Experiences of depression and anxiety before becoming a parent

A number of people had experiences of depression and/or anxiety earlier in their lives before they became parents. Many had experienced a period of recovery, then found that their depression and/or anxiety resurfaced during pregnancy or early parenthood. Not all people with past experiences of depression or anxiety went on to experience antenatal or postnatal depression.

People reflected on how past depression and / or anxiety influenced their emotional experiences during pregnancy or early parenthood. For some, past depression and / or anxiety helped them to more easily recognise whether or not they were experiencing antenatal or postnatal depression (see also Identifying postnatal and antenatal depression and finding help). Others found perinatal depression gave them a greater understanding of past experiences of depression or anxiety (see Understanding antenatal and postnatal depression). A few people talked about their partners and the impact of prior depression and anxiety (their own or their partner’s) on their experiences of pregnancy and early parenthood.

Experiencing distinct periods of depression and / or anxiety in their past helped some people to recognise the ‘warning signs’ of distress during pregnancy or early parenthood. For Maree, suicidal thoughts during her second pregnancy were a ‘big red signal’ that reminded her of how she had felt when she experienced depression in her teens and early 20s. Michelle’s stressful start to parenthood (a difficult labour and birth, breastfeeding problems, and her baby’s reflux and resultant unsettledness) caused her past depression and other traumatic childhood experiences to ‘resurface’.

Michelle had a stressful start to parenthood. She also had a history of depression and self-harming, so when she self-harmed one night when her baby was a few weeks old, she and her husband realized she needed help.

View profile

Other people described having learned to ‘live with’ enduring depression, anxiety or distress, and talked about how they dealt with their experiences. Lara had struggled with preserving ‘good emotional and mental health’ throughout her life, which she thought was related to exposure during childhood to her parents’ marital difficulties, and alcoholism in the family. Recognising she was experiencing ‘persistent low mood’ in early parenthood, she had a range of approaches to help herself, including counselling, meditation, and mindfulness.

Daniel described how he had learnt to ‘operate around’ ongoing depression and anxiety.

View profile

A few people experienced depression and / or anxiety earlier in life, but did not experience antenatal or postnatal depression. Some talked about how their past experiences helped them to realise that, although they were finding early parenthood challenging, they did not perceive this as postnatal depression. Nellie explained about her feelings as a first-time mother: ‘I really reject that I was depressed because I had depression ten years ago and lots of therapy and medication from it. And I think this was really qualitatively a very different experience.’

Kate’s long-term GP helped her to see that her feelings in early parenthood were ‘normal’ and not postnatal depression.

View profile

Experience of postnatal depression had prompted a couple of people to re-evaluate whether or not they had experienced depression or anxiety in their past. After being treated for postnatal depression, Zara, a mother of two, was diagnosed with dysthymia. She felt this was ‘spot on’, explaining that: ‘It’s been great to finally have a diagnosis that I feel explains it all, rather than ad hoc, all these things that I’ve tried over the years, trying to work it out. Now I can focus on what’s proven to work and hopefully it does. So I’m feeling a bit hopeful.’

Melanie thought that she had always had depression but it ‘intensified’ after she had her baby.

View profile

Some people talked about their partner’s previous depression or anxiety and the varying impacts this had on experiences of becoming parents. Others found that their past experience helped them to support their partner. Sila’s wife was concerned that her depression had resurfaced after having their daughter. In treatment for his own depression, and despite feeling stressed himself, Sila supported his wife and encouraged her to see their GP.

Nellie’s partner began ‘self-medicating’ to deal with difficult emotions and memories triggered by her pregnancy.

View profile

Tony’s ex-partner’s ‘history of depression’ affected her ability to cope with their baby’s gastroschisis as well as her own serious health problems soon after their baby’s birth.

View profile

See also our previous project Experiences of Depression and Recovery in Australia.