By Dr Kylee Forrest
It is no secret that bringing home a baby is time if immense love and joy. Yet it also signifies a time of enormous change for each new parent as an individual, as well as for the couple relationship. Thanks to excellent initiatives from Beyond Blue and public health groups, there is now much greater understanding and acknowledgement of postnatal depression and the benefit of seeking help. While this is fantastic, there are other dimensions to becoming a parent that also deserve to be spoken about.
1. I’m just not “me”
Not every new mum experiences PND, in fact most don’t. But what every new mum does undergo a significant transformation of herself. All of a sudden she is not doing the things that she often took for granted, the sorts of things that allowed her to be her. Formal work may suddenly stop, leisure activities and sports cannot be engaged in, the ways she socializes need to be adjusted, even going to the loo in privacy needs to be reconsidered! Beyond that, the woman’s post-birth body continues to experience vast physical and hormonal changes. Some of these changes are temporary, while others may not be regained for months, or years, if ever at all. In his book The Birth of a Mother, psychiatrist Dr Daniel Stern calls attention to the fact that all of these changes often mean that new mums must create a new identity. While some of this is easy to do, other parts tend to take new mums completely by surprise. The more I come across this phenomenon in new mums, the more I wonder why there isn’t more discussion or preparation for what seems to be a very normal event.
What you can do: The more we can raise awareness that the transition to motherhood includes changes to a mum’s identity (in positive and challenging ways), the better-placed new mums will be. If you, or someone you know are on the path to motherhood, try talking with them about how they think they will manage the good and not-so-easy parts of this change
2. Don’t forget Dad!
Even though the hormones and physiological changes aren’t an issue for new dads, the adjustment that men go through on a practical and psychological level is still worthy of some attention. Unfortunately, there is often so much focus on babies, and to a lesser degree on mums at this time that dads are often forgotten about. Up to 1 in 10 new dads experience postnatal depression and many others report heightened anxiety about their new role as protector/provider. There are fewer social supports in place to support new dads and, knowing what their partner has going through during pregnancy and labour, many men feel uncomfortable talking about their own struggles.
What you can do: Partners, friends and family can help to change this by remember to ask a new dad “how are you going amongst all of this change?”
Take the time to listen, to acknowledge the struggles of fatherhood as well as the good times. This will go a long way to changing the pressures felt by new dads.
If you are concerned about a new dad, encourage him to speak with his GP about a referral to a psychologist. More information about postnatal distress in Dads can be found here: https://www.panda.org.au/info-support/how-is-dad-going And don’t forget that June 18 is International Father’s Mental Health Day
3. Three is a crowd
When a new baby steals its parents’ hearts and relies on them for basically everything, it is easy to slip into a pattern where the needs of the couple relationship are entirely neglected. Approximately 70% of couples experience a sharp decline in relationship closeness and happiness when a baby comes along.
What you can do: While some of this is a normal adjustment of sharing attention between 2 to 3, there are simple things that new parents can do to nurture their couple relationship alongside nurturing their baby.
- Don’t forget that you are not just parents! Ensure that you talk about parts of the day that didn’t involve baby.
- Get out of the house. Going for a walk as a family gives benefits to everyone. While the sensory stimulation will be good for your bub, some fresh air and exercise in great for parents too, releasing endorphins that promote positive feelings.
- Simple touch. Don’t forget that hugs, holding hands, or snuggling up on the couch are an effortless way to maintain intimacy even when you are exhausted. Like exercise, physical contact with a loved one releases chemicals in our brains that also promote positive feelings.
- Connect, on and off devices. While mobile phones can be great for new parents to keep in touch during the day, try to make sure that you have some device-free time when you at home together too.
Bringing baby home means big changes for every part of a family, in good and challenging ways. Being aware of these changes in advance will help to make adjusting to these changes as smooth as possible.