One of the cruellest things about suffering from a debilitating mental health issue is that when you’re in the thick of it, it’s hard to recognise the best way through.
Many people react by piling pressure on themselves to “get it together” and go about life as normal: or they even over-achieve in an attempt to convince themselves or others that everything is OK.
It’s exactly this pattern that Paloma Faith describes when looking back at her experience of postnatal depression following the traumatic birth of her daughter, who is now three years old.
Faith, who describes herself as a “very maternal person”, was angry with herself for not living up to her own expectation of how she would experience motherhood.
So when she starting suffering from symptoms of postnatal depression, instead of seeking support, she doubled down on the pressure she put herself under – both as a mother and in the context of her music career.
“I hallucinated and lost touch with what was real and what wasn’t, just disoriented,” Paloma told the Guardian of her experience.
“It lasted for some time, where I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to be the mother I’d envisioned. I put myself under way too much pressure. I was very angry with how my body responded to pregnancy and I think I really punished myself.”
Like many women in her situation, Faith wasn’t fully aware that she was suffering from postnatal depression at the time. She assumed that the fraught emotional state that she found herself in was how she would always be, and so she attempted to push through regardless.
“I just thought that I was never going to be happy again and I made amends with that, and then I just pushed myself and it was punishing,” she said. “I did a whole tour with it, and I was just devastated. I was miserable, I didn’t enjoy it. I toured arenas and I shouldn’t have, or I should have done it differently.”
After subjecting herself to an intense and “self-imposed” routine of baby care and performing, all while struggling with depression, Faith eventually reached breaking point.
She decided that the only way forward was to give up work. But then her partner, the artist Leyman Lahcine, intervened and suggested that, as she was the higher earner, he should be the one to put his career on hold.
“I feel like I’ve never met as strong a man as him, because he goes against what society expects of a man and that’s strength in itself,” Faith said.
The singer said that becoming a mum also changed how her record company viewed her and her potential as an artist.
“I felt very much that there was a huge shift. My record company’s expectations of what my targets were went down,” she said. “[…] I don’t know where that comes from, or who decides that or why, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened after I’d had a baby.”
Faith’s words here are important because they show how motherhood is often radically different and more complex to what we, as a society, believe it to be.
While popular culture builds a picture of pregnancy and babyhood as an unambiguous joyful period in a woman’s life, the reality tends to be a lot more nuanced.
A baby’s arrival signals the arrival of seismic changes – in work, in personal relationships, as a result of the birth experience itself – meaning that motherhood is rarely about pure happiness (even though there may be plenty of moments of love and euphoria along the way).
But – myth that it is – the pressure created by that expectation makes it worse for mums who are struggling: they find it harder to admit, either to themselves or other people, and find support accordingly.
Faith’s experience of postnatal depression, and the way pressure plays into that, will be relatable to many new mothers.
“Therapists who work with postpartum women witness the crushing effects of this pressure,” writes maternal mental health expert Karen Kleiman in Psychology Today. “How do we soothe her? It’s a daunting task to try to offset such far reaching demands put forth by the society in which we live.
“[…] Mothers need to hear that it’s okay follow their good instincts and it’s okay to make mistakes. Then, they need to hear that again, and once again.”
The first step of this journey to self-acceptance starts with seeking help.