That DVD always sends shivers down my spine – they are all just ordinary mothers telling their stories.
Thank you Mardi for inviting me to speak here tonight. It is a real treat to escape the chaos of my family in Sydney for 24 hours …. my private quality time … leaving them to share their quality time with their father … my husband … Vijay Roach … who also happens to be a Sydney obstetrician and the Chairman of the Gidget Foundation.
I had a private embarrassed moment on the way up here on the plane this afternoon this very same husband and the Gidget Patron Lisa Hensley the actor who also does a show on Qantas – conspired and there it was – a love song dedication … our 20th wedding anniversary – at one point it did not look like we would make our 4th.
And thanks to you all for coming along to support Barracks Medical and the Gidget Foundation. I am thrilled that you are all here.
As I am sure most of you here tonight know that The Gidget Foundation was established to raise awareness of postnatal depression after the tragic death of a young mother. It began with Gidget’s friends and family but it has grown to be much more than that. Not only have we developed some wonderful and important networks but we’ve also managed to broaden the message. 10% of pregnant women and 20% of new mothers may well experience a perinatal mood disorder, 10% of fathers will share their misery – but nearly all new parents will struggle at some time. The myth of motherhood created by the media and perpetuated by our society needs exposing.
Mummy is a wonderful rhyming word. The media loves it. Here are some recent contributions: yummy mummy, dummy mummy, slummy mummy, and then there are the ‘mummy wars’ and the ‘childcare debate’.
Motherhood is seen in such pejorative terms.
On the other hand women’s magazines give us – motherhood: beautiful and glamorous and full of lattes and red carpet moments. Perfect pregnant bodies are followed by perfect post pregnant bodies. Angelina, Catherine and ‘our’ Nicole have a lot to answer for – a bit more of Britany might be more helpful.
The most recently published books on motherhood in Australia include these titles:
You Sexy Mother
Fit and Fabulous for life after babies
I can assure you I was not sexy, fit or fabulous … My book title would have been fat frumpy and frazzled by an inadequate mother…
It’s the ‘cult of Perfection’. Secret mothers business has morphed into desperate mothers competition. New mothers are attempting to benchmark themselves against all this perfection – this is not reality. Motherhood can be a relentless treadmill and women need to be resilient. Cracked nipples, vomit and exhaustion are also a part of the wonder of motherhood.
All new mothers experience mood swings and have days which are less than perfect. Think of a bell curve on a continuum. At one end are the irritatingly perfect self actualised mothers and at the other end mothers are struggling. The rest of us are somewhere in between.
We’ve all been to the brink – even if for just a fleeting moment …
– the day the baby never stopped crying until you finally get into the most uncomfortable yoga type position, the baby is silent and you dare not move
– the breastfeeding is ‘natural’ challenge
– seeing 3 hours of sleep as a luxury
– realising that its 4 in the afternoon you’re still in your pyjamas and that there is yet again a dinner situation
– the house that looks like the burglars have been
But what tips some of us over while others manage to hold on, and the majority can keep it all in perspective? When does the exhaustion, the confused and foggy thoughts actually become a problem?
Mother moods and mental illness is complicated. Difficult to diagnose, perinatal mood disorders still carry huge stigma. Once upon a time mental institutions were full of hysterical women. There are health professionals in Sydney today who question its existence – 2088 Syndrome (the postcode of an affluent Sydney suburb), attention seeking disorder, bored housewife syndrome – all ‘professional’ descriptions I’ve heard.
A biological social and psychological model is used to help make sense of perinatal anxiety and depression. But medical models aside, I believe nearly all new parents experience the debilitating condition: perinatal shock often accompanied by mummy meltdown.
Vijay and I lived the perinatal depression experience, Gidget the namesake of our foundation did not survive the perinatal depression experience. It is my life and her death that gives me the passion with which I speak to you this evening.
