What Postnatal Depression Taught Me About Gender Roles.
Recently it was Mother’s Day for many women around the world. A day to celebrate all that mothers do and to reward them for their services. I read so many genuine and beautiful online posts. From children to their mothers and from husbands to their wives, every single post mentioned how hard these women worked and how much they had given up in their devotion to their families. That’s just what we expect from a mother, isn’t it?
Since I have emerged from the worst of my depression and anxiety I feel a constant and profound sense of relief. Small acts mean so much to me. Stepping into the shower, hearing the world through water running over my ears and leaving feeling clean is just totally glorious. Making lunch for my daughters, arranging a play date and talking on the phone are all still huge accomplishments. However, the biggest deal day to day is making it outside the front door of our apartment. I spent so long in the safety of my bedroom and own company that the world still feels tight and uncomfortable, like it doesn’t fit, like I’m wearing it in. In spite of this I feel utterly grateful to be part of it.
After the birth of my second daughter I started to feel low pretty quickly. I was dealing with severe hip and pelvic pain, my daughter wasn’t sleeping so I wasn’t, I was breastfeeding constantly and I wasn’t getting close to the support I needed. I continued to do what I thought I needed to do for around a year before my brain and body shut down completely.
I experienced depression as a complete lack of connection. More than that, I hated connection and anything that forced a connection was immediately overwhelming to me. This leaves you stranded. Estranged from life and all that comes with it. I was stuck in the eye of a storm that saw every feeling, thought and thing I needed to do whirling around me. This chaos left a path of destruction that I felt completely detached from. Although I felt numb a lot I was also overcome with anxiety. The anxiety is what fuelled it all, kept it spinning. There was no solid ground.
Anxiety came to me in many forms. Derealisation, dread, social anxiety. I had physical symptoms like my hands closing up, unable to be opened. Palpitations, chest pain, headaches. Some days the intrusive thoughts alone would prevent me from doing anything. Intrusive thoughts, although common, are not something I hear spoken about often or openly. Quiet moments in my day were eviscerated by powerful images of me falling, breaking my limbs, and bones splintering through skin. Spectacularly vivid thoughts depicting all the ways my children could be hurt. Bashed in heads after I trip carrying them, furniture breaking their little bodies to pieces. A constant barrage of blood and sinew and agony. These thoughts were so graphic that my body would react physically. My muscles would spasm and I’d have to shake my head or pinch my skin to divert my mind’s attention away from this obsession with horrors. So many times I was bombarded with different, vivid scenarios. I could be speaking to anyone and all of a sudden my brain would start cycling through incredibly explicit and upsetting sexual images, obscene words and phrases screaming through my mind. These sort of thoughts stop you in your tracks. Normal life is impossible.
In all its savagery, at first I found the depression sort of liberating. I’d been working so hard, giving so much and I was so entirely spent. When I realised how out of control I was, how little choice I had in how bad I felt, I gave into it a little. I finally had an excuse to be less than completely on it, all I wanted was to rest. I didn’t suspect for a second that I was firmly in the grip of something that was going to tear me to pieces for over a year. I became incapable of looking after my children. I slept all the time and never stopped feeling tired. I stopped seeing family and friends and didn’t leave the house for weeks on end. I just holed up in my bedroom and begged my husband to keep the kids away from me.
My youngest daughter (who had just turned one) found this very distressing. She knew I was there but that she couldn’t see me. I often heard her try to open our bedroom door before my husband pulled her away. I listened to his attempts to distract her and her shrill cries. Now when I think about it my heart breaks, but in the midst of the depression I just wanted her to stop. I would scream ‘shut up’ in my head over and over again. I was endlessly short with my eldest daughter and I became frustrated at her need for my counsel. I solved her every problem with ‘It’ll be fine’ and dismissed her as soon as I could. Depression doesn’t care how hard you worked on your relationships, how much your daughter’s trust means to you or how easily it can all be ruined.
Feeling this way and having children is awful. Their needs, mainly their needing me, made me want to scream and sometimes I did scream. There were many times when I wanted to run away and never deal with them again. I didn’t feel guilty at all, I felt desperate. There were other times when I hated myself and the guilt made me feel sick. Why were other women able to do all of this and more? Why was I so weak and broken? My kids needed me, why couldn’t I pull myself out of this? I wanted to be there for my children as they deserved, but I felt like they deserved so much better than me. I thought perhaps the best thing was for me to leave them. In these moments I imagined suicide most vividly and most pragmatically, and it was the pragmatism that scared me more than anything. One day the pros might just outweigh the cons and then what? It’s really hard to describe the searing grief that having those thoughts brings. I felt brutally hollowed out.
I’d warned my husband how I was feeling many times in the first year postpartum. He acknowledged my feelings and let me talk through them but time kept passing and he made no significant changes. Looking back I can see that was partially because I was very much the driver of change in our life and without my guidance he didn’t know where to begin. Also, I just kept coping. I would explain how close I was to crumbling but I never stopped going. I think perhaps he didn’t take me seriously.
When I got really mentally ill, so many people commented on our situation. A father dealing with a child that won’t sleep is a saint. A mother doing it is a mother. A father talking to his daughter about an upsetting incident at school is a really special guy. A mother doing it is a mother. I felt really resentful of his continued accolades as ‘exceptional’ and I especially resented being told how lucky I was. I knew how much I had been doing and I not once was I told by anyone that I was extraordinary. My husband is amazing and I appreciate him greatly, however there was a stark difference in the attitudes towards his efforts and mine. I was even told on several occasions how demanding I was to expect my husband to do as much as he was. Obviously there was still a huge disparity in the division of labour within our homes and the world seemed to be propping it up with damaging attitudes. In my own experience it was this disparity that directly contributed to me becoming so mentally ill.
