When motherhood is far from marvellous
Starting a family is supposed to be an exciting, happy time. But for many women, the feelings are downright debilitating.
Becoming a mom isn’t always a blissful experience. Sometimes, it comes with panic attacks, inexplicable crying and what can feel like insurmountable suffering. Many are familiar with the term postpartum depression, but health care professionals are more partial to the term perinatal depression, which covers mental illness before and after the baby is born. These are the stories of two Montreal moms who struggled with pregnancy and some aspects of motherhood.
Melissa Dominguez (photo at right with her daughter) was diagnosed with depression as a teenager and says she learned to deal with it by working hard to prevent the symptoms from overcoming her. But when she became pregnant with her daughter, now 3, she says it affected absolutely everything in her life.
During the pregnancy, she says she had a hard time dealing with the physical and emotional changes. After the baby was born, her daughter would sometimes cry for 16 hours straight. Dominguez says she resented her daughter to some extent and there were times when she didn’t want to get out of bed or see anyone. Her relationship with her partner suffered. She felt alone. Other moms would give her advice but she felt they had no idea what she was going through. She says she was too stubborn to ask for help.
It turned out her daughter had problems digesting dairy and was having stomach cramps. After that realization, it was easier to put Tatiana to sleep and she became a happier baby, which alleviated some of the stress on mom. Dominguez’s strong-willed daughter frustrates her in different ways now. She says she feels it’s important, when the time comes, that she be honest with her daughter about what her life is like as a mom.
“Everyone wants to be supermom,” she said. “You don’t want people to see your vulnerability or judge you. I think that’s a big thing. And I don’t think people talk about that enough.”
Elana Fogel (photo at right with her two sons) was determined to be prepared when she got pregnant. She kept a journal to document her entire pregnancy and read books on what to expect. But despite her best efforts, once her son arrived, she felt like she didn’t know what to do. “I didn’t understand the 180-degree life change it would be,” she said.
She says she started crying more often, had stomach pains, and didn’t want much to do with her baby. “I would often wake up feeling anxious and would just want to go back to bed,” she said. “But I couldn’t because I had a baby to take care of.”
She was prescribed medication that made her physically sick and took weeks to kick in. Eventually, she started going to a therapist who helped her set daily goals like going to to the grocery store and emptying the dishwasher. This helped her feel like she could accomplish things that weren’t baby related.
But at home, she felt alone, like she wasn’t getting the support she needed. The focus, she felt, was on “fixing” her, not helping her. It was hard for her to ask for help; she was afraid people wouldn’t want to associate with her. “I was embarrassed,” she said. “I didn’t want to talk to my family; I thought I would lose my friends.”
She has since turned to exercise, specifically cycling, which has helped tremendously. After 10 years, she wrote a blog, Wise Women Canada, about her experience.
More focus on moms
Dr. Barbara Hayton is the director of perinatal mental health services at the Jewish General Hospital, where more than 5,000 babies are born every year.
She says that having the “baby blues” is very common among women; these new moms report feeling more emotional and at a more intense level. It normally lasts two to 10 days after the baby is born. But depression is different — it can last weeks to months and even become chronic.
The signs and symptoms are sometimes explained away by the other changes happening in the mother’s life at the time, so they don’t necessarily realize it’s depression until months down the line.
Hayton says she’s met with mothers who told her they were feeling depressed and hoped it wouldn’t turn into postpartum depression after the baby was born, not realizing they were already depressed.
After giving birth, a mom’s interaction with health care professionals usually focuses on the baby, Hayton says. Not all mothers are asked about how they are doing. Those visits — with a CLSC nurse, the pediatrician, obstetrician, gynecologist or even a family doctor — are in some cases the only opportunities for moms to bring up how they’re feeling and ask for help.
And don’t forget about the dads — a recent study out of the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre suggests expectant and new fathers also should be screened for depression. The researchers found about 13 per cent of the expectant fathers they surveyed experienced elevated levels of depressive symptoms during their partner’s pregnancy.
Hayton says resources are often piecemeal and depend on where you live. The services offered at CLSCs aren’t uniform, so some may offer perinatal-depression support, but not all. Hayton said ideally there should be a triage system, where a nurse could meet with and decide what treatment would benefit the patient because not everyone needs to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. Below are some local resources and treatment options:
• Rosa Caporicci facilitates a 12-week support group for people with perinatal depression and offers other services, including help for those who have suffered infant loss. For more information, call 514-266-0531 or visit ndgtherapy.com.
• Montrealer Andrea Borod, who wrote an article for the Huffington Post about her perinatal depression, has set up a Facebook group for women who want to share their experiences, which is called Maternal Mental Wellness: by Moms for Moms.
• Mom and baby groups are a good way to get peer support by talking to other moms about their experiences, which may provide comfort, an outlet and a place where someone else understands what they’re going through. Ask your local CLSC if there are any in your area.
• Therapy can also help but is easiest to obtain through the private sector, which can be expensive. There’s a six- to nine-month waiting list for therapy at the Jewish General Hospital. Consider trying out couples’ therapy, which can help both parents if they’re feeling overwhelmed and generally has a shorter waiting list.
• Medication is available and can be prescribed by a doctor.
Signs and symptoms of perinatal depression
• Depressed mood or depression with anxiety
• Anhedonia, which involves a loss of interest in things that would normally bring pleasure, including the baby
• Changes in weight or appetite, which may involve gaining or losing weight
• Sleep disturbance and fatigue — common symptoms of depression but very difficult to gauge, since both are normal for new mothers
• Physical feelings of being slowed down or restlessness, jumpiness and edginess
• Excessive feelings of guilt or worthlessness, which can be exacerbated by not bonding with the baby, when feelings of extreme joy, and love are expected
• Diminished concentration, inability to think clearly, which can be worsened by sleep deprivation
• Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide. For example, the woman may catch herself thinking that the baby and she are better off dead, or that “the world is such an awful place to bring a new child into that we would be better out of it.”
From the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health
How you can help
•If someone comes to you wanting to talk, don’t try to fix his or her problems, which you likely can’t fully understand. Just let them talk and listen.
• But if you been in a similar situation, speak up. Let them know you understand where they’re coming from because you have gone through it yourself.
• Don’t judge — remember depression is a mental health issue. This person isn’t choosing to feel this way.
• Offer to help — some people may be reluctant to ask. Run errands, bring dinner, babysit for 30 minutes so mom can take a nap, anything that might relieve some of the pressure they feel.
Dr. Hayton recommends her patients read the book This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression by Karen R. Kleiman and Valerie Davis Raskin, which provides a comprehensive look at the illness and contains valuable advice.
Looking for support?
MotherWit Doula Care serves as a weekly peer to peer support group for women suffering from depression or anxiety in pregnancy or postpartum. They provide a place for mothers to make connections, share stories, resources, and create a supportive community together. The support group, led by mothers, takes place every Thursday from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. at 5726 Sherbrooke W, Suite 214. For more information, visit motherwit.ca or contact info@MotherWit.ca.