I didn’t realise I had postnatal depression (PND) until I was talking to a close family friend. My son was a couple weeks old and I was explaining in hushed tones how I felt like I was failing at the most basic things and couldn’t stop crying.
“Do you think you might have postnatal depression?” she asked. “Because I had it too.”
The things I read while I was pregnant alluded to “baby blues” – “you may get a bit weepy”, was all that was said about the rollercoaster of emotion that follows having a child. My own mother mentioned that she found it “really challenging” after giving birth. My auntie rearranged her work schedule so she could visit me daily for the first week after I had my son, bringing hot pepper soup and massaging my aching body with hot towels. “I didn’t want you to feel how I did after my last child,” was all she said in explanation.
I realise now that all of this vague language was alluding to PND. Even after I recognised that I had it, I couldn’t speak about it, turning away visitors without explanation and just shrugging when asked how I was coping by health visitors. I was scared. If you tell someone that sometimes when your baby cries all you can do is lie down next to them and cry too, will they call social services? Will your inability to bond with your baby be a red flag that will live on until your child is in secondary school?
There are so many reasons not to say something, even privately. Which is why when someone like Serena Williams takes to Instagram to admit to the world the struggles she’s facing as a new mother, it should always be commended. She’s contributing to a change in way that motherhood can be spoken about for ordinary, non-famous, women everywhere.
These conversations about maternal mental health are not new. They’ve been taking place in the safe spaces of supportive parenting groups on and offline. But bringing these topics to the forefront is important, as mainstream culture generally sends the message that mothers should be grateful and radiant and focusing on getting back to work, or getting back into shape.
As well as the generic supermum label, black women have the “strong black woman” stereotype that they’ve either internalised or had thrust upon them. Sometimes it feels like these assumptions about what we can endure translate to the physical care that we receive.
It was Serena Williams who once again who opened up a conversation about the worrying state of maternal care for black mothers when she spoke about the life-threatening complications she experienced. Beyoncé Knowles-Carter also followed suit in this September issue of US Vogue, where she spoke for the first time about recovering from her own emergency C-section after her most recent birth. It’s easy to look at this as a symptom of an American healthcare system so broken that it endangers the lives of the rich and famous, but even in the UK, black mothers are four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers.
I, myself, remember being scolded during labour by my midwife for being lazy. I explained to her that I could not physically push any longer – I’d been fully-dilated for an hour and despite all my best efforts, my son had not moved down the birth canal. My pleas were ignored and the nitrous oxide I was using as pain relief withdrawn, until suddenly both mine and my son’s heart rate began to plummet. It was only then that the doctors were called and I was rushed into the operating theatre where my baby was delivered with medical intervention. At the time I felt like my body had failed me, and that feeling may have contributed to my PND, but in the years that have followed I’ve realised that wasn’t the case at all.
It’s easy to feel invisible navigating an experience where some things are still taboo and matters that pertain to our lives and premature deaths are swept under the carpet. I’m now pregnant with my second child, and was dismayed to find out that my previous experience of depression had not even been noted on my record. At another appointment, I made a point of mentioning that I had experienced PND before and was currently in treatment for anxiety – waiting until I saw the midwife write it clearly in my pregnancy notes.
During my first pregnancy I would not have dreamt of doing this, but this time around I’m determined to ensure that from start to finish, I get the care that my unborn baby and I need.
While I could simply attribute this to being older and more experienced, I know that a great deal of this confidence is due to the conversations that we are now having openly about maternal, mental and physical health, and the sub-standard care that black and ethnic minority women in particular receive. This conversation is well overdue, but I’m grateful for the contributions of Williams and Knowles-Carter to this important discussion, because it’s better late than never.
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