Cover Sarah Baker, who suffered from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, is the driving force behind the For You campaign

The taboo-breaking photography campaign For You puts the focus on Hong Kong women’s stories of postpartum depression and recovery to support post-natal mental health everywhere

Sarah Baker has four children under the age of six and with each pregnancy she suffered some kind of anxiety and depression. The fourth time around, while based in Hong Kong, she began reflecting on her work as a makeup artist and what she could do with more purpose.

“I love working with women and helping people feel good about themselves” says Baker. “I had this idea of doing a photo shoot and bringing women together—anyone who’s really struggled with postpartum depression. We talk about it to each other sometimes, but it can be a really taboo subject; no one wants to be considered the crazy one.”

She saw the potential to raise awareness by showcasing the stories of individual women and building a sense of community that could help other women to heal and find support. In bringing mental health out of the darkness, she wanted the campaign to have a feel-good element and celebrate the mothers, which sparked her idea for the name.

“Once you have children, it often becomes just about them (or at least it feels that way), and so I wanted this project to be just about the mothers—the participants—making it just ‘For You’.”

Baker teamed up with photographer Matt Jacob and creative director Ann Tsang and they pulled off the shoots over three days in February 2022, just as Hong Kong was starting to shut down in response to the fifth wave of Covid-19.

“Every photo shoot that we did, every woman spent about two hours with us, and they left almost a different person,” says Jacob. “We just had a small studio but we got creative with how we posed and styled them; we wanted their personalities to come through in the photos, and all of them are portrait style with a little twist.”

Read more: This Photographer Isn't Afraid to Confront Body Image and Loneliness

Shahana Hoque-Ali, a project manager and functional medicine practitioner, is one of the women to participate in the For You campaign so far. “I felt so supported and that brought a lot of emotions to the surface; feelings that I hadn't had an opportunity to offload since, as a mum, you have to try to keep it all together,” she says. “Since then, I feel liberated, free and acknowledged and am grateful for such a worthy project.”  

While she admits to being “a nervous wreck” beforehand, ultimately it was also an empowering experience for yoga teacher Anna Little, who continues to manage her anxiety and depression five years after giving birth. “When I think about the campaign and about the courage it took on my part, I can say I'm proud of myself and it's OK to say that—and I never say that!” says Little. "I really do think that this was a big step in my journey of healing.”  

Below we've excerpted highlights from the postpartum depression experiences of Shahana, Anna, Min, Nav and María. More stories and resources are available on the campaign website—and this is only the first chapter. Baker, who just relocated to the UK, aims to spread the For You campaign to more women globally. 

Read more: 9 to 5: Cheryl Han on Opening a Postpartum Clinic After Getting Retrenched

“Others managed, so why was I so tired and not enjoying this time?”

Shahana Hoque-Ali, mom of 3; project manager; functional medicine practitioner at Origin Health

“The joy of having a baby and the delivery made me feel elated. However, as the weeks went by, I felt more and more depleted and the days started to merge into one. I wanted to do fun things with my babies, but it was all so hard, unlike others who seemed to post beautiful pictures and be happy.

I began to notice my skin starting to change colour and soon the light patches were spreading and becoming large. I realised that I had developed multiple autoimmune diseases, however it wasn’t that straightforward. I was told that I had the baby blues and I was just tired from having a new baby, sleepless nights, and every other explanation, which made me begin to think that maybe I was just being lazy.

Read more: Meet 4 Women Who Are Breaking Health and Sex Taboos in Hong Kong

No doctor knew what the problem was. In fact, they didn’t think there even was an issue, until I saw various holistic therapists. I took the advice from each doctor, therapist and naturopath and started to piece together the puzzle. I felt like I had to become the project manager of my own health. 

Fortunately, I had a medical and scientific background, so I enrolled in a functional medicine course and an energy healing course. Slowly I realised that the mind, emotional and physical self are all connected. I had to address the different pieces to eventually find the right doctor to diagnose me and I started my healing journey—a mixture of mental healing, medical interventions and diet and lifestyle changes. 

Neurological studies show there are two times in a woman’s life when grey matter is actually reduced: post pregnancy and menopause, so it’s not in our imagination nor is it simply a mental or emotional issue, it’s a physiological issue. We need support and kindness for ourselves as our biology is telling us to slow down.”

Read more: 5 Asian Women on Beauty, Wellbeing and Loving the Skin You're In

“I do regret not getting professional help earlier; I just assumed that it was a phase that was not going last”

María Herrera, mom of 1; vice president at a bank 

“Looking in hindsight at the prenatal course I did, everything was about the baby, the first days and the physical changes after birth. The topic of postpartum depression was only briefly mentioned in the discussion, like a simple statistic.

