When a recent study declared that women who had babies after establishing their career were more likely to suffer post-natal depression, I wasn’t surprised.
I was 36 and a successful magazine editor when I had my first son and it was as brutal and shocking as someone pouring a bucket of ice over my head — again and again.
For more than ten years, I’d been a woman in control of my decisions and my life. At work, I had a PA, a schedule and a vision for a product that was mine to mould. I hired, fired, mentored and took annual leave at my own discretion.
Even the odd curveball, like a flaky celebrity failing to turn up for a cover shoot, could be solved with some creative thinking. I rarely became flustered. I loved my job. But for me, motherhood was always on the agenda. I come from a large family and had always been popular with my nieces and nephews. My brother and sisters would tell me I had a flair for soothing a tetchy newborn or entertaining a toddler bent on destruction.
So, no sooner had I found love and cajoled my husband, Colin, also a magazine editor, down the aisle, than we started trying for a family of our own. At 35, I couldn’t afford to wait. Thankfully, it happened quickly — on our honeymoon — and my excitement increased with each swell of my bump.
A smooth, natural birth hoodwinked me into thinking this motherhood malarkey was going to be fine. Then the crying started. I fussed and fidgeted around our son, Eli, feeding, burping, rocking, singing — anything to soothe the constant mewling that fried my nerves. For the first time in my life, I was completely floored. Here was a problem I couldn’t solve, no matter how hard I tried.
After his hour-long commute from Middlesex, Colin would return to our North London home to find me most nights on the sofa, baby hanging off my nipple, our howls mingling. A visit from my mother left her incredulous. ‘But you were always so capable,’ she said. Her disappointment echoed mine. Out on the streets and parks, neat women pushed prams looking serene and satisfied. I’d always assumed I’d be one of them, not a dishevelled mess who spent her days rocking a screaming baby. ‘He’s not a robot,’ my husband would say when Eli was four months and still showing no signs of sleeping. ‘You have to give him time.’ But patience wasn’t a prized quality as an editor, so I struggled with that, too. Having had a successful career, I found it hard to admit to anyone outside family that I was failing so badly as a mother. But with official statistics stating one in ten mothers in the UK suffer from post-natal depression, it’s clear I’m not alone.
In researching this article, I was inundated with similar stories from career women who’d achieved brilliant things in the world of business, management, law and science, yet were poleaxed by the arrival of a squawking newborn. As Silje Marie Haga, research leader of the Norwegian study which highlighted this vulnerability among first-time older mothers, put it: ‘They are used to being in control of their own lives. They have completed a long education and established a career before having children. But you can’t control a baby. On the contrary, you have to be extremely flexible.’
Dieter Wolke, developmental psychologist at the University of Warwick, has his own theory: ‘While career women may not have clinical post-natal depression, where sufferers can’t function or even get up in the morning, they are experiencing a dramatic life change totally different from anything they’ve ever experienced. They’re unused to giving another person their 24-hour attention and don’t realise that babies aren’t like BlackBerrys and can’t just be switched off. Babies aren’t born with a schedule — and this can be a real shock.’
You have to be extremely flexible.
Then there’s the high expectation attached to late motherhood. ‘Post-career motherhood often means months of trying to conceive or fertility treatment. You’ve worked hard to make a baby,’ says Wolke. ‘This can lead to over-preparation and a heightened expectation you’re going to be the perfect mother — which is unrealistic.’
Dawn Barhan, 46, understands this well. A vice-president at Morgan Stanley investment bank, she’d worked hard ever since her first book-keeping job at 17. ‘Each year, I’d strive to do better, rising through the ranks from a lowly purchase ledger clerk to senior administrative manager, doing whatever it took to get promoted,’ she recalls.The hours were long and her BlackBerry was always switched on, but Dawn revelled in the excitement of managing a large London team and travelling to the bank’s offices in New York and Europe.‘I made decisions on a daily basis and never doubted them for one second,’ she says. ‘I was good at what I did and loved it.’
Despite her ambitions, Dawn always wanted children and started trying for a baby at 37, soon after marrying Lou, a painter and decorator she had met while on holiday. The pair settled in Aldershot, Hampshire, but struggled to conceive. Five years and two miscarriages later, they decided to try IVF.
‘While I still enjoyed the buzz of work, it started to feel less important and, at 42, I knew time was running out,’ she says. Luckily, she fell pregnant on her first attempt, and it coincided with redundancy after 14 years in the job.
‘They were tough times, but I was really looking forward to a new chapter in my life and concentrating on the baby,’ she says. But contentment eluded her. ‘I spent my pregnancy panicking and for the first 12 weeks I hardly moved for fear I’d lose her,’ says Dawn.
When she gave birth to her daughter, Amber-Lily, the panic spiralled out of control. ‘It was incredible to see her healthy and in one piece, yet at the same time so frightening,’ she says. ‘I worried about everything — how to feed her, strap her in the car, even cot death. I insisted my husband install a camera at the end of her cot so we could hear and see her. I was always petrified I was doing the wrong thing.
‘Even so, when one day she had a temperature, I failed to take her to hospital until the second day, and it turned out she had gastric flu. The guilt was horrific. It just showed how clueless I was. It was hard to believe I was so good at my job and yet struggling so much as a mother.’
It took six months and a good routine for Dawn to calm down even slightly. Amber-Lily is now three — but Dawn still lacks confidence as a mother. ‘It’s incredible when I think back to my career and how unflinching I was. Now something as simple as teething can throw me,’ she says.
–Daily Mail, London
Dawn’s marriage cracked under the strain 18 months ago, and she is effectively a single mother. ‘I still feel like I don’t know what I’m doing. The only difference is now I’m not afraid to ask for advice,’ she says.
Chartered occupational psychologist Nancy Doyle understands why women such as Dawn struggle with late motherhood. ‘In early adulthood, your mission is to establish your identity,’ she explains. ‘If you have children in your early 20s, you take on the mother role and that’s who you are. Conversely, if your early identity is formed around your career, then it’s much harder to shift gears later in life and be at home looking after the children.’
No one knows this more than Wendy Freeman, 37, from Heywood, Lancashire. A successful property developer, she’d spent her 20s and early 30s living a self-centred life, splashing cash on luxuries such as pampering days, a holiday home and nice cars. ‘For ten years, I bought, did up and sold properties and loved every minute,’ she says. ‘I was single, my own boss and never had to answer to anyone. If I wanted a lie-in, I had one. If I wanted a bath mid-afternoon, I’d have one. On Fridays, I’d go to my holiday home in Wales where I’d throw parties.’
... I’m a mother and a different person now
At 32, Wendy was introduced to her husband, Stephen, an engineer, through friends. The pair married a year later. The partying stopped when she discovered she was pregnant in March 2008, just a month after they started trying. ‘It was great news, but we were both a little shocked when we discovered we were having twins,’ she says.
The boys, Alexander and James, were born by emergency Caesarean at 32 weeks in October 2008 at North Manchester General hospital, spending their first month in incubators. ‘They were quite poorly and it was so difficult not being able to look after them properly myself,’ says Wendy. When they came home, it became even harder. ‘Being premature, they were often ill and crying and I just didn’t know what to do. I was a grown-up and used to dealing with other grown-ups, such as solicitors or estate agents, not babies. I felt helpless, like a child myself. I’d spend my days in tears, desperately trying to soothe and feed them, feeling like a complete failure.’
– Daily Mail London