Why not all parents feel joy over their baby

"After the birth of my child, I thought that I would feel so much joy, but instead I'm irritable, worry constantly and feel totally overwhelmed. Is this normal?"

Overwhelmed mum.

As a father, you always feel like you're looking at something you will never quite understand when you see the bond that develops almost instantly between mother and baby. Psychologists have called this "maternal preoccupation" because, of course, something so obvious needed a label.

But what happens when this initial joy, this "preoccupation" doesn't happen?

What most people know as "Post-Natal Depression" is now called "Perinatal Depression and Anxiety" or "PNDA" and captures the fact that, for many, depression and anxiety can happen both pre- and post-birth. (Perinatal means the weeks before and after birth).

It doesn't help that, for most women, being pregnant and the first few weeks after baby has arrived, are an emotional roller coaster.

The "baby blues" are a normal period of exhaustion and low mood that can strike after the initial hormonal surge and physical trauma of birth. Up to 80 per cent of women experience it and for some this can be quite intense. For others, they barely notice it. Either way it passes.

PNDA doesn't pass.

The struggles of early motherhood can also be overlooked or minimized. People think it's normal for mothers to struggle, be exhausted and overwhelmed.

However, I believe that in our culture we ask most mothers to do something very unnatural: In most instances after a couple of weeks of paternity leave their partner returns to work, family and friends excitement fades, and mother and baby are left alone, unsupported to just "cope".

And it's not only others that can find it hard to know what's going on. Often women feel deeply ashamed that they're not coping. Or that they're not as happy as others (or they themselves) think they should be.

But isn't this supposed to be the happiest time of your life?

Estimates vary but up to 15 to 20 per cent of new mothers have experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety. There is little doubt it is under-diagnosed. Fathers also experience depression as new parents, and we know even less about the prevalence rates of paternal depression.

However, we do know that early intervention is vital. We also know some are more at risk than others for developing PNDA. For instance if:

  • You have a history of depression or bipolar disorder
  • Your mother suffered from PNDA
  • The baby has health problems or complications
  • You have difficulty breast feeding
  • You have a medically difficult or traumatic birth
  • You've recently experienced other losses or stressors in your life
  • You have little or no social support from family or others

If you or someone you know is concerned about their mood pre- or post-birth, make sure you talk to your lead maternity career, or your GP. In many centres specialist help is available.

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