My life as a mother began with 2 unplanned pregnancies within 11 months. Did I mention my husband was an obstetrician? At the risk of exposing my private adoration of Chris Martin I often think of his viva la vida song – I don’t know what he meant, but to me it is all about how the mighty have fallen … I used to rule the world …
I was the typical high achiever, completely diminished by my experiences. I managed to fail contraception, fail pregnancy (by developing pre-eclampsia), failed natural childbirth, developed a post-traumatic stress disorder, and then I failed breastfeeding. (In fact I’ve managed to fail that bit 5 times leaving a trail of failed lactation consultants in my wake). Not one person, professional or friend, actually asked me how I was feeling, surrounded by all this failure.
My personal story has left a permanent rawness within me although it is nearly 16 years since my chance diagnosis and admission to the psych unit where I spent 4 weeks in a surreal twilight zone. For 2 years we struggled privately through the chaos of mental illness with lots of anger, bitterness and recriminations. Our relationship in shreds. Virtually no-one knew our dark secret.
I had collided with the birth industry with its prescriptive messages and regulations for good pregnant mother behaviour … having spent 32 years taking responsibility for my own decisions I found the constant surveillance very disempowering, the system paternalistic and I developed a resistance to every issue. I wanted the birthing pool, they liked intervention. I sulked and became angry as I started to lose control.
Life is often messy for young couples, in our case it included failed exams, no job, unplanned pregnancy which became high risk, moving house – such common stresses. Yet we didn’t get that we were living with stress. I kept comparing myself to socially acceptable ideals and feeling more and more distressed and isolated with the realization that my life was a train wreck, not the Brady Bunch.
As the weeks at home unfolded I unravelled. I lived a highly functioning double life: I maintained a public image of the well presented coping mother with 2 babies, while in the privacy of my own messy home I decompensated. My feelings scared me. My repetitive thoughts intruded constantly. My days were spent crying, alone, rocking, self -harming. I prayed for a tragedy. Desperate women do desperate things.
I was overwhelmed by constant anxiety, feeling fragile and filled with intense grief and anger. I felt these black feelings would be with me for the rest of my life and contemplated that a short life was therefore the best option.
My thoughts were so disordered that I thought they were normal. I wouldn’t touch my second baby wrapping him so even his hands couldn’t accidently brush my skin. It never occurred to me that this behaviour was slightly extreme.
Good nutrition is so important for new mothers but those carrots just weren’t doing it for me – instead – Cadbury fruit and nut chocolate and diet coke – I think that covered all food groups.
The more unhinged I became, the less understanding was my husband: there was lots of shouting “what have you been doing all day while I’ve been working hard at the office. “ – all I was longing for was a hard day at the office to replace my bizarre days at home.
When I was finally professionally assessed and diagnosed I felt such relief to hear that there was a name for this insanity – at last – validation. I then however suffered the indignity of being discussed like a piece of baggage – spoken of in the 3rd person while I sat there, mute – I was being “dealt with” – admission to a psych unit – problem solved – everyone happy.
My 4 week stay in this unit has left me permanently troubled. The person who had the greatest perverse influence on my life at this time was a psychiatrist who spent fruitless hours with Freud and me. I needed practical help, not psychoanalysis. I was pathologised rather than counselled. We spent surreal sessions where he was a caricature and I was creative. He based his treatment of me on my imaginative stories – I had to think of something to say – there was no oedipal complex or childhood trauma. His parting words demanded that I seek sterilization. How could I not resist this final challenge – I had to prove to him I could have more children – successfully – and I did – 3 more times.
Prof Gordon Parker from the Black Dog Institute in Sydney where I do some work believes that good counselling plays a much more important role than drugs for many women. Anecdotally my story supports his theory – I started to get better once a professional started working with where I was in my life. Many health professionals feel underqualified when dealing with a depressed patient and find comfort in the ability to prescribe a drug – far better for them to offer a referral for counselling.
