Supporting a partner through postnatal depression

I’m honoured to share with you this anonymous blog. A candid story of how Postnatal Depression has an affect on not just the person suffering and how important support for the whole family unit it.

I’m a partner just like your partner. Male or female, I’m the one who hasn’t experienced the kicks to the bladder, the hiccups while you are trying to sleep and the joys of acid reflux. I did however face my own challenges through pregnancy, birth and childhood. I would like to share with you my experience of PND.

Undiagnosed (but undeniable), my wife showed great strength to deal with PND that can hit many people after the birth of a child. She is an amazing mother, constantly trying to beat her depression for the benefit of her children, even if it is an exhausting and ongoing effort. I try my best to support her and would swap places in a heartbeat to give her a rest. By sharing, I hope someone gets reassurance that they are doing all they can to help and that those who work within the system may take a second look at the squeaky clean parents in from of them and ask just one more question about how someone is REALLY doing.

I remember vividly when I had to take my child from my wife as she sat on the floor by the door, sobbing her eyes out. I wanted to give her a break and take our newborn out to the shops so she could get a precious hour. I had spent time trying to convince her that I would be fine, our child would be fine and I would only be a couple of miles away for a short period of time but she was in pieces at the thought of me taking her (our?) child away. Even though I was dad, in her head she was wholly responsible and could not trust me to look after our little one. I had to take our child out of her hands and close the door while she sat their crying. I can’t explain how hard that was, how bad I felt, even if I believed in my mind that she needed to have a break and blaming me a perfectly acceptable situation when she was unable to admit to herself that she needed space. When I came back, she was basically in the same place. Angry at me for doing it and perhaps that nothing went wrong – it is as hard to accept that someone can cope without you as it is to feel you can never have a break.

I think I was most surprised by the speed at which this situation came on. My wife birthed relatively easily, like your mates on Facebook who seem to have a baby during their lunch break. 8 odd hours labour followed by a speedy discharge and we were on our own. We popped to Mothercare the next day to take part in the unwritten ‘I’m out shopping only 24 hours after birthing’ competition. It was the next week or so when the real challenge started to show. A fussy eater, a dedication to breastfeeding and an inability to express meant that I was very limited in my opportunities to help. I would jump to change a nappy, feed my wife and help where I could but she still had the ultimate responsibility for looking after our little one. It took it’s toll and I found it hard to define where new parent stresses turned into mental health struggles.

I had hoped the Health Visitor may have got suspicious but mothers are wonderful at hiding (as good as dads).

The overwhelming thought that your child might be taken away if you show any weakness can often put you on best behaviour when needed.  Baby in good nick? Check. House looks alright? Check, You doing ok? Check. See you next time then. Opportunity gone. I am not sure I could have said anything if the HV had asked me how things were going but I know there are experienced workers out there who know how to probe a bit more and create a safe space for conversation. Sadly this was not the case for us.

Moving on through time, we learned to get by, Surviving not Thriving as the current slogan says. Our relationship suffered as life became ‘child management’ rather than living. Some wonderful moments of joy surrounded by long periods of simply getting through to bedtime. Furthermore, bedtime for me was not bedtime for my wife. I would get up to sooth whenever I could but when feeding was inevitable there was nothing I could do. I ask all fathers / partners to briefly remember that feeling of helplessness, like you have never felt before and consider that even your intention to help is appreciated more than you realise.

Like many, we found ourselves in a position where we were expecting a second. My fears around how we would cope came out as an indifference to the upcoming new addition to the family. My wife had plonked on wonderful rose tinted glasses and remembered everything wonderful about our first while ignoring the real impact on her and us. It was during this pregnancy that we were told ‘if you had depression last time it is likely you will get it again’. No follow up or help, just a comment telling us what would probably happen.  Sadly we lost our little one at 20 weeks of pregnancy. Birthing in a sterile room and looked at in a funny way as we asked for time to sit with our child before they took him away. As usual there was a mix of sympathetic and non sympathetic staff who either supported us or judged us. I will never forget my little one, I held him, I carried his coffin, I buried him and he is always in my heart. We chatted with a staff member at the hospital, who was great, but then that was it. Finished. Move on..

A couple of years later we were expecting again. With the heartbreak of our second child and the challenges of our first, I was again worried about what would happen. I found it extremely hard to connect in the same way with the bump in mums tum as I had with our first. How hard must this have been for her? Living with the legacy of previous experiences, she had a husband who didn’t view HER child as his child for most of her pregnancy. I tried hard to connect but my fears made me stay separated so I could be around if / when things went wrong. The Pregnancy was more challenging but nothing my wife couldn’t cope with. This was the point at which a midwife actually asked how we were feeling, considered our history and made us feel that we had a place to go if we needed help. It was amazing to see someone give my wife reassurance about her ability as a mother and a woman. I am very comfortable with the fact that I can sometimes be too close as her husband to give her the objective support she needs and was so grateful for this persons comments.

The birth itself was quite traumatic, taking a turn late on but happily resulting in a good outcome. Again we found support was minimal. Baby ok? Check. Yoga pants on the right way round? Check. See you next time.  My wife found it harder to connect with our new little one. The added strain of looking after 2, alongside the feeding problems meant the lack of sleep was taking a toll. Luckily we considered bottle feeding this time so I had a chance to help but there was then the challenge of supporting a wife who felt a failure for not breastfeeding.

Our local Childrens centre was amazing. They ran a variety of groups and were always available to chat. I felt ecstatic that my wife could talk openly about how she was feeling to someone independent, sharing issues she was unable to share with me. These places save lives, it is as simple as that.

A few years later we are getting there. She still has periods of depression, guilt and frustration that I know she does not deserve to feel. She is a dedicated mother, certainly to the point that she does herself a disservice as a person. I will do my best to help her and my family but I can only do so much until I collapse. I have been running on fumes for 7 odd years now but ironically it is this responsibility that has probably kept me on this earth today. I have no problems fulfilling this role but I craved some support to help me do it.

To all those reading, please remember that you can get through this. To the guys / partners, speak to someone, offload, shout and swear. You cannot do your job if you are overwhelmed. The behaviour of your partner when unwell can feel targeted and personal and is hard to deal with. Don’t let their cry for help turn into a belief that they are getting at you. To all health professionals, please remember to ask just one more question,  ‘but how are you REALLY doing’

Thank you.

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