I didn’t realise I had postnatal depression until I wrote about it. And even then I didn’t accept it fully until other mothers read what I had written and told me, “I had postnatal depression too!”
I’d been diagnosed with depression and anxiety before, and had spoken about it and my experience of therapy openly, but with PND it felt different. The chasm between the expectation of the warm completion of parenthood and the violently overwhelming reality was filled with shame. It wasn’t until I actually felt myself stop wishing for a time machine and some contraception, and began to actually bond with my son that I felt I could comfortably address it. Once I started loving my son like an “ordinary mother”, I felt like I could talk a bit about the time I felt like I could not.
The responses of other parents – mums, in particular – was key to feeling I could open up. We often reference “Mum Wars” to describe the passive aggressive stand offs about baby-led weaning or vaccinations between mums, but rather than thinly veiled disapproval, for the most part I felt empathy from other mothers of all different ages and backgrounds. Some of them were experienced and some were as new and bewildered as I was, but even across the cold digital landscape of Twitter and Facebook their comments and affirmations felt like hugs when I sorely needed them.
There is talk now about finding “your tribe” when it comes to motherhood, but sometimes the desire to find our own clique of like-minded parents who are as “cool” and as “hip” as we hope we still are can be quite snobbish. The common experience of parenting can bind us together – quite strongly, at times – in unexpected ways, and as your time becomes monopolised by your joyful little tyrant, you end up spending a lot of time with people who you would never normally socialise with.
I was reminded of these unexpected connections when a mum from a playgroup we attend invited a group of us around for an impromptu lunch. I became quite conscious of our cultural differences when the lunch she laid out included French cheeses, crackers and cold cuts of meat. For some reason my own grumbling stomach had been dreaming of chicken and rice. Despite our divergent backgrounds, the afternoon passed nicely, as we talked about development milestones in our children and the endless inconveniences of the house-renovation our host was undergoing.
As I made my way home afterwards, I wondered in what other situation would I, a twenty-something, grime-loving, tracksuit-wearing black woman, be sitting down for lunch with a forty-something middle-class white woman, as an equal? “That’s the magic of motherhood!” I said aloud as I pushed my napping son towards the train station.
I must admit that before I became a mother, the parenting community seemed very foreign to me. From my voyeuristic scrolling on Facebook it was filled with in-jokes that I was sure were not really that funny, and cutesy memes and doting conversation that seemed banal and wearisome. I was convinced I wasn’t going to be one of those mothers talking endlessly about her child’s developing personality, or fretting over a missed milestone, but motherhood can break and remake you in strange new ways. Ways that, as patronising as it sounds, only another parent can truly understand.
When international superstar Adele spoke of her experience with postnatal depression in a recent Vanity Fair interview, she mentioned her initial reluctance to talk about how she was feeling with other mothers. When I first became a mother I wondered often and loudly why no one had told me about the PND, or the bleeding nipples, or the far-reaching and all-consuming inadequacy that comes with this period of life. I’ve heard other new mothers do the same.
I have theories about why these conversations appear not to be happening, but whatever the reasons, when one person takes the brave step of breaking the silence, it is often met with patience and understanding. Understanding, because sometimes that’s all you need. Not a solution, or a link to yet another parenting article, but just an empathetic nod and the space to talk.
The first time I had a conversation with Sarah, the mum who invited us around for lunch, my son was doing his best to drown us out by throwing a screaming tantrum at our feet. “You do love them, but sometimes they are just the most wretched little monsters, aren’t they?” I paused to fully appreciate the candid nature of her remark. In any other situation, someone referring to my son as a ‘wretched little monster’ would make me want to flick them sharply in the throat. But in that moment, I could feel myself relax as I let out a weary chuckle, because she understood. She really and truly understood.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.