According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 10% of pregnant women and 13% of women who have just given birth experience a mental disorder, primarily depression. In developing countries this is even higher, with 15.6% suffering during pregnancy and 19.8% after child birth. In severe cases, the mothers’ suffering might be so severe that they may even harm themselves or their babies.
Pregnancy and birth is probably the biggest compounded impact a woman experiences on her mental, physical and emotional health in her lifetime. Physically, it takes at least a year to recover from labour, and longer if the labour was traumatic. Mentally, some studies indicate that it may take at least three years to return to pre-pregnancy health. Emotionally, we believe some women never overcome some of the extreme negative emotions that pregnancy and birthing can trigger. They persevere through life in silence, bearing the symptoms that can manifest in a myriad of ways that impact how they think, feels and behave. Depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks and emotional weight gain are just a few of the expressions of the heavy load that some women bear.
Why it's worse for expats
A contributing cause of the silence is that it’s all too easy to put symptoms down to baby blues. Getting through the daily task list of caring for a new baby with sleep deprivation, it’s much too easy to compromise on your own self-care, hoping it is baby blues and will go away, eventually.
Living in the Middle East also brings its own issues. While some people benefit from the close proximity of direct family members, like mums and in-laws, this also puts a great deal of pressure on the new mum, especially when traditional values and expectations contradict modern theories and practices.
For expats, there are many challenges. A lack of awareness and experience of how to get the right support when you’re experiencing private healthcare for the first time can leave you feeling vulnerable and unsupported. The choice in itself is mind-blowing, with services available that meet the needs and expectations of a global culture, offering solutions comparable to many other home countries, not just yours.
Job pressure is much greater here. It’s very likely that the partner needs to travel for work, coupled with the lack of an established local support network, mum ends up feeling isolated and alone. In addition, the short maternity leave and financial pressure means mums often have to return to work much sooner than they are ready to, or face job loss.
Read more: 'Dubai mum's tragic story of prenatal depression'
The more awareness raised, the more women can recognise the symptoms and get help. The first step is to drop the bravery. Parenting is a marathon rather than a sprint. It is critical to take care of yourself first in the short term to enable you to properly care for your family in the long term. It’s too easy for mums to experience guilt when they do this, feeling they are selfish or neglecting their obligations. In any emergency situation, like on an airplane, instructions call for parents to tend to their critical needs putting their oxygen mask on first, before helping others.
Asking and accepting offers of help with both the baby and household chores will give you an opportunity to have a break. Use it to do something for yourself. So many new mums expect themselves to be able to do the same number of tasks as they did before having a baby. Realise that caring for a newborn is in itself a task loaded job. When you are inclined to be self-critical, its’ helpful to make a note of everything you achieve in the day so you can focus on what you do rather than what you haven’t done. Spend a little time to recognise your efforts. Think about what you are naturally good at, and use that as a strength. If you are organised, then create weekly schedules for regular deliveries, outings, chores and activities. If you prefer to go with the flow, then it’s okay to avoid the schedules and play it by ear.
One of the most important things to remember is that thoughts precede emotions and can spiral out of control. The responsibilities of being a mum creates worrisome thoughts which fuels the anxiety. Talking those thoughts out loud will help break the pattern. Talk to your partner, friends, and family. When anxiety gets too much and you feel you want to speak to a professional third party, verbal therapy has been proven to be effective. At Your Change Coach we work with you to address and release lifelong negative emotions that have been triggered by the birth. We use a number of methods including coaching and hypnotherapy to help you develop resources while effectively retraining your mind to think more productively. You will experience an improvement from your very first session.
Also, you can contact a medical clinic that offers well-woman and well-baby services like Health Bay Polyclinic and Cooper Health. There are also private mum and baby services offered by Malaak and Babies and Beyond.
If you answer yes to any of these questions, it’s time to take action.
- Am I putting on a brave face?
- Do I have someone I can confide in with complete honesty?
- To be a good enough mum, am I trying to live up to my own high expectations?
- Do I find it hard to ask for help?
- Do I allow myself time away from the children?
- Am I used to brushing negative emotions aside?
- Do I distract myself with tasks, just to make it through the day?
- Do I neglect my own needs, in favour of my family’s?
- Am I compromising my own health and nutrition?
- Have I been ignoring worrying signals?
Rania Laing is the Founder and Managing Partner of Your Change Coach, private therapy and coaching services. www.yourchangecoach.com