Before I hit breaking point, I was flat out. I was sleeping only two or three hours a night (for over a year) as well as breastfeeding on demand. I was looking after the kids plus working as a freelance photographer. I did the bulk of the cooking, the cleaning and anything that needed planned, I planned. I was also carrying the bulk of the emotional burden in our life. I was the cheerleader, the disciplinarian, the shoulder to cry on, the mentor. All of this for the kids and for my husband. He has always been incredibly helpful around our home but admits himself that he fails to see what needs done outside of certain practical chores. My impression during this hectic time was that this is just what women have to do. I looked around me and saw so many women in the same and often more difficult situations. I wondered why I was struggling with what others seemed to manage.
Many women struggle with mental health issues and females are still more likely to suffer from a mental health issue than males. Postnatal depression is a very common. Ten to fifteen in every one hundred women will experience postnatal depression. Only half of them will seek help with 30% of that number not even realising they were suffering from any form of depression and 60% believing their symptoms were not serious enough to warrant any treatment. Females still perform and are expected to perform a disproportionate amount of tasks in the home. The Office For National Statistics analysed data from two studies and found that women are carrying out 60% more unpaid work (cooking, housework, cleaning) than men. These statistics are so damning. We’re putting women in a position where ignoring mental and physical health issues is almost a necessity.
Susan Walzer in a 1996 research paper, decided to dig deeper into the division of labour within the home. It had already been clearly documented that women do more housework around the house than their male counterparts but Walzer was interested in the invisible side of this work. She interviewed couples to get a clearer picture of who was doing the intellectual, mental and emotional work in the home. She discovered that even though men are helping out around the house more than ever, women are still doing the thinking.
‘They do more of the learning and information processing (like researching pediatricians). They do more worrying (like wondering if their child is hitting his developmental milestones). And they do more organizing and delegating (like deciding when the mattress needs to be flipped or what to cook for dinner).’
And thus the trope of the nagging wife is debunked as it emerges that women find themselves perpetually thrust into the role of delegator (nag) in the home. Twenty years on from that research paper and I would say that very little has changed. I think this recent thread is a really great insight into how many women still feel about the divide in labour within the home. There is also some interesting input from men.
This ‘invisible’ workload is what went largely undone when I was ill. Our lives became more chaotic, we never seemed to have food in the house and when we did it was at my behest. Important dates were forgotten, chores slowly piled up, anything friend and family related went out of the window. In fact so many things were forgotten because I was no longer thinking about them.
At the lowest points physical contact was very difficult for me, especially with my children. If they touched me it was as if I could feel the last of my energy flowing from my body and into theirs. My skin would become hyper-sensitised and I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Talking wore me out. Listening wore me out. All of this made my job as ‘chief emotional upkeeper’ almost impossible. My husband is compassionate and has good relationships with both of our daughters but he struggled to be as emotionally open and available as is often required when you are a parent. At 10 years old my eldest daughter felt the sting of my emotional retreat more than anyone.
My husband and I inhabited very different worlds for a long time and we drifted pretty far apart. I battled the intangible while my husband wrestled with the demands of the material. As time passed, I also saw just how much of the emotional upkeep in my marriage I had taken on. I’d long been the initiator, the talker and the fixer but now it was all beyond me and so we barely talked and we definitely didn’t get fixed. Seeing how quickly things kept unravelling put a lot of pressure on me. There was not space in our life to allow me to be ill (never mind recover).
A year on and I’m doing better now. I once again love the feeling of my children close to me. My presence at the park or when reading stories is still a pretty big deal since they still don’t quite trust that I’m back with them. I don’t quite trust it yet either. Experiences with depression leave a mark and I am changed forever by the past year of my life. Our life is also forever changed by how we all experienced my depression but I almost see that as the silver lining in all of this.
We are making positive changes in our life by moving away from the damaging socialisation that allows women to carry so much of the day to day burden. Socialisation that allows men (oftentimes without knowing it) to shirk so many of the daily responsibilities of life. This socialisation begins when we are children and is still deeply ingrained within our societies. Just last week, the current British Prime Minister Theresa May said that there were ‘boy jobs and girl jobs’ within the home.
I’m proud to say that now my daughters will grow seeing their mum and dad both taking active and equal roles in all areas of daily life. They will see their mother practising self compassion and care on a daily basis (rather than just under the weight of collapse) and they’ll see their father supporting that. I also love seeing that my husband feels so much more vital in his role within our family and we all enjoy and appreciate having him more present in our lives emotionally.
Despite having to rebuild entire parts of myself and my life from the ground up, I’m rebuilding with stronger foundations than I’ve ever had. I know myself better than ever. I saw myself and my life broken down, what worked and what didn’t. I know what to keep and what to replace. I feel very guilty a lot and I also have to be a hard-ass when it comes to advocating for my own well being. It’s very easy to slip back into old habits and I often have to remind my husband that we can’t afford to end up where we just were. I also take the time to remind myself as I was deeply complicit in my own breakdown. Coping was king and outside of every other expectation, I expected far too much of myself.
I think this is often the case for women. We only learn how to look after ourselves when our hand is forced. Only realise how much we are carrying when we can no longer carry it.