I’ve always wanted to write about a sort of post-natal depression that seems to catch me sometimes, quite unaware, like wincing in pain years after an injury has healed. Firstly, I’m not sure it even qualifies as being post-natal, and indeed it is the label that I think is the problem sometimes. I had a nagging suspicion when my youngest was about two, that I had a kind of post-natal depression, but as I remarked to someone in a similar boat, ‘how post is still post-natal? When do you drop the natal? And does that mean that just having kids is making me depressed?’
My reluctance to write about it is semantic, really, I don’t think it matters. Depression is depression – but the issue of post-natal depression has been highlighted brilliantly in recent years, and there has been so much written about it that is far more useful and more eloquent than anything I can say, but then to not write about it comes from the same fear that drives all of the need to talk about the issue: the fear that talking about it somehow makes you a bad parent.
To be clear – I never had the kind of severe, clinical post-natal depression that is so devastating. Nor did I have the grinding, day-to-day bleakness of ‘proper’ PND. There was never a definite moment of blackness. It’s more a lingering cycle of occasional anxiety and then melancholy that are at odds with my otherwise more laid-back and contented personality. Any decisive action hurts. Any effort to clear the fog is like that dream where you can’t quite run fast enough to catch whatever it is that you are chasing. And then I’m tired and I’m sinking and I can’t stop.
The only reason that I would add the post-natal tag is that it has been since I have had children that it has thickened, and sometimes when I am unnecessarily anxious I stop to think about why, and it’s because there seems to be no end of things to worry about – so many things are out of my control, and the odds are so high. After a few weeks of intensive boring fretting over health issues, potential environmental disasters of the future, educational pitfalls, accidental emotional trauma that will scar their adulthood, I conclude that there is so much scope for concern that I am exhausted, and instead I can’t think clearly about anything.
It doesn’t happen often – life is busy, and I am usually too caught up in the excitement of things to be dragged under, but there are times where it taps me on the shoulder, the edges of things darken a little and I feel it sidling in.
There is little time for introspection in busy family life, and sometimes I think that’s a blessing. At the same time, the lack of time to breathe makes everything feel more intense. It’s perfectly possible to hardly stop and think during those first crazy (and joyful) years of sleep deprivation, teething, endless snotty colds, smiles and first words; and then to suddenly realise a few years later that your life has irrevocably changed, and your sense of self has shifted. Shell-shocked at this new reality, it’s hard, I think, not to wobble at this (often very post-natal) point. As you re-assemble the parts of your old identity that no longer quite fit, maybe it’s pertinent to pause and think. I think I panicked because I’ve always thought of myself as relatively happy and enthusiastic, that was how I defined myself, so this feeling of something other than that undermined my sense of who I am. What, I thought, is the point of me if I am not happy?
I wish, in a way, that we were more flexible with our definition of post-natal depression. I’m so pleased that it’s an easier issue to talk about – and in fact I had very good experiences with health visitors where you were positively encouraged to talk about it – but that was all very early on, and I was fine, and then perhaps less so, but unable to articulate quite what I was feeling. Whatever I was feeling did not fit the criteria on the questionnaire I filled in, six weeks or so after the birth of each of my children. Years later, it seems somewhat irrelevant to mention it, but no less important.
I wanted to write about it because it is hard, despite everything, to talk about depression in any form, and in many ways I think there is a responsibility to be as honest about it as you can, especially when a bit of distance and perspective have made it easier to articulate. It’s easy to see it as a very black and white issue – to see happy parents and unhappy parents, people with PND, people without PND. The reality, of course, is far more subtle.