Words: Rachel Sharp
She’s a magnetic figure on social media, a popular podcaster, and dynamic mum-on-the-go; the kind of wife-slash-friend who looks like she can spin a dozen plates without wrinkling her chic, breezy linen shirt. That’s what made the devastating postpartum anxiety that rocked social media identity Jayde Couldwell after the birth of her third child even harder for all involved to comprehend.
“When the person in control of the family breaks down, everyone around crumbles – they don’t know what to do or how to help you, because you’ve never been broken before,” recalls Jayde over the phone from her home in Byron Bay. “I have a supportive husband, but to be honest with you, at the start of my postpartum anxiety experience, he wasn’t helpful at all because it was all new. I was dealing with him dealing with me, which was really hard.”
While it’s natural (if not expected) for any new mum – especially a desperately sleep starved one – to feel strung out at times, clinical postpartum anxiety sees feelings of fear and anxiety grow and take over thoughts completely. What follows next is crippling: constant worrying or perfectionist ideas on loop, always feeling on edge, a racing heart, panic attacks, even insomnia (something incomprehensible to other exhausted mums).
According to Australian non-for-profit organisation Centre of Perinatal Excellence (COPE), which is devoted to reducing the impacts of emotional and mental health problems in pre and postnatal women, “many people with postnatal anxiety disorders often describe feeling like they’re ‘going crazy’ or ‘losing their mind’ as racing thoughts keep coming back and causing them to feel the range of physical and emotional symptoms”. Despite the fact experts believe up to one in five women experience either anxiety or depression in the days and months after their precious baby arrives, there’s still much more focus on preparing women for the moment of birth, with little focus on what comes later.
“My experiences are still hard to talk about today because when I think back to myself in such a vulnerable helpless state, it hits my heart,” Jayde admits. “On the flip side, that’s why I share my postpartum journey because I didn’t know what to expect.” Here, she talks to us about why postpartum anxiety needs more airtime, where to find help, and what you can do to help someone who’s hit hard times.
You and podcast co-host Sophie Pearce focus on all facets of pregnancy and motherhood in Beyond the Bump, but episode 112 (“Am I the only one with mum rage?”) featuring expert Yara Heary from Life after Birth Psychology was especially personal. What prompted you to confide with listeners about your own battle with postnatal anxiety?
“Having five children between us, Sophie and I have faced the highs and lows of motherhood, so these types of conversations stem from our own experiences. While post-partum anxiety and ‘mum rage’ should be identified as two separate things, mum rage can be a sign of postpartum anxiety. It took a while for me to understand what I was going through – at first, I put it down to hormones, but after three months of feeling irritated and scared in my own mind, I realised something wasn’t right. It would be so hard for a first-time mother because she has no idea how you’re meant to feel, but I’d had experience with two babies prior, so I knew that it wasn’t a normal way for me to think and be. I wrote something down at that time that really summed up my experience and later posted it to my Instagram account @londonxboston.” [Note: you can read Jayde’s heartbreaking account at the end of this story.]
Once you suspected it was more than just hormones and sleep deprivation triggering your feelings, where did you find help?
“I reached out to my GP, and he did a general anxiety and depression test to gauge where I was at with both. I was a referred to a psychologist and after that came a psychiatrist, medication, and exercise. I read a very simple but helpful book called ‘Living With It’ by Bev Aisbett, which is a reminder that even when you’re overwhelmed with negative thoughts, you’re completely safe and okay. Another great thing I’ve done recently is a tapping technique called EFT (emotion focused therapy). It helps rewire your brain to think differently and has helped relieve my depression and anxiety significantly. People who have PTSD find it extremely helpful. It might not work for everyone, but as someone who suffered for a bloody long time, I feel fortunate to have tried it.”
Is anxiety after birth something expectant parents should pre-empt during pregnancy? And should there be more focus on support for new mums in the months after delivery?
“We focus so much the birth, which is a massive deal, but it’s still just a moment. The bigger focus should be on postpartum care, especially the first four to six weeks after we’ve had the baby. I remember that two days after my third baby arrived, everyone went home, and the help reduced significantly. It was then I realised parents need more help after birth than any other time, especially if they have other children to care for, or the mother has had a C-section or traumatic birth. That’s the time people need to come out of the woodwork and say, ‘I’m here for you and this is what we can do to help’.”
On that note, what’s the best practical advice you could offer new mums, and how can friends and families help someone who’s at risk of anxiety or depression?