My recovery journey was excruciating for everyone. It involved antidepressents, long term CBT and a lot of hard work and determination. It involved the help of a normal psychologist – warm, intelligent and patient – my salvation. Eventually I did find myself again, but it was a different self in a different place – like I’d fallen down one hill only to have to struggle up another steeper one.
And of course all the other mothers were managing beautifully! It is only recently that my friends have “shared” the difficulties and distress they also felt during those early years of motherhood – why were we so concerned with keeping up appearances and perpetuating the myth?
Motherhood has wonderful rewards. And here’s the thing – mothers are actually people. We are still women with desires, hopes and ambitions. We are more than simply the life support system of our babies and children. Many women struggle as they adjust to motherhood, often experiencing feelings of grief and loss, as they redefine their role, and renegotiate their identity. The transition to parenthood is a major life change but the complex emotional issues that women in particular have to navigate are rarely discussed. Women also need to develop self awareness, understanding their moods and triggers that can impact their lives. Mothers can feel isolated, criticized and undervalued.
Those dark years took something from us as a couple and as a family that can never be replaced, but somehow we survived. Although we will both always carry a sadness with us I am very aware that we are the lucky ones. I suffer from “survivor’s guilt.”
I love my children intensely and despite their rocky beginning, they do appear at this stage to be reasonably well adjusted, engaged teenagers who are not yet exhibiting dysfunctional antisocial behaviour. I am in fact very proud of the people they are becoming.
Fathers can also feel isolated and overwhelmed. Vijay suffered terribly and was excluded from a lot of the process. Somehow he kept plodding on. Motherhood should be celebrated. Fathers also need support. Couples who are struggling should be treated as a couple.
The Gidget Foundation exists to raise awareness of everything I’ve just said! We are the only charity in Australia with the sole purpose of raising the profile of perinatal mood disorders. Staffed entirely by professional volunteers we are funded entirely through donations. We are currently actively supporting a number of programs including antenatal screening for anxiety and depression at 2 Sydney hospitals. I am a member of numerous committees which provides us with a powerful network. We work with a number of public and private organisations, individuals and services, one of these is PANDA in Victoria.
PANDA has a 25 year history in Victoria and is most well known for its telephone support service. This has recently become a national service, run by trained volunteers, all mothers who have suffered a perinatal mood disorder in the past.
The DVD you saw was a joint PANDA / Gidget Foundation venture, and we are just about to embark on a more comprehensive one. With the support of a number of health professionals we are in the process of producing a DVD that will provide context and understanding of perinatal mood disorders. It will be distributed Australia wide and will be created in 2 formats to assist health professionals and the general community. The money raised tonight will be supporting the creation of this video.
Over the years I have developed my own theory of mothering (I suspect it is secretly shared by many) The chaos Theory. It is grounded in the principle of a “good enough mother”.
This enabled me to eventually leave my depression behind and get on with my life, managing my guilt as best I could. I did not breastfeed, I worked outside the home, all my children spent some time in childcare. At some point they all had tinned baby food, MacDonalds, bribes of chocolate. I am nowhere near a perfect mother but I think I am an OK mother most of the time.
Perinatal mood disorders are real and debilitating – their impact is felt widely. Hormones, chemicals, stress or personality – perhaps there’s an aspect of motherhood that is ‘Hotel California’. I hope not. Mothers who are struggling should not simply be pathologised – they need support and understanding. Mothers are the connectors of our communities: they need to feel good about themselves. Communities need healthy mothers.
A bit of humanity can go a long way in helping new mothers. Think before you speak – new mothers absorb all sorts of information, particularly the judgemental ‘why’ questions – why are you …
But … random acts of kindness – a meal, babysitting, a coffee, a walk , a talk … one of the unexpected but interesting outcomes from the antenatal screening is that the women have expressed how much they have enjoyed speaking to the midwives. As a community we need to start talking. We need to support mothers and celebrate motherhood. And indulge me – we need to remember Chris Martin and his song – Fix You.