Pregnant women are supposed to bloom and be full of the joys of life. But what if you feel low, anxious, weepy or depressed during your pregnancy or after birth?
This flip side of pregnancy and birth is still taboo. Though post-natal depression is gradually coming out of the closet, pre-natal depressive bouts go almost unacknowledged, yet 10 % of women suffer from depression at some stage during their pregnancy.
These episodes are part of the body’s natural reaction to the rise and fall of hormones and changing sense of self and role in society. The hormone HCG (the same one which provides a positive pregnancy test) pumps through your body in the first few weeks and is responsible for morning sickness, nausea, exhaustion, as well as tearful, depressive moods. These tend to start somewhere between 5 ½ and 7 ½ weeks and can last up until 9-14 weeks as the production of this hormone tails off and the placenta takes over the job of sustaining the foetus.
Very little attention is given to depressive feelings in week-by-week guides to pregnancy, and though they are less common than nausea, they are not unusual. Depressive episodes are probably more likely to occur in those who have a personal or family history of them, but having said that, those who have no history of them can be affected too as their bodies are in an entirely new situation, and those who have experienced depression may well have no symptoms.
The first time I found myself pregnant it was a bolt from the blue. It was by no means an unwanted pregnancy, but nor was the timing “perfect”. Instead it uprooted all our career plans and put into question our graduate studies. So when I began feeling low and shaky and bursting into tears at the drop of a hat, sobbing my way through a great New Year’s party, I didn’t worry too much. I was in shock, of course I was feeling kind of wobbly. The post natal depression which I was dreading, which my mother had suffered from, never materialised.
Two years later, my second pregnancy was planned and I was beyond ecstatic to see the blue line emerging on the test. So when those same feelings hit me at 6 ½ weeks I was floored. I felt like my body was possessed by a malevolent alien being: it was all I could do to get out of bed for a couple of hours at a time, and most of the time I just got as far as the TV- my normally busy days flew out the window. My mind was dark and brooding. I was weepy and angry. I had no energy, and saw no one except my husband and son. On top of this I felt queasy every waking moment, I dreaded eating . At my lowest I spent a weekend vomiting. It was like PMS plus depression plus jet lag and food poisoning. It is hard to admit I felt like getting rid of myself and my much wanted baby: the feeling of irrational terror, a need to end it all, so familiar from my last pregnancy.
And yet when I looked outside my dark bubble, my life was as perfect as it will ever be. My rational mind knew that I was OK, it was just a massive surge in hormones, and that I wanted this baby, my dark side was telling me if I could just get rid of it, all this would stop. And yet by 8 ½ weeks it had begun to lift. Where a day before it had seemed hopeless, suddenly there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Early pregnancy is not the only time depression might strike. Worry is the work of pregnancy, so expect to feel anxious or nervous at times, either to do with specifics, like the labour or whether you’ll be a good mum, but also generalised worries as well.
The baby blues are extremely common at between 3-7 days after the birth of your baby. Feeling weepy, over-whelmed and uncertain are extremely common, as the body’s hormonal cocktail readjusts massively once more. Your body will still be recovering from the exertion of labour, or with establishing breastfeeding. Sleepless nights and your 24 hour responsibility for another being all take their toll. Do not confuse the baby blues with post natal depression. Around 90 percent of women get the baby blues and they only last a couple of days, on and off, before disappearing as the body re-stabilishes itself. Anything longer-lasting may be post natal depression, though this tends to come on a few weeks after giving birth, up to a year or more after. A traumatic birth or difficulty bonding may exacerbate it. See your doctor as soon as you realise something is amiss.
Finally weaning from breastfeeding whether planned or enforced by circumstance is another time when a large hormonal readjustment happens and feelings of sadness, regret, depression or tearfulness are extremely common for a few days up to a week or so.
If you ever feel you may be a danger to a baby or child leave them in a safe place, preferably get someone to come and take them from you and go to another room to let off steam.
If at any stage you do experience the blues the following suggestions may help.
- Keep close friends and family in the loop so they can keep an eye on you and help to take the pressure off with child care and domestic chores.
- See your doctor, midwife or health visitor- they may suggest counselling or perhaps medication.
- Put off any major decisions or stressful events.
- Try to eat often and heathily – often very difficult in those early weeks. Keep up your fluids.
- Take extra care of yourself: make sure you get as much sleep as you can – sod the housework – you need rest mama!
- Give yourself little boosts – a gift, a bath, a walk in the sun…
- Get outside everyday – fresh air and a change of scene makes all the difference.
- As trite as it sounds try not to worry or feel guilty, neither will help you feel better any quicker. The more you deny your feelings or try to avoid them, the longer they will tend to hang over you. Allow yourself space to feel lousy. Let yourself cry – it is immensely cleansing.
- Writing a diary can be enormously helpful, and really try to express your darkest thoughts rather than repressing them. Once seen in the cold light of day they appear far more manageable and less all-consuming.
- Try writing out 5 things you are grateful for and 5 ways you are being a great mother.
- Give yourself a break – see just how far you have come in the past months – reflect on how many changes your body and sense of self has been through.
- But most of all try to keep the faith and keep what perspective you can. This too will pass. The clouds tend to lift just as fast as they descend, today might just be the day. Love to you, dear mama, know that you are not alone.
Lucy Pearce, founder of The Happy Womb
A version of this article was first published in Modern Mum magazine