WE are all products of our experiences, some good and some not so positive but I believe that everything we go through teaches us something if we pay attention.

As a medical student, I learned the science of disease as well as how to treat and take care of people with medical problems and for some reason, training as a doctor, I thought I was immune to ill health, especially to mental health. So, when I first encountered being on the other side of the consultation table – as a patient – I learned first-hand that all of us have the ability to experience vulnerability and it often happens when you least expect it and, in my case, it was when I first became a mother; what was meant to be the best time ever instead took me into a dark space.

It is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, a topic close to my heart, and I want to dedicate this to any mother who has ever suffered with her mental health or is currently facing a challenging time. Motherhood is beautiful and in the media this is perhaps the most popular narrative we hear. However, motherhood can also be messy, raw and full of uncertainties especially in those first few days and weeks after giving birth. We need to normalise the hard bits of motherhood as well as the good bits.

When most women conceive, it usually comes with emotions of joy and excitement, a time of celebration. The ups and downs of pregnancy are all part of the journey but all preparation from online information to antenatal classes are geared towards presuming that everything will go smoothly during and after the birth. Women are not informed routinely that they might not feel happy after the baby is born. They are not educated about the changes that might take place emotionally and mentally because all focus is on getting the baby out and mum home – a somewhat failure in the system. As a result, women feel isolated, ashamed and guilty when feelings of grief, sadness, overwhelm or anger come up. They resort to hiding how they truly feel for fear of judgement or failure when in actual fact, many new mums can experience these feelings.

Baby blues is used flippantly too often but it is a real phenomenon. Once the baby is born, women go through a flurry of emotions and transitions which coincide with physical changes and it is a lot to handle for any human. On top of this they suddenly have a newborn to tend to, battle the sleep deprivation, feeding issues, uncertainties and possible complications, yet they are expected to smile through it all without being seen to complain. We need to all be aware that new mums especially need a lot of support in the initial weeks and be given as much attention and care as possible. Most women transition out of the baby blues phase, which consists of tearfulness, waves of mixed emotions, sadness, difficulty bonding with their baby and anxiety, within a fortnight. However, one in 10 mums suffer ongoing and severe mental health challenges which can go on for up to a year or longer and this is what we need to get better at spotting and managing because every mother who is suffering from postnatal depression who is missed is a failure for all involved in her life.

In postnatal depression, women can feel disconnected from their baby or family, show a change in personality, appear sad, have trouble sleeping, perhaps even self-neglecting and in severe cases, may have thoughts of self-harm or suicide. Painfully and very heartbreakingly, we have lost too many mums who didn’t get the help they needed. One thing I have learnt is that mothers can also be very good at putting on a good front so as to not appear to others like they are not coping. This is where going back to basic principles comes in handy. When congratulating or visiting a new mum, remember to ask her how she is feeling too.

It can be easy to get carried away with a cute little baby but acknowledging and checking-in on mum gives her a sense of value and identity – virtues that frankly get lost when a new baby is born.

Healthcare professionals play a huge role too. Over this last year as many mums, including myself, birthed unexpectedly during a pandemic, and in varying stages of lockdown, fundamental support was missing.

Mums have undergone collective trauma and it is important for every healthcare professional to have this on their radar, remembering to consciously ask “how are you doing?”. If we can encourage and empower discussions around a mother’s mental health status, more mums would feel comfortable to own up and get help.

Sometimes it is simply a chat with someone that can help ease the mental load, sometimes it could be online support, mummy groups and other times it could be the health visitor or GP who may offer referrals for talking therapies or even mediations. None should come with judgement.

The most important thing is recognising and accepting that it is ok if you are finding things a little rough. It can feel hard at times for new parents and though the focus here is on mums, fathers and partners can experience postnatal depression too.

Parenting is a journey which is not always smooth and that is normal for all. I suffered from postnatal depression and I was in denial for a long time because of the fears I mention above.

When I eventually sought help, my overwhelming feeling was “I wish I had done it sooner”. It is possible to heal, and it is possible to have a bit of a blip because life is full of them but once you come out the other side, the highs following the low points are incredible.