I’ll always remember the day my niece was born. The phone rang one morning as I was doing the dishes. It was my little sister Lauren. She said, with no joy, ‘you have a niece’. The baby wasn’t due for about another four weeks. I panicked, firing off random questions, mostly about whether everyone was ok. Lauren said ‘calm down, everything is fine’. But I knew, even then, that everything was not fine.
I’d given birth to the eldest lad 9 months earlier. I remember calling my family, on the biggest high of my life, to tell them of his arrival. It was one of the happiest moments of my life. Lauren didn’t sound happy. She told me about the arrival of her first daughter without emotion or excitement. She was flat, not tired but happy, just flat, almost devoid of emotion.
I was on high alert. My little sister is a planner. The birth had not gone according to plan, none of it was within her control. I knew it was a rough start. Lauren and I live in different states so I was relying on others to tell me how she was coping. I get that it’s exhausting with a new baby, but I felt there was more going on.
My Dad, bless him, was worried too. We talked, often, about what to do. But we were both stuck. He didn’t want to upset her and fracture the relationship between them. My Mum was, I think, in denial. I asked her so many times how Lauren was. I always got a positive answer. Mum was either blissfully unaware or she didn’t want to face reality. I do wonder if mum had postnatal depression when I was a baby and it was not recognised. Dad was too apprehensive to say anything. Mum didn’t think there was a problem.
I was in an awkward position. I hadn’t seen enough of Lauren to really know what was going on. We conversed via text. It’s hard to read the tone of text messages. Plus, the sister relationship is complex. I love Lauren, unconditionally, of course. But sometimes I think she doesn’t let her guard down with me. Perhaps she needs me to know she’s strong and capable. I desperately wanted to urge her to get help. I was holding back though because I didn’t want her to put up more of a barrier.
My Dad and I wondered what Lauren’s husband thought. At the time, our theory was that he was in denial too. Upon reflection, I doubt that was the case. I think he was protecting her, protecting her pride and privacy. Supporting his wife to maintain a brave face to the outside world.
I worried about Lauren. I was frustrated by our parents. I felt powerless to do anything. At the same time, I doubted myself. Perhaps she is fine, what would I know, really? I’m not a doctor, I’ve barely seen her. I was also mad at her doctors. Why weren’t they noticing something wasn’t right? My GP gave me the Edinburgh Scale test to do every time I took the baby to the doctor. Why weren’t her doctors doing the same?
I remember Lauren saying she didn’t expect being a mum to be so hard. She was questioning why people don’t mention the tough parts of parenting. For most parents we feel the highs and lows of life with kids, there’s light and shade in each day. I think Lauren was stuck in the darkness.
One day I got a text message from Lauren. She’d been to her GP and he’d confirmed what she’d long suspected. My little sister had postnatal depression. I felt relief. Relief that she’d get the help she needed. I also felt guilt, guilt that I hadn’t been braver to encourage her to get help. I didn’t want to be the bossy older sister, perhaps I should have been. I’m proud of my little sister for seeking help when she did and beating postnatal depression. I also feel terribly sad that Lauren was robbed of enjoying the first year with her daughter by an illness that was beyond her control.
Support is available
No-one is immune from postnatal depression. It affects people across the community regardless of age, income or geography and the way people are affected is not black and white. The message from the Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Association is that parents speaking positively and honestly with each other can have a powerful effect. Parents realise they’re not alone in their thoughts, feelings and challenges, and can begin to support each other.
If I’ve learnt anything from my sister’s experience with postnatal depression is that it does not discriminate and that support and early intervention can lead to faster recovery. Contacting PANDA is a good step towards recovery. Here is Lauren’s story, in her own words.
November 15-21 is Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Awareness Week. I’d love you to have honest conversations about parenthood to help break the stigma around perinatal mental health. PANDA’s Helpline is 1300 726 306 (Mon-Fri 10am to 5pm EST).