. Perhaps you wouldn’t be in the position you’re in now. Perhaps you would be a ‘normal’ parent. A ‘normal’ person?


But what does a normal parent look like. We have all heard of ‘parent guilt’, it has been a part of the lexicon surrounding parenting in an effort to normalise the feelings we all have… but should we? Should we feel guilty for still having other things going on in our lives other than our child? Is it our duty to protect our children from things that may occur in their lifetime? 1 in 4 adults will experience some form of mental health issue in their lifetime, so would it not be better for them to understand and form empathy?


As my child is now 6, this is an approach my partner and I have chosen to take. I sat down with her and explained that unfortunately my brain works differently to others and that means that sometimes I feel worried and sad for no reason. She asked a couple of questions, like is there anything she can do to help me, (cue more parent guilt), and if every adult feels the same way, and whose brain is the right way to work?


The last question is the one that caught me. Who has created this idea of ‘normal’ that we all strive to?


We can’t ignore the bigger picture of the world. Mental health is on the rise, the environment is dying, we have the most extremism and domestic terrorism going on in the world since World War II, we are more exposed to news and current events than ever before, and in Australia we have a duopoly media model that makes no effort to hide its bias (because it doesn’t have to). It seems surprising that more of us aren’t depressed.


We are confronted with the weight of the world on a daily basis, and it’s not just us, it’s our children as well. Particularly as they get older and start to use social media and consume and understand commentary on the world as it stands.


So, we, as a family, have made the choice to be as open and transparent as possible with my daughter about our mental health. It has made it easier for her to be honest about her mental health too. She has come to us and told us about how she was feeling anxious during the acute COVID period in early 2020. We have been able to give her words to put to her feelings and explain in more detail that she might be having a day where “her brain doesn’t feel like it’s working right”.


It has given her more empathy when I am having a bad day and she understands that her mum might be different to other mums, but it doesn’t mean that I love her any less and the surprising effect has been that it has helped to alleviate some of the guilt that I was feeling about not being a good enough parent. It has brought us together on days where I can’t get out of bed and she will want to come and have a cuddle just to spend some time with me, knowing that that might be the most I can give that day and she is content with that.


I am sure she still feels the same disappointment that I feel that we don’t do more together sometimes, but to her, this is our normal. And as much as I would like to get ‘better’, depression is not an easy fix. It is something I have lived with for ten years and who knows how much longer it will be my dark friend that I carry around, but with the support of those that love me, it definitely makes that burden easier to bear.


So, the point of this article? Let yourself be honest with your kids. They are more resilient than you think, and we can’t shelter them from things that they will come across in their lives. Denying the existence of something doesn’t mean that it goes away. It just means that we aren’t equipping our kids to handle it when they come across it in the future.


Perhaps when my daughter comes across a friend who is fighting the same battle as me, she will be there to lay in bed and give her a cuddle when she needs it most. She will be able to direct her friends to where they can get help. She might be able to discuss her experiences with our mental health without shame or stigma. She, and her generation, might be the start of a societal shift where there is a new normal, that allows us to truly say I AM NOT OK, and that is ok.


Article: Mental disorders in new parents before and after birth: a population-based cohort study


“Always was, Always will be”, Rory is honoured to create art on unceeded Gumbaynggirr country and pays respects to elders past, present and emerging.