The birth of a child is often a time of great joy and celebration but for many new mothers, this can also usher in a confusing period of sadness, helplessness and anxiety. These feelings are considered normal since a new baby does mean a lot of changes to a woman’s body, schedule, expenses and relationships. It also means round-the-clock childcare resulting to sleepless nights, exhaustion and feeling overwhelmed.

For most mums, these feelings soon resolve as they bond with their baby and adjust to motherhood. But what happens if the despair doesn’t lift even after weeks and months? Two mothers experienced postnatal depression and they share their stories to raise awareness about this distressing mental illness.

“Trapped, tired and stressed”

According to SingHealth, 10 to 15 percent of new mothers in Singapore develop postnatal depression. Kris Poh, 37, mum of 2-year-old Enen, and Lilledeshan Bose, 41, mum of Jah, 8, and Kaya, 3, were two of those women affected.

Lille says her second pregnancy wasn’t easy. “A lot of the anxiety was related to my difficult pregnancy. I was older, I did not lose the weight I gained from my first baby five years earlier.” She also had to deal with circumstances that were out of her control.

She adds, “I had gestational hypertension, and I had to get a C-section three weeks early. I had expected to spend more time with my first child before pregnancy since my work allowed me to go on maternity leave four weeks before my due date, but that didn’t happen because I also developed preeclampsia. So it wasn’t an easy pregnancy which I think led to my postpartum depression.”

Kris, meanwhile, describes her pregnancy as normal and that she was “happy and excited.” As soon as Enen was born, however, things became different. Kris says, “There was pressure from my stubborn mother-in-law. The baby had high jaundice which almost caused brain damage. My unreasonable manager had a part to play. Most of the time, I was alone taking care of my baby. My mother-in-law only helped when she liked.”

Kris was overwhelmed and she describes those days feeling “trapped, tired and stressed.”

Feeling of guilt

On top of the new-mum stress, Lille also felt burdened with guilt. “I think I was always a little bit depressed about being a working mom, and always felt terrible about working while my kids were young. However, with my first child I was allowed to work from home three times a week... I don’t remember being overwhelmed with anxiety.

“With my second child, I knew I had to go back to full-time work after four months, and I felt terrible about it. I felt that even though my children had full-time caregivers with them, they would not be safe without me. I’d have crying bouts thinking about going back to work, and was just generally depressed and tired.”

Medical help: More than just “the baby blues”

All new mums feel tired and stressed, so mothers who voice out their feelings are usually brushed off.

Kris accepted she was going through the expected “baby blues” and would not have sought help if it hadn’t been for her doctors.

“The hospital did a survey on my mental condition during one of the post-pregnancy checks,” she says. “They told me that I needed to see a psychiatrist soon. But I just went home without seeing one.” Even though she ignored the medical advice, the hospital insisted she needed help. Kris says, “The hospital got a counsellor to call me to check on my condition every few days.”

Lille was also lucky that her doctor was concerned about her mental wellbeing. She shares, “The good thing was my postpartum doctor’s visits always had mental health questionnaires. Postnatal depression was at the forefront of my doctor’s visit for the first few months after my baby was born. I wasn’t sure if that was just for the hospital I was with or for every OB-GYN, but it was great because my doctor noticed that my answers for the questionnaire was corresponding with ‘needing PPD treatment.’ So she put me on further medical leave, assigned me to a therapist and made sure I had the medical support I needed.”

With a diagnosis, Lille and Kris were able to address their mental health and respond to the therapy and treatments prescribed by their respective doctors. Kris’s family rallied together to support her. Her mum and her brother offered to take care of her and the baby. This galvanized her husband to finally step in between her and her mother in law. Kris says that he tried to make his mum understand her situation more.

Getting to a better place

Even with counseling and support, however, Kris had a hard time recovering. “I was aware that I was diagnosed with postnatal depression, however, I couldn’t help but feel sad at all times.” She’s happy to report she’s in a much better place now with her toddler. “I think I am better now,” she says. “I managed to walk out of it with the help of my counsellor, family and my own determination.”

Lille also had support in and outside the home. “I went to group therapy and one-on-one therapy and talking about my anxiety – plus having two months extra paid leave – was really helpful,” she says. “Going to group therapy was the best because it also put my problems in context. Other people had really challenging problems, and I knew I could get through mine.”

Postnatal depression is a formidable condition that society often dismisses or ignores. Sadly, if undiagnosed and untreated, the consequences may be tragic.

Kris wants more women to speak up about their postnatal experiences so that those who are having a hard time won’t feel alone. “I think it will be good for our society to have an avenue for mothers to speak up on depression. It should be open for discussion and not swept under the carpet.”

Lille agrees and urges new mums to be honest with whatever difficulty they’re going through so they and their families can find a solution. She says, “Don’t disregard your feelings. They are valid, and you will get through it if you acknowledge them and get help.”

Warning signs of postnatal depression

How do you know if the tiredness you feel is more than the “baby blues”? The Mayo Clinic lists several warning signs. Here are some of the obvious manifestations:

  • Intense mood swings like depression, anger, anxiety

  • Constant crying

  • Change in appetite (either you eat too much or you don’t eat at all)

  • Change in sleep patterns (either you don’t sleep or you sleep excessively)

  • No energy or interest in anything

  • Difficulty bonding with your baby

Other signs are more difficult for others to see as they often are thoughts and emotions. If you begin to feel worthless and hopeless, however, or thoughts of harming yourself or your baby occur, please seek help immediately.

How to overcome postnatal depression

Ask for help

The biggest deterrent to asking for help is shame. Many mums experiencing postnatal depression are afraid people might judge them or think they’re ungrateful. Don’t be scared to ask for help. Tell your partner, your parents, your friends, and your obstetrician.

Take breaks from childcare

While it’s important to bond with your baby, self-care is also vital when you’re going through postnatal depression. Ask the grandparents to watch over the baby while you nap or shower. Go on a quick date with your husband. Enjoy a cup of tea with friends. Short breaks from the baby allow you to feel normal and refreshed.

Avoid anything that make you feel worse

Avoid family and friends who refuse to understand your situation. Unfollow Instagram accounts of perfectly happy mums.

Look for peer support

In the age of social media, it’s easy to find Facebook groups that gather fellow mums who are suffering or triumphed over postnatal depression. These are safe spaces for mums and they can be a source of comfort and encouragement.

Exercise and eat a healthy diet

No need to hit the gym for hardcore workouts.

Gentle exercises at home can help you fight depression. Harvard Health reports that regular low-intensity exercises encourage nerve cell growth in the brain, alleviating depression.

A new mum needs to eat healthy meals to recover from pregnancy and childbirth.

A diet rich in antioxidants, complex carbs, B vitamins, and Omega-3 fatty acids also helps relieve depression.

Postnatal depression is a common mental illness.

One in 10 new mums experience this condition, and it is never your fault. Never be ashamed to ask for help if you believe you are suffering from postnatal depression. Consult your doctor for a diagnosis and a treatment plan so you can be on your way to enjoy motherhood. And seek the help and support of your loved ones. You are not alone.