The ghastly truth about post-natal depression

When Geraldine Bedell had her first baby, the guilt and panic she felt were overwhelming. For some mothers, such feelings can kill

In retrospect, there were good reasons why I suffered from post-natal depression. There were aggravating factors. But at the time, I couldn't even have named what I was feeling, let alone explained it away. I was simply a mother who wasn't coping – which is one of the most shameful states for a woman – and I was in the grip of something enfeebling, something I didn't understand.

I was young to be having my first baby. I was pregnant years before any of my friends, so there was no one to tell me truthfully what it was like to give birth or bring home a tiny infant. I was living in the Middle East, it was July, and the temperature was nudging 42C, with 98 per cent humidity. Added to which, I'd just moved house, and the air conditioning wasn't working properly. My family was thousands of miles away. My father had died recently, and my mother couldn't face the journey.

The birth itself wasn't what I'd been led to expect. At the classes, they'd suggested – or this is what I took away – that if you lit a few candles and played some Mozart, the baby would sort of slither out of its own accord. I had practised the breathing. I was pretty confident I knew how to breathe.

Now I know that the birth was primitive: cruel, even. But then I thought, if doctors and nurses gave you an enema and shaved your pubic hair and put you to bed with your feet up in stirrups, that must make for an easier birth. By the time my daughter was born, I was shaken and disappointed in myself (what was wrong with my breathing?). I couldn't understand why it had been so painful or how I had lost control.

There was no instant bonding. The little bubble of perfection that was meant to enclose us, the mutual adoration – well, I don't know what happened to it. I got the baby home to the stiflingly hot house, put her on the floor in her Moses basket, and sank down on to the sofa, wondering what to do next.

I was paralysed by panic. This baby needed so much looking after that when I wasn't actually feeding or changing a nappy, I was tensely getting ready for the next bout of activity. There was no room to do anything else. I had vaguely imagined that life would carry on as normal, except that I'd have a baby in tow, in a sling, or a basket. But there was no more normal.

This was the mid-Eighties, the height of the demand-feeding boom, when new mothers were told that you had to clamp babies to your breast as soon as they cried. We were quickly locked into a cycle of misery – the baby expected to be comforted by breast-feeding, but she didn't feed properly because she wasn't properly hungry, so she got colicky, so she kept waking up. And I scarcely went to sleep.

As I got more and more anxious about my ability to cope, she (babies being fantastically responsive) got crankier. In the rare moments that she was asleep, I read baby books obsessively to see where I was going wrong, but they portrayed mothers as soft-focus madonnas, cradling adorable infants in effortlessly calm nurseries. There were no images of greasy-haired, hollow-eyed women, still undressed at lunchtime, staring at their babies in confusion and disbelief. They just made me feel more guilty.

This went on for several months. I was unconfident, exhausted, and my heart thumped all the time. I had panic attacks, when I thought (almost hopefully) about being killed by falling aeroplanes, bombs, cars. I knew with absolute certainty that I would have laid down my life for my baby, and, quite often, I wished I might be called on to do it, because it would have been easier than looking after her. I felt fiercely protective towards her, with an emotion that I now recognise as love. But it didn't feel like it at the time. At the time, I had frequent fantasies of flushing her down the toilet. Sometimes they came in hot, restless dreams; sometimes I brought them back, deliberately, when I was awake.

Everything in my life until then had been directed towards taking control, to asserting myself. That was why you went to school: to master things – bits of learning, social situations. That was what you struggled for at work. And suddenly this illusion of autonomy was shattered by a bawling, intractable infant. All I could do was react.

Life was completely out of control. Quite often, I would think about the crime of infanticide, established in 1922 because the police were reluctant to prosecute young mothers for murder, and because if they did, juries wouldn't convict. Infanticide was not the same as murder, because it was understood that new mothers could be suffering from puerperal psychosis. For 12 months, it seemed, women were, in some sense, in danger of harming their babies.

So I do not feel vengeful when I think of Andrea Yates, who has murdered her children. I imagine Andrea Yates wanted to hurt herself because she was ashamed of not being able to cope. To be a bad mother is a terrible thing, and any depressed woman knows she is a bad mother. So she did the most hurtful thing she could imagine. She must be terribly – unimaginably, to must of us – sick.

It has been estimated that 10 babies a year in the UK die at their mother's hands. Perhaps one or two per cent of women suffer from puerperal psychosis, which puts them in danger of harming themselves or their children. I never – I am relieved to say – came anywhere near this. I was one of the estimated 10 to 15 per cent who suffer from post-natal depression (I have no idea how this estimate is arrived at. I never told anyone I was depressed. Women are born to be mothers; it's part of our identity. It's meant to come naturally and it's demeaning if it doesn't).

Post-natal depression is worse, and more prolonged, than the baby blues, and lasts between two and six months. I recovered, in the end, almost overnight. My mother came to stay and told me to stop the mad demand feeding. I nudged my daughter towards a routine, into which she settled with relief. (We would eventually have got there by ourselves, but it probably would have taken another three months.) My baby would have bouts of sleeping, both at night and during the day, which meant that I could get some rest and stop living on my nerves.

That baby has just done her A-levels and is still astonishingly beautiful, intelligent and lovely. I had three more children; it never occurred to me that I might suffer again from post-natal depression and, as it turned out, I never even had an afternoon of baby blues. Perhaps paradoxically, I now think it's important to keep birth as non-interventionist as possible, or at any rate, to find ways for women to stay in control; and I have a lot of faith in babymoons – as many days as possible at home in a bubble of baby-focus, no visitors, no fuss.

Post-natal depression is not at all well understood, but seems to be the consequence of a stew of biochemical, social and psychological factors. As I say, looking at the hormone chaos caused by having a first baby, and the oddity of my situation, and my unpreparedness for it, I find it easy now to understand why I got depressed. In a way, I am not sorry it happened, because it made me understand the suddenness and the blind, helpless terror of mental illness. I am only glad it wasn't worse.

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