The birth of a child is supposed to be a happy time. The new parents are expected to look tired but elated, and to want to share their joy with friends and relatives, who crowd round offering gifts and advice.
But for many parents it just isn’t like that. Childbirth can bring with it depression, anxiety, and fear about what lies ahead. This is compounded by lack of sleep, and the social pressure to conform to expectations, to appear cheerful however they feel inside. Finally, the unhappiness itself becomes a source of guilt: “What’s wrong with me? Do I not love my child?”
All this creates a perfect storm of negative feelings, which can lead to serious consequences. The first stage of escaping from this cycle is to acknowledge what you’re experiencing, and begin to talk about it.
One Beijing couple who have been on this long and difficult journey are Tim Coghlan and Enoch Li. We spoke to them about the challenges they faced, and how they have met them through therapy and honesty.
“The first few months were horrible,” Li told us frankly of the birth of her first child.
“I did not enjoy being pregnant. I didn’t like breast feeding, but felt that I had to. I tried different methods, but I would physically vomit after pumping.”
As many mothers have found, well-meaning advice from other moms was actually unhelpful. “I interpreted it as pressure when it was meant as support. In the end, I thought ‘If it’s getting in the way of me bonding with my child, then it’s not worth it.’ I stopped after four months.”
For Coghlan too it was a difficult time.
“I was torn between what I thought was best for the baby, and what was best for Enoch. I was not necessarily being supportive. These were complex emotions and a difficult decision.”
A video being shared on social media summed up the issue for Li.
“The video showed a mother kicking a toddler. Of course everyone was condemning her. I’m not usually vocal on social media, but I felt compelled to say something. Because by the time she gets to hurting the child, it must have built up for years. It’s easy to criticize the behavior but when she first needed help there was none. We don’t go beyond the question of how can anyone do such a thing… I was touched that a few people responded agreeing with me.”
The Turning Point
Li and Coghlan were able to find a way through their own crisis because they had previous experience of dealing with depression. When they first came to Beijing, Li was a high-flying executive at an international bank.
“After we arrived I had severe migraines, and took time off work,” she told us. “I thought maybe it was pollution, heat, environmental factors… But the headaches kept coming. I saw every single specialist, I even went to Hong Kong to see a brain specialist.
“In the end my GP said I should see a psychologist. I said I’m 28, I can sort this out, I’m not stressed. I didn’t like the psychologist, did not click with her. I felt I was being pigeonholed into culture shock as an explanation.”
Nothing helped though.
“I was crying on the way to work, and made the driver turn around. It was only when I went to the hospital that there was space for everything to come out. At the end of 2009 I was finally diagnosed with clinical depression.”
The diagnosis was a start, but the road ahead was still long and hard.
“I started taking anti-depressants,” Li said. “I was still in complete denial. I kept asking ‘When do I go back to work?’ I went to see a psychologist every week, and had to promise him not to kill myself.
“Tim was trying to be supportive, saying ‘She’ll be alright in a month,’ and so on. When you’re depressed people say things like ‘It’s a sunny day, let’s go for a walk in the park,’ but all these things are counter-productive.”
The turning point came not in the sunshine, but on a chilly winter’s day.
“He was somehow able to drag me out to Solana,” Li told us, “even though it was freaking cold in the middle of winter. The toilet was by a toy shop, and he saw me smiling at a teddy bear which I thought was smiling at me, so he bought it for me.”
Using the bear gave them a way of externalizing and talking about Li’s depression.
“He said let’s give it a name: Floppie, because it flops around like I did when I was low. He started to say things like ‘Why don’t we take Floppie out to see the snow?’ I engaged on a different level, a level of creativity, and it distracted me from musing on how meaningless my life was! We bought more bears, all different colors, and gave each bear a personality.”
The road to recovery involved some significant life changes.
“I decided to leave the bank. It took a long time to work through; I did a Masters degree, I needed to reinvent myself. My identity was tied up in my career – if I was leaving this career, what does that say about my identity?”
For Coghlan there was more to this question.
“It’s also about why she went into banking, about the pressures of growing up in Hong Kong. I grew up in Australia, and my parents supported me. In Hong Kong, if you get 98 percent, it’s not a ‘good job,’ it’s ‘what happened to the other two points?’ Youth suicides due to pressure are an issue of real concern in Hong Kong. We read an article in a Chinese paper about a woman who said to a kid of about 9 or 10, ‘Even if you die I’m going to burn these exercise books and send teachers down to hell, so you can carry on your education.’”
Recognizing the Mixed Emotions
Li now runs Bearapy, a consultancy that helps companies from multinationals to SMEs and start-ups with change management, understanding employees’ well-being and preventing stress. The ideas which underpin her work come from both her academic studies and her own experience.
“I had suppressed my emotions,” she said. “My vocabulary was, I was happy or not happy. If you fail you’re unhappy, but you get up and go again. People would say, ‘You’ve got a good job, a nice apartment- you don’t have a reason to be unhappy.’
“It’s the mask you put on, only presenting the best side. You look at rainbows and forget storms. The crux of the issue is to say: ‘Can we talk about this instead of pretending everything’s OK?’ Not being able to own up to your emotions means it builds up inside.”
Therapy helped her with opening up, she told us.
“When we first met I wasn’t able to articulate my emotions. Tim’s a gem, he’s able to talk about what he feels. Some sessions he would sit in on, and we did a lot of couple therapy, but I also saw the therapist on my own. We had therapy pre-marriage, post-marriage, pre-baby… A lot of things we traced back to my childhood.
“At first I was embarrassed and ashamed, to have to see a psychologist. Then we thought, now we know what the problem is, we can work on it.”
“If you were an actor in Hollywood,” Coghlan added, “having therapy would mean you’d finally have made it!”
What they have learned through therapy influences the choices they make as parents too.
“I try to do it with my daughter,” Li told us. “When she cries, it’s not ‘stop crying’, it’s ‘I can see you’re crying, what are you upset about?’ When we talk about her day, we put the emotions in: what was frustrating, what was disappointing. She’s turning three in August, and now she’s more vocal, we can see how the work we’ve done is coming out.”
Part of this involves consciously making changes to the way she herself was brought up.
“It’s not easy when I see her in mud. When I was a child everything had to be clean. But we let her be messy, try things on her own.
“My mom had many good intentions,” Li continued, “but the way she brought me up has affected my mindset. Because we’ve been through that experience Tim steps up and says, ‘That’s not the way we want to do it.’ To hold my mom back or the ayi back, takes courage. You’ve got to be self-aware and go up against conflict.”
We asked her what advice she had for parents facing difficulties with depression and anxiety.
“Don’t feel that the emotions, whatever you are feeling, are wrong, there is no right or wrong,” she said. “Recognize that many around us might be feeling the same, and there is no shame in it. Try to identify the feeling and communicate it to your other half. Don’t dismiss each other’s feelings, or brush them off; when your spouse is trying to share their feelings, sit and LISTEN, and ask them why they feel that way. And seek professional help if possible, especially to identify whether it is depression, anxiety, or anything else, because how you cope with it would be different.”
Life is rarely easy, and the challenges of parenthood never end. However, this couple’s story shows that even when things seem darkest, there is always a way back to happiness.
Photo: Tim Coghlan and Enoch Li