Nat experienced post-natal depression after the birth of her first child, Eric. Despite the experience, Nat and her husband Cameron went on to have a second child, Nathan. Nat comes from a multi-cultural family: she was born to Indonesian parents in Germany and lived her first eight years there. Her family then returned to Indonesia, where she stayed for the next seven years. Nat then moved to Australia when she was 15.
My depression came on quickly, less than three weeks after Eric was born.
I found breastfeeding difficult. Eric and I simply couldn’t get the hang of it. And so I called a breastfeeding hotline for help. I don’t remember what I said, but the lady asked if I was okay. I said no. She told me to go to emergency. My husband, Cameron, immediately took Eric and I to the hospital. Less than 12 hours later I was admitted to a psychiatric unit.
It wasn’t just breastfeeding. I had unreasonable expectations of motherhood. All of the information I came across depicted motherhood as a glossy world where everything was perfect. I thought there was a right way to do everything, and if things weren’t right, if things weren’t perfect, I found it difficult to function. In reality, new motherhood wasn’t perfect, and I felt crushed by guilt. Crushed to the point where I couldn’t cope.
Admission to a psychiatric unit
We sat in the emergency department all day. I have never cried so much in in my life.
Even there, waiting in the emergency room, my expectations got in the way. I thought Eric should be crying, I thought he should feel my distress. And when he didn’t cry, I thought I had failed again, and that we didn’t have a proper mother-child bond. Looking back, I know he was upset – he was unsettled, he hadn’t fed well and he hadn’t slept… But I didn’t understand. I grew even more confused.
The mother-baby units were full, and so the hospital admitted me to the psychiatric unit. If there had been a mother-baby unit they would have kept us together… But there was no choice.
It was bewildering. I was lost. Afraid. A failure. I was separated from my son. Intellectually I knew Eric was safe, but I felt visceral pain being separated from him, even though I knew I wasn’t in a state to look after him.
I had my own room, although there was no lock on the door. I stayed in the unit for about 10 days. Each day I would express, but with no lock on the door staff would walk in at any time. I found the lack of privacy difficult.
And I was medicated. They said it wouldn’t effect my breast milk, but after a few days I decided to use formula while I was on medication.
Everyday was groundhog day.
I started private counselling and attended group therapy. I was relived there was a name for what I was experiencing. I thought that if there was a name there was a treatment. But knowing was difficult too. Post-natal depression comes with stigma.
Early on, the psychiatrist recommended electroconvulsive therapy. I thought it sounded medieval… I didn’t even know they still did that. I knew my rational faculties weren’t working, but I still said no. It felt wrong. I wanted to give the medication a chance to work. It took a while, but once the medication kicked in it was wonderful. When the psychiatrist saw me after that, he said he was glad we hadn’t done the electroshock therapy. I thought that was ridiculous. How many people have it who don’t need it?
Reuniting with my son
From the time I was admitted, Cameron and Eric could come and go as they pleased. But it wasn’t the right place for me to be for my son. It wasn’t right for our family.
Cameron fought the system hard, trying desperately to find us a mother-baby unit. After 10 days he found a room in a different hospital. We moved there, and stayed for three weeks.
The bond between Eric and I improved. But there were bumps along the way.
I brought Eric into my room as soon as I was allowed. He was a noisy sleeper, and I stopped sleeping. A nurse found me trying to sleep with a pillow ever my ears… She thought I was trying to smother myself (no doubt because I had come from a psychiatric unit). When she realised I was trying to block out the noise Eric was making, she offered to take him to the nurses’ station while he slept and bring him back every time he woke. It was a relief. I started to sleep again, and the staggered approach to taking on Eric’s care full time helped me to recover.
Recovery and ongoing management
They let me go home for a day visit on Christmas Day, and I went home permanently in January. When I was there, no one explained the severity of my diagnosis. But when we left, the nurses were surprised we were leaving. They thought I would be there for at least another month.
Still, the Department of Human Services had to check up on us. When I went through the emergency department I told a nurse that I had once pulled Eric off my breast and shaken him when feeding hurt too much. I don’t remember saying this. It meant the Department was part of our home life for three months. It was intrusive. But looking back, I am glad Australia has such a system in place.
I continued to see a psychiatrist and take medication for a year. Returning to work helped. I went back two days a week when Eric was four months old, and slowly increased this. It was good for me, and good for our young family.
I don’t know how Cameron coped. As a family, we are lucky we are so close to his family. Cameron and Eric had a wonderful support network. His parents later told me that after I was admitted he went straight to their home and burst into tears.
My post-natal depression was a shock, to me and to everyone else. No one expected it, or thought it could happen to me. I was clucky, and I had always wanted children. And yet it still happened.
I haven’t decided how I will talk to Eric about it all. I will, when he is older. I know myself better now, and I know how to look after myself. And that means I can look after my family.
Just remember, there is no script to post-natal depression. People don’t talk about it, but it is more common than you think.