“The first thing is consider getting a postpartum doula. We interviewed a lady called Charlotte Squires for the podcast, and when she told me they provide a postpartum service where they come into your home after the birth and take care of you, so all your needs are met, my eyes filled up with tears. They’re like angels. Honestly, why don’t we know more about services like this? If I had that support, I think my mental health would have been in a much better condition to cope and provide for myself and my family. If you look at our Beyond the Bump Facebook page, you’ll find links for great postpartum doula services. Another thing we recommend to people who want to help is organise a food train. Get families and friends who want to help into a coordinated text or WhatsApp group, then take turns doing whatever you can to help. It’s not about coming in to see and hold the baby – it’s about dropping off meals, putting the laundry on, unstack the dishwasher, do whatever you can to help in such a monumental time in that mum’s life.”
In her own words...
Jayde wrote this first-hand account of how postpartum anxiety really feels just a few months after her third child was born. It was first posted to her Instagram @londonxboston in July 2019 and is reshared here with her permission.
A photo can paint a thousand words. Or something? It also hides pretty much everything. I don’t know how to write this but I’m going to give it a go.
Over the past few months, I have been struggling. I go to bed anxious. I wake up anxious. Throughout each day the anxiety peaks and the strong internal walls that I rely on suddenly disappear. I feel scared and confused. I don’t know why. All I know is that I have three kids to look after, and I better not be turning crazy. And then the thoughts roll in. Why are you panicking? What’s triggering it? For someone who was once so in control why are you so out of control? How do you fix it? Whatever it is, fix it.
So, I start exercising, I make sure I try and find time for each child and their needs, my husband, the washing, the cleaning, Instagram. I am cooking the dinner no one wants to eat while trying to help Mia practice her words while I coo and smile at Yumi, so I don’t feel guilty for ignoring her. I need to call my nan, because I miss her. I don’t want to tell my husband I need him when he has just finished a long day at work and needs a shower. I haven’t patted the dogs in days. I hear Yumi crying and the girls screaming at each other and what once never bothered me has now made me go numb. I’m panicking again. I wait until it passes and try fix my state by cleaning because usually, I get satisfaction out of finishing something. But no.
I went to the doctors. I went to a psychologist. I spoke to friends. I reached out to my family. I am doing everything I did before and more why isn’t this working? And then I had one simple conversation with someone I had never met via Instagram that led me here. She said to me: “I think you need to find your new normal, because you’re possibly fighting with your mind to get back to the place you were at before your new bub arrived”.
And there it was. I had a mother-f*cking epiphany. I am driving myself mad because I am trying to do everything that I used to do with two but now I have three. And it’s impossible!
A beautiful, sleeping baby, who is low maintenance still needs a hell of a lot of time and patience, there is now zero alone time. I go to the toilet with the baby strapped to me most days. I have so many rolls I could open my own bakery.
Easy! I just need to find my new normal.
Not so easy. I wrote this before I went even further down the hole of denial. Another week of analysing my own thoughts, and nothing in my mind was positive. I felt like I was on a crashing plane, out of control and no one could save me. I was terrified. Every sound, I panicked, every thought was catastrophic. What is happening to me? I need a getaway! So off I went, but out of my own comfort zone I felt even worse that our girls’ trip was cut short. My friend dropped me out the front of emergency. All I could see was a blur from the never-ending tears streaming down my face. Me: “I need to see a psychiatrist, something is wrong.”
Doctor: “You are not going crazy. You have a combination of post-natal depression, anxiety and a panic disorder and it’s going to take some time to train your mind back to thinking positive again.”
I replied: “My doctor three weeks ago said I had that, but I definitely don’t because I love my kids and my life, so it’s just anxiety.”
Doctor: “Post-natal depression doesn’t mean you don’t love your family.”
So how did I get here?
- 4 truckloads of guilt
- 16 cups of should
- 4 bags of perfectionism
- 12 busloads of criticism
- 20 tonnes of negative thoughts
- 1 football field worth of worrying
- Large pinch of sense of failure
- With a combination of any major life change
Allow this to simmer over time. Add some more negative thoughts plus some stress followed by a topping of physical sensations. And there you have it: an incredible concoction of post-natal depression and anxiety.
I finally accept that I am struggling, and the fog starts to lift slightly. I have only spoken to a handful of people about post-natal depression, and I am blown away by the percentage of people, male and female that have been through it.
I’m sorry we are in a world that focuses on fluff. I f*cking love ‘fluff’ but as much as ‘fluff’ is nice to look at, it also makes us think, subconsciously, that our life must be like that on and off social media. Setting ourselves up to fail. I am still learning that no one with three kids has a clean, tidy house every day. It’s okay to forget the lunch boxes, to have eight piles of washing, to yell at your kids, and cry for no reason or every reason. And most importantly, that it’s okay not to be okay.
I’m doing the best I can in the situation I am in, and I will get back to my usual happy sarcastic self soon. I am not ready to come back to social media permanently just yet as I am really enjoying the break from my phone. I just wanted to share some of my journey because it’s real and sometimes we all need to take our rose-coloured glasses off and pour an ice bucket over ourselves.