a lonely time to be a new mum
When the Victorian Health Department announced a ban on hospital water births, Ms Graham did something she’d never imagined.
At 32 weeks’ pregnant, and booked in at the Royal Women’s Hospital, she became one of a growing number of women opting for a home birth instead.
“It was the last straw,” the 36-year-old Footscray mother-of-two said. “It wasn’t about fear of catching COVID, it was the anxiety around the daily new announcements of what was going to be restricted next. I found it all really overwhelming.”
Royal Women’s Hospital psychiatrist Lia Laios said coronavirus had added complex layers of logistical and emotional stress to women who are expecting or have given birth. She is now treating a growing cohort of anxious, distressed and depressed women.
“Even if women haven’t had any pre-existing obsessive compulsive symptoms, we are certainly seeing more OCD symptoms in pregnancy or in the postnatal period,” Dr Laios said.
“It is a really tough one to manage because on some level there is some normalising about that because we are all expected to be taking extra hygiene precautions. But there are some women where this is becoming quite a lot more entrenched and interfering with their ability to function.”
Obsessive compulsive disorder is a condition characterised by recurring unwanted thoughts, impulses or repetitive acts. For some new mothers, it has manifested in repeatedly washing their babies or their child’s clothing. Others are too afraid to leave home.
“It has been quite striking,” Dr Laios said. “They are quite terrified to leave the house while pregnant. Postnatally, women are also really reluctant ot leave the house, but if they do leave the house there is a lot of excessive washing and stress around that.”
Australia is also expected to suffer a population slowdown as the coronavirus crisis discourages women from having children, leading to a slump in the birth rate expected to drag down the economy.
Jan Ireland, director of private midwifery centre MAMA in Kensington, said phone calls from pregnant women inquiring about home births had tripled this year.
“People who never would have thought about having a homebirth, it hadn’t even entered their consciousness, are now going down that path,” Ms Ireland said.
Concern about putting themselves and their families at risk by attending hospital, bans on water births and visitors and a fear they will be denied the support of their partner during birth are the main drivers of the surge.
But then, there is the grief that comes after birth.
“It’s causing a lot of sadness about the expected fantasy or idea of what motherhood would be like,” Dr Laios said. “There is grief about the loss of expectations about how pregnancy might be because it is a much more disconnected and isolating experience for women.”
Celeste was born in an inflatable pool in the middle of the loungeroom, with the help of two midwives, just before 11am, September 19.
“It was amazing, we were in our home, it felt very safe,” Ms Graham said. “It was just so serene and really beautiful. I picked her up out of the water and was holding her in my arms and thinking ‘oh my goodness I’ve just done this’.”
The last week has been been a blur of sleepless nights and precious moments with Celeste, but there is a lingering sadness.
Ms Graham’s family is interstate and her mother had planned to fly from Sydney to spend the first weeks with her before the borders closed. Her husband Lee Barlow’s family live in the United Kingdom.
Like many of the new generation of lockdown babies, Celeste has been introduced to the world through FaceTime.
“It has slowed everything down in a way, which I guess is what you want when you’ve just given birth,” Ms Graham said. “But there is nobody to come over and sit in the house with you and check you’ve had a cup of tea or a shower. All of that’s gone and we don’t really know when we will be able to see family or anyone again.”
With no physical mothers groups running due to COVID-19 restrictions, Dr Laios said women were having to be even more resourceful. Many were creating their own virtual mothers groups.
“This a really difficult time and pregnancy is probably the most vulnerable period of time for a woman to develop mental illness,” she said. “Add to that a global pandemic. It is so important women are forthcoming about seeking support and that they recognise and know that there other women out there going through the exact same thing.”
Ms Graham’s support network is a WhatsApp chat group she has with mothers she met through her two-year-old daughter Aude. Each day this week, home-cooked meals have been quietly left at her front door.
“The have become my family here because they all live within five kilometres,” she said.
If you need support contact: Perinatal Anxiety and Depression Australia (PANDA): 1300 726 306
Beyondblue (24 hours): 1300 22 4636
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Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.