I moved to the UK around 9 years ago for education, and recently started my PhD in neuroscience and immunology, looking at how the brain and immune system interact during development. I feel that my interest in this topic is partly due to my experience growing up, and my mother’s experiences of mental health and motherhood.
I come from a high-pressure, nuclear family, with a father working in IT, a stay-at-home Mom for most of my childhood, and an older brother. I have always felt that all of us experienced some mental health difficulties without knowing what they were, and without much support because mental health problems are largely ignored and not considered ‘real problems’ in our Eastern European culture. Growing up in this environment led to my interest in mental health, with the hopes of processing what happened in my childhood, understanding family dynamics, and finding a way to move on to healthier interactions.
During my childhood I noticed my Mom went through periods of depression, struggling to cope with her family relations, my father’s family, and our own family unit, which was difficult for all of us, as she has always been the person that made our family feel cohesive.
I have always been interested in my mother’s experiences of raising us children, as it seemed like her relationship with my brother was quite negative from the start. Growing up, I remember my brother’s outbursts of anger most vividly. When he was angry, he would become aggressive and struggle to regulate his emotions. Though his anger has subsided, he still has issues understanding how to cope with strong emotions and this greatly affects his relationship with our parents.
I would frequently ask about our mother’s experiences of mental health and motherhood. Initially, I was convinced that she had suffered from postpartum depression, which is experienced by around 1 in 10 women in the months following birth, and is characterised by the presence of low moods, being very tired, having issues with sleeping, feeling tearful, and having problems concentrating. This may have been the catalyst for the negative interactions with my brother early on.
My mother mentioned that she felt powerless when my brother was born, and very scared. She had very little support as her family was away and my father was not allowed in the birthing room, as was customary at the time. Once born, my brother was constantly crying and my Mom found it difficult to transition to motherhood. She remembers not feeling like herself, struggling to take care of herself, struggling with sleep, being more aggressive, and irritable, and having quite severe problems with her memory in the months after birth. All of these symptoms seemed to align well with what I had learned about postpartum depression.
However, when I asked about her mental health and how she was feeling at the time, she did not refer to feelings of depression, but more so ‘being overwhelmed’. When asked if she had ever been depressed, she said that she had felt sad in the past but did not even think she experienced mental health issues. She did mention that after a bad break-up in her early 20s, she developed some physical health issues. The break-up was so difficult that she moved back in with her parents and missed out on her university exams, but she still did not think that she was depressed. Other people would likely accept these episodes as having mental health difficulties; however, she did not describe her experiences as more of a ‘struggle’ or being ‘overwhelmed’.
This type of mentality is very common in Eastern Europe; however, this was the first time I noticed it so obviously in my mother. Although it seemed as though she had a history of mental health struggles and found motherhood very overwhelming, it is very difficult to say whether she did or did not experience postpartum depression. As mental health was and still is a difficult topic of discussion, and much more focus is put on the physical health of children than anything else, she did not receive any diagnosis or support. She did not seek out these things either. She was very certain that she was going to do it all by herself as if accepting help was a failure on her part.
Things became harder for her when I was born, a year and a half after my brother. She struggled even more. She felt alone and trapped, at times running out the door to escape what she perceived as a cage, as soon as my father came back home from work. When I asked whether motherhood ever felt natural to her, she replied that it never did. It never became more intuitive, and she always struggled with being a mother, which was hard to hear.
For me, understanding my mother’s mindset about mental health has been very helpful but it is still difficult to understand what she actually went through. It is impossible to untangle the effects of societal ignorance of mental health in Eastern Europe, the lack of support for new mothers, the lack of psychologists or the opportunity to receive a mental health diagnosis, my mother’s refusal to seek support, and how all of these factors affected her relationship with motherhood and my brother.
However, talking to her made me realise that mental health awareness and postnatal care for mother and child needs a dynamic reform, with significant emphasis on emotional support and regulation. This would hugely improve the mental health of new mothers, enable healthy emotional development and bonding in their children for future generations, and ultimately prevent negative relationships between parents and children from forming.