Dr Nicole Highet is mum to Anna, 9, and Joe, 7, and is the founder and executive director of COPE - Centre of Perinatal Excellence. Here she discusses her passion for the organisation that works tirelessly to support parents through the often challenging journey of parenthood.
What did you do before you became a mother?
Before I was a mum I was totally into my work which I always loved. I am a Doctor of Psychology specialising in pre and postnatal depression and I was the Deputy CEO of beyondblue where I was for 13 years - since the organisation first began.
Here I managed a range of portfolios - my favourite being in the area of antenatal and postnatal depression and in particular I loved talking to women and their partners about their experiences, their needs and how to help them to cope in what can be a difficult stage in life.
Tell us about COPE. What does COPE do and how did it come to be?
One of the things I became acutely aware of through my work was the high expectations that often come with parenthood. In part, this is because our only reference point is often the media and images we see on TV.
But also, there is often a code of silence where women and sometimes men are reluctant to talk about the challenges that come with parenthood - for fear that they may be seen as not coping, a failure or judged as being a bad mother. As a result, the stigma around mental health at this time of life is quite unique.
I also learned that parents often view challenges that they may be facing in the context of adjusting to pregnancy or having a baby. For example, signs of depression and anxiety are often attributed to hormones, lack of sleep etc - and not viewed in the context of emotional or mental health - as a result symptoms are often ignored and most women (74%) reach the point that they can on longer cope before seeking help.
There is also the fear that if you disclose that you may be struggling, that you may be judged as a not a natural mother - or worse still, people often think that if you say you have PND that this means that you want to harm your baby - which is not the case. This stigma prevents people from speaking up and seeking help early.
The denial and shame around postnatal depression specifically also means that women don't want to go to to a 'mental health' website - as to do this they need to be at a point of realisation and acceptance. This is why I established COPE. COPE is all about providing information to women, men and health professionals about the realities of parenthood, how to stay well and manage stress and the challenges that come with the transition to pregnancy and having a baby.
We also help women and men to identify when they are not coping, what may be going on and where and how to access high quality information and treatment. Our work is about empowering individuals and couples with information and insight to help them navigate the challenges that come with parenthood and support others who may be having a tougher ride.
How do you juggle motherhood with the demands of running COPE?
I am so passionate about COPE - my children make jokes that I am always thinking about COPE (and why wouldn't I to spare from another episode of some kids TV program).
Like all mums you do what you can with what you have. We make time to do stuff together and be a family and then I have time for COPE - which is my work and my hobby as I am so passionate about it.
Was motherhood what you expected it would be and how did you find the transition to motherhood?
Motherhood was pretty much what I expected - but then I think I did have it incredibly easy compared to what others face. Although we had a rough start with a miscarriage and I had some fertility issues to get on top of, from then on it was pretty smooth sailing.
I was incredibly lucky. My pregnancies and births went well and the kids had no health problems. My husband is a nurse who has not only done midwifery (years ago) but also has other children - so it was not the first time for both of us.
The hardest thing I found was the isolation. Both of our families are far away and I felt quite isolated and after such stimulating work I was also bored. I called the office quite early and started working from home and then went back to work - that was the best thing for me.
You're extremely passionate about supporting mothers and encouraging them to seek help when they feel they're not coping with the challenges of motherhood. What's your greatest piece of advice for mothers?
Stop comparing, be aware of your expectations and the pressures you may be putting on yourself, and go easy on yourself. Be aware that emotional and mental health problems are more likely to occur at this time of life for women than any other, and if you are struggling to cope - you are not alone.
Also keep an eye out for others and if you are concerned about someone, take the first step and reach out. Life with a baby can be challenging enough, but if someone is struggling with depression or anxiety as well, they need understanding and support.
And finally, as friends, sisters, as a community, what can we be doing to better support each other on the motherhood journey?
We need to acknowledge that motherhood comes with highs and lows and recognise that some have a harder time than others - and it is no-ones fault. We can all play a vital role in 'keeping motherhood real' and supporting each other through the journey.
*Every time we sell a garment The Hood donates a gold coin to COPE - to help support the emotional wellbeing of parents.
*For more information or support, visit: www.cope.org.au