When a woman goes into spontaneous labour, a hormone called oxytocin is released in her body in huge quantities. Oxytocin (aka ‘the love hormone’) in a labouring woman causes uterine contractions, contributes to natural pain relief and floods her and her baby with intense feelings of bliss, priming them to fall madly in love with each other. Oxytocin is one of the main hormones associated with feelings of pleasure – hugs, kisses, skin-to-skin contact, breastfeeding and sex are some of the notable pleasurable activities that trigger our pituitary gland into oxytocin distribution.
Oxytocin is a shy hormone. It is very sensitive to interruptions; it hides from adrenaline and flees pain. A timid but powerful hormone that needs everything to be just right in order to do its important job effectively.
Is that why I developed postnatal depression? Was my oxytocin flow inhibited by the epidural I thought I needed? Perhaps. I believe the answer is, more likely, a little more complex: yes, but for a hundred additional reasons.
Postnatal depression was, for me, like sinking rapidly into a thick, damp fog that I could not see through in any direction. It was completely unexpected and confronting. Why did I allow myself to wallow in it for so long before I finally admitted I needed help?
Just over four years ago, my husband and I moved to a new city, far from any family or friends. Two weeks later I discovered, to my surprise, that I was pregnant. I suffered through the early months of my pregnancy; loneliness and anxiety exacerbated by all-day morning sickness. Usually a career-focussed employee, I suddenly found myself hurtling toward the realms of not working. Worried about the perceptions of others, I fiercely judged my life direction and questioned my value in society.
Medically, my pregnancy was relatively uneventful. I underwent the standard checks and tests, all with the dutiful emphasis on finding something ‘wrong’. Medical personnel were busy and ambivalent. I was just another pregnant woman. Labour was overall socially and culturally acceptable – hours of contractions followed by an epidural, finally finished with a vacuum-assisted delivery. The baby was out.
My infant daughter was not the baby that the books described. She did not sleep according to the detailed charts or breastfeed according to the various timetables. She abhorred being alone. Instead, she cried. Often. Loudly and insistently. I held her and I cried along with her. What else could I do?
With my husband working long shifts, there were days when I believed that I could not have even five minutes to myself to eat, shower or brush my hair. Slowly, I found myself sinking into a hole.
Well-meaning advisor: “You just need more sleep. Formula will make her sleep better.”
Isolation and loneliness are essential fuels to depression and they were certainly the founding principles of mine. Although I was isolated geographically from family and friends, I was also isolated emotionally from any like-minded maternal community. Lonely in a house with only an unhappy infant for hours and a market of baby-care books that provided useless, empty promises.
Well-meaning advisor: “Just put her in her cot, and leave her to cry for [x] minutes.”
Well-meaning advisor: “Put her on the bottle – there must be something wrong with your milk.”
Well-meaning advisor: “Don’t put her in bed with you. It’s a dangerous, bad habit.”
Do this, do that. Don’t do this, don’t do that. Purchase this Essential Baby Product, along with a plethora of other Essential Baby Products. Adhere to this expert’s book. Watch this specialist preach on morning television. The complicated discipline of caring for my mammalian offspring was, clearly, a science of which I was proving woefully ignorant.
Well-meaning advisor: “If you hold her all the time, you’re creating a problem for yourself.”
Well-meaning advisor: “Feed her at [x] o’clock for [x] minutes and then she will sleep from [x] to [x].”
Well-meaning advisor: “Just put her in day-care and go back to work.”
Leaving her to cry alone felt physically wrong. She liked to breastfeed whenever she wanted. She liked to be held. I did not want to be away from her – I just wanted to feel alright. Why were people telling me that the only way to heal myself was to ignore my baby? I did not need ephemeral baby-care solutions – I just needed nurturance as a Mother.
Hiding the truth began to feel imperative – a cultural necessity. My perception was that having a baby was supposed to be the greatest joy of my life – filled with tenderness, delight and love – somewhat resemblant of a television nappy commercial. Immense social pressure dictated that I should be like all the other Mothers – organised, efficient, groomed and happily wheeling my quiet, contented baby around.
I had brought this on myself. I deserved this. This was my punishment – a life sentence – just for being Me.
One day by about four months, I found myself sitting on the cold bathroom floor tiles, holding a razor in my hand that I had absolutely no idea with what I was going to do. Who had I become? And why? I did not want to die – but I just did not want to exist anymore. There was no way out. What was the reward for this? Suddenly it was all too hard. I was exhausted.
My husband encouraged me to see my GP and implored me to be honest. In tears, I told my doctor that I just couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, that I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. Gently looking me in the eye, he explained that it was not my fault, that I was doing nothing wrong. What a relief! Right there and then, I felt the weight sliding from my shoulders.
After questioning me about my support networks and performing a mental-health plan, he recommended some ongoing counselling, urging me to reach out for support and to stop hiding how I felt. He also prescribed a low-dosage antidepressant – a 20mg SSRI, something not contraindicated with breastfeeding – and supported that weaning was not an option I would consider.
After about two weeks of taking the medication I started to notice a difference. Glimmers of light were appearing at the edges of my thoughts – I just had to try. There was time for me to shower each day, to brush my teeth and my hair. It was okay to smile and laugh because sometimes, things were worth smiling about. Happily, I slept beside my baby and wore her close to me in a sling during the day. I breastfed her whenever she needed.
I discovered my oxytocin.
Questioning what had set me onto this path of self-destruction, I embarked on a journey of emotional validation, reading, talking and soul-searching. I sought like-minded mothers to befriend, trawled online forums and joined a breastfeeding group. Most helpful was finding women with whom I shared a similar set of parenting and life values; finding those other mothers, who like me, struggled with the perception of what our culture implies a successful Mother should embody.
Two more months passed and I began to feel like my pre-pregnancy self again. The relief was immense – I felt that the Fog had lifted. By about eight months post-partum I began weaning myself off the antidepressant medication, determined to continue my hard work to keep the Fog at bay. On the inevitable bad days, I turned to those who would empathise warmly with a hug and offer only words of support.
“Oh, sounds hard. Do you need some company? Keep it up – you’re doing so well.”
Finally, I was feeling competent and confident as a Mother.
THE WAY FORWARD
A few months ago I gave birth to my second child. My son was born by candlelight, in the warmth of my home, at midnight in the depth of winter. At my side was my trusted midwife, my husband and three-year-old daughter. He was roared into the world naturally, confidently and blissfully by me – because I am a Mother.
Have I struggled with mood disorder this time? On and off. Have I sought help? Yes - from those who know what I have been through in the past. They tell me that they love me, and then remind me to take care of myself.
When my GP asked me if I had any family history of mental illness, I laughed and responded “no, but none of them are normal”. In hindsight, it is evident that there is indeed a genetic history of mood disorder, in particular on my maternal line.
Our parents raised us; we are raising our children. Amongst many other things, we are developing the emotional intelligence of our society – the very essence of our intrinsic human capability to live more emotionally-balanced lives. By more reverently, sublimely valuing our mother-baby dyads, we can in turn pass this strength on to our next generation: to our children as they become parents.
So how can we help mothers? Hold them. Hug them. Tell them that we love them. Empower women as mothers – return mothering to its rightful pedestal by valuing, embracing and nurturing the mother and her baby. Encourage mothers to hold their babies and respond to their instincts. Give childbirth back to women – it matters. Remind mothers that they have the toughest, yet most treasured job on the planet. Love them.
Nurture more oxytocin. What a difference it could make.