There was a sad irony in that last week's NSPCC survey, claiming that two out of five new mothers need help, was published in the same week a mother with a history of PND fatally smothered two of her babies and attempted suicide.
You only have to look at popular internet chat rooms mumsnet or netmums to discover that these figures are arguably downplayed. Becoming a new mother or father, although undoubtedly wonderful, is a life altering experience. Most new mothers experience the early weeks and months in a circular fog of sleeplessness, forgetfulness, and yes - at times - worthlessness. Dads often feel disorientated and "out of synch" too - and just as they're getting used to it they have to return to work. It's hardly surprising to hear that first time mums are especially prone to feelings of anxiety and self doubt... even those lucky enough to get support from partners, friends or relatives. Because everything is "new" and these mums have no experience to compare it to, any "problem" - a cough, a runny nappy, constant crying - is instantly magnified.
Speaking from my own personal experience, even my most seemingly capable NCT friends found motherhood a drain on energy and at times, morale. In fact, in those early post natal meet ups at each other's houses, we used to joke that our biggest "achievement" was just managing to get there! There was so much to cram in - a seemingly constant changing of nappies, eons of time spent breastfeeding, before gathering and then lugging loads of baby paraphenalia around. As for managing to have a shower before our meet ups - that was a bonus rather than a necessity in those early days ( a quick wash had to suffice!).
Although I was lucky enough to have the help and support of my NCT mums, other mums are not so lucky. Many new mothers live miles away from their own families, and for those single mothers without a supportive partner to reply upon those early days must be challenging to say the least. For all these women, including those with husbands at work who are forced to adopt a "single parenting" style, a health visitor is often the only regular daytime adult company these mothers get. Visiting the baby clinic can seem like an ordeal in itself if you are feeling isolated and low - the baby clinics are often incredibly busy, with an "in and out" system of baby weigh-ins and an emphasis on discussing baby related issues such as feeding, sleeping and development. I remember the stressful experience of having to "queue up" to speak to my undoubtedly overstretched health visitor and I am sure I wasn't the only mother who felt conscious of not wanting to "impede" too long on her time. It was at times incredibly chaotic and I am sure any mothers wanting to disclose the fact they were feeling down would have been put off by the total lack of privacy. I remember thinking at the time that the mental health assessment offered to new mothers seemed a bit of a joke. Being so busy, the health visitors allowed us to fill in these surveys ourselves so had time to provide the "right" answers - perhaps if the HCP had the time to ask mothers the questions themselves the answers would have been more truthful!
With a husband at work and having only just moved into the area, the mother who killed her 10-week-old son and 14 month old daughter must have been totally overwhelmed by feelings of bleakness and despair.
More money and resources are urgently required to help families of newborns cope with the stresses and strains of family life. Although brilliant charities such as the NCT and Home-Start already exist and offering valuable support to young families not every young mother (or father) knows about, or has access to this support. If more money was given to charities such as these to extend their reach - perhaps offering every mother (and father too, if needed) access to confidential and impartial "buddy" support - then I think this could vastly help to improve the mental health and wellbeing of every new parent.
Homestart's free information line: 0800 068 63 68 (8am-8pm Monday to Friday and 9am-12pm Saturdays). www.home-start.org.uk
National Childbirth Trust helpline: 0300 330 0700 www.nct.org.uk/
Written by Penny Hosie