By Tanya Percy Vasunia
“In my opinion, postnatal depression is a rather rational response to being left alone at home with a newborn baby and a traumatised body.” – Luiza Sauma
Becoming a mother holds great prestige and honour within Indian society. There are numerous prayers and ceremonies held to secure the health of both mother and child. For many women this is a time of great joy and peace. I often wonder if the above is a way of compensating for the labour and the post-birth adjustment period women have to face.
The World Health Organisation conducted a meta-analysis of studies and the prevalence of postnatal depression was at 22 per cent in India. The population of India being a whopping 133.92 crore, of which the estimated number of females are 48 per cent, nearly 22 per cent are estimated to struggle with postnatal depression. This means roughly 140,44,800 women in India have experienced postnatal depression.
“I looked down at Shaan and I just felt nothing. Since giving birth, I felt disconnected from my body, I felt I no longer understood how it worked. But what was worse was I didn’t feel anything for Shaan. My mother-in-law was so supportive, she held him but I began hating her for being able to feel love for Shaan; I was jealous. Things became really bad for me…even Rohan began to lose patience with me…it was then my mother stepped in and that how I got here…so tell me doc, why don’t I love my baby?” – Aarti, age 36
Numerous women experience similar things to what Aarti describes, for some the distress and self-hate is so unbearable that there comes a point where they contemplate the end of life altogether. There is a myth that postnatal depression is triggered by bad marriages, substance abuse prior to pregnancy and family conflict. The above maybe contributing factors in the prognosis of postnatal depression, however, postnatal depression can also develop in the absence of any negative environment factors. Due to extreme hormonal shifts that take place pre and post-delivery, the probability of prolonged chemical imbalance is significant.
The truth is, giving birth is a beautiful coming of age experience but it is also extremely stressful and frightening. There is a shift in priorities, needs and biology among many other aspects. In addition, it is a period of change, a learning phase that is independently taxing and, with a dependent infant, even more so.
“Every time Zara cried, I cried. My mother told me to pull myself together that I should be happy with a healthy baby. I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t. I was scared to tell my husband. I didn’t want him to wonder what sort of a woman he had married. What woman doesn’t care for her child….” – Nisri, age 27
As with any mental health concern, preventive action is the best form of self-care. While the ceremonies, love and prayers are important, we need to start shifting our focus towards awareness. Discussing pregnancy, its risks and both positive and negative effects, is imperative. We need to move away from romanticising the journey and start having more honest and real conversations surrounding it. These steps will not only help soon-to-be mothers have a real understanding about what the future holds but also works on fighting the stigma and the sexism surrounding parenthood. We need to start conversations about how taking care of infant is both the responsibility of a mother and father, which means changing the narrative.
For many women having a child is a defining feature of being a woman, the single most important thing. Popular culture depicts motherhood as a version of glorified sainthood, and depicts labour as this painful experience that is a rite of passage. Perhaps, if we discussed childbirth with more honesty and moved towards making motherhood a non-judgmental journey, women would be more open to coming forward with postnatal depression instead of suffering in silence. Our portrayal of motherhood should move from one of sacrifice to one of empowerment and understanding. Let us not lose sight of the irony that being a mother involves unconditional love but for 22 per cent of our population it can mean unconditional self-loathing and judgment.
(The writer is Psychologist & Lead – Clinical Collaborations, Mpower – The Centre, Mumbai. Views are personal.)