Postpartum depression is a life changing diagnosis for a new parent. But many symptoms and experiences of parental burnout don’t get reported or are closely guarded and therefore, slip through the cracks.
Her husband has valiantly taken her two-year-old to the park to have some time out. The baby, still breast-feeding, has remained behind but has other ideas. She has shrieked and arched her back for the entire two protracted hours since the other two departed. Now mum feels nothing but sheer cliffs of exhaustion and when finally, utterly fatigued, her baby falls into a soundless sleep, she can’t get down the stairs fast enough. Tossing her two-hour old, ice-cold cup of tea down the sink, her nerves are shattered. No rest, no break, and her husband is due back with their toddler any minute. Her window of ‘rest’ squandered by the infant, she stares down the coalface of eight more hours before she can sleep. It is in this moment of despair that the voice starts, belligerent and puritanical, informing her that she’s a failure, useless.
A bad mother.
She flees from the voice out to the deck. It’s there she looks up, and sees them. The strong beams that hold up the roof, just missing some rope, which she knows is coiled on the shelf in the garage. Sling it over, make a noose. It would be that easy. And then they’d all be free from the terrible mother who lives with them. The joyless wreck.
Postpartum depression’s cousin
‘Postpartum depression’ (PPD) and ‘anxiety’ are buzzwords and well, they should be. The impacts of a mother struggling with depression or anxiety are far reaching and the impacts can be intergenerational: mothers passing their experiences on to their children. Depressed mothers’ attachment to their babies changes the course of how a baby and mother bond. Not only are spousal relationships deeply altered, but there is often a spillover of the symptoms occurring in other family members. Partners of women suffering PPD have a much higher chance of a similar diagnosis. What should be the most significant time in a new parent’s life is instead bleached of joy and whitewashed with trauma.
There’s another side of the coin called ‘parental burnout’, or ‘parental depletion’. This is the unpopular cousin of postpartum depression and anxiety. Dr. Oscar Serrallach (2017, unp.) is an integrative medical doctor who has addressed the broader health issues related to mothers (particularly those who have children later in life). He claims that these mothers are more likely to struggle “hormonally, nutritionally and emotionally”. Poor energy levels and mood disturbance could point to PPD but they can also be what he calls ‘postnatal depletion’. Serrallach poses that postnatal depletion looks like PPD but the two are in fact different. From a therapeutic perspective he notes that recovery depends upon “holistically addressing and attending to a mother’s biology, psychology and life-purpose”.
Obtaining a diagnosis or label is vital however, because without it, there is no name for what mothers (and their partners) endure, and it desperately needs treatment. This ignored cousin may actually be a precursor to PPD and if detected in parents at the postnatal depletion stage, we may be able to prevent it from escalating further.
Some symptoms of parental burnout
- Feelings of detachment and disconnect towards loved ones or your child
- Feeling like you’re not good enough – others can do this motherhood thing, so why can’t you?
- Hyper vigilance – a sense of not being able to finish the never-ending to-do list
- Yearning to be alone and away from your child or partner
- Experiencing a lack of feeling accomplished
- Living with a sense of pervading apathy or pessimism
Put simply, if you feel, ‘your child is a burden and your reprimand outweighs your nurturing’, you can probably assume you have increased irritability, which can be a key predictor for parental burnout, according to Dr Alan Kazdin, Professor of Psychology at Yale University.
What can you do if you suspect you may have parental burnout?
- Seek support. Support is the antidote. Find a good therapist, talk to friends, family.
- Try to have time out and away from your baby, even short bursts.
- Commit to regular, light exercise – outdoors preferably.
- Find an integrative doctor and have your hormonal levels, a full blood count, and pyrroles checked.
- Don’t fear the negative voice but begin to distance yourself from it. Instead of berating yourself for being a bad mother, say, “I’m noticing I’m feeling like I’m a bad mother.”
- Admit you’re depleted, because guess what? You’re human.
- Be gentle with yourself. You’re not alone. Every parent struggles. Often.
- When you hold your baby, don’t hold your breath. Stress causes us to hold our breath and your baby will read these signals like a master. Exhale, and baby will relax.
The gift of dark moments
If you’re in the midst of this it may sound far reaching, but life can reveal shades of colours deeper and wider than is imaginable. Of course life throws curve balls – grief and loss happens. Who hasn’t lost it with their kids or felt mother guilt? Sometimes we fight with our partners. But these moments can be our greatest gift. They are key indicators that we need a break. Mums aren’t superhuman; there aren’t tribes like there used to be, nor any perfect parenting manual (and frankly, for new parents Google is a quagmire of confusion). Parents need support and lots of it. When we learn to put that puritanical voice back in her box where she belongs, she’ll simply come to understand that she no longer runs the show. You do.
The day will come when your baby will eventually teeter out into the world, and so will you, trailing after your child. You’ll both make your way slowly to the park, marveling at the dew on a leaf or the squeals of delight as baby’s outreached chubby hand feels flowers while gliding past in the pram. You may then realise that by experiencing moments of darkness, the light you see now is that much brighter.
Moglin, L. (2014): Retrieved from http://www.themotherco.com/2014/06/how-to-combat-parenting-burnout/
Sellerach, O (2017): Retrieved from http://oscarserrallach.com
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