The first months after my baby was born were tough—the lack of sleep, Covid, the lack of family or close friends around, the semi-lockdown in Hong Kong. But it didn’t feel as bad as what I felt around the fifth month after giving birth. I felt incredibly sad, hopeless, sleepless. The sadness just wouldn’t go away even when I smiled at my baby or kissed my partner. Everything just felt empty.

My job didn’t help either. I work in a male-dominated industry, and appearing to be a strong, mighty woman is key to survival. It’s not that my managers or the organisation wasn’t supportive; it’s just that I pushed myself into fitting back in, when internally I felt broken.

When I returned to the office, I found myself constantly alone and plugged to a breast pump in a basement, crying over missing my son, and even questioning my career and life choices. The trigger that ‘forced’ me to get better and talk about the subject happened while I was at a party on a boat one evening. I remember the music, the drinks, the laughter in the background, but all I wanted to do was to jump into the water. I imagined how the water would fill my lungs, how I wouldn’t feel my body any more, thinking that I wouldn’t even fight to try to get out of the water. It would be just water and darkness—a sense of peace.

I became really scared. At that point in time, I regrouped and pushed myself to find ways to feel better (taking time for myself, exercising, meditating) and get professional help. My husband was extremely supportive and escaping Hong Kong to see my family helped me enormously. Little by little, it got better.

I think society judges you for being ‘emotional’ or ‘hormonal’, but this is a serious mental health concern that should be tackled. We need to speak about it more often, not just as a statistic; we need to inform women on how to get help and find ways to cope.”

Read more: How Normalising Public Breastfeeding Became One Woman’s Passion Project

“We need to change the expectations of new parents, no matter whether it’s at home or at work”

Min Lai, mom of 2; regional ecommerce director, APAC

“I had an anxiety attack two weeks prior to going back to work full time at the office (when my second child was about 12 weeks old). I couldn't sleep. My mind would start racing as I tried to figure out how I could go back to work with a toddler and a newborn without a helper and what I would need to prepare for the projects I would be starting.

We didn’t have a full-time helper for our first-born as my parents came and babysat. However, my dad had a health episode right before the second birth, so he wasn’t able to be as present and helpful around our house any more. I couldn’t fall asleep without taking two prescribed pills for two consecutive weeks.

I asked for more work-from-home time for the first three weeks and my company was understanding. I also signed up for mindfulness stress reduction classes and hypnotherapy to help with my sleep problem and anxiety. I went back to my psychiatrist to have a proper diagnosis and to get medication to help me sleep.

To be completely honest, I’m still struggling. Sometimes a small trigger can spiral easily. Say, if I have a problem to solve at work, my mind keeps coming up with different ideas and scenarios or thoughts of the problem would repeat themselves in my head right before going to bed. I also felt that I was failing my team members, whom I should be leading, growing and inspiring. 

Read more: How I Work It: The Longchamp GM Who Founded an NGO to Destigmatise Mental Health in the Workplace

That doesn’t even include the quality of time that I spent with my little ones, which further upset me. It wasn't until I did make the call to quit my job and take a break from working that I could fully take care of myself before others.

I now need to try to be easier on myself and compassionate with myself. I need to share my feelings with my partner and also set and manage expectations, especially on the rest and time that I will need to recover. I'm grateful for his support of me taking this break. If anyone is in a similar situation, try to go back to a regular routine; for me that means yoga, weekly guided meditation and talking with my friends and support groups.

I am the victim of the expectation ‘work as if you don't have kids, parent as if you don't work’. We need to change this expectation. By sharing our stories and path to recovery, we’re not just building awareness and promoting changes, we are also showing strength and hope.”

Read more: Speaking Up and Embracing Challenges: 3 Female CEOs Who Walk the Talk

“I will continue to live with my challenges and manage them daily; anxiety and depression are part of me and that is OK”

Anna Little, mom of 1; account manager and yoga teacher 

“I have lived with anxiety and depression since my teens. I have a psychology degree, a counselling qualification, have worked on a psychiatric ward, and even volunteered at a support group for mothers. I know what depression looks and feels like, but none of this mattered when it came to my own postpartum life.

My daughter’s birth was a scheduled C-section as she was breech. Afterwards I was unwell and vomiting, a bad reaction to the anaesthetic. So I didn’t get to see my daughter after that initial skin-to-skin contact and wasn’t able to name her until the evening. The surge of emotions that came was intense and unexpected; I didn’t expect to feel such love and such a connection.

While at the hospital, I also suffered from conversion disorder—presenting itself through neurological symptoms such as paralysis or fits, in response to psychological trauma and my ongoing mental health conditions.

My memory is a little patchy over the first year, perhaps because I didn’t feel like I was really there. I felt that I was actually outside of my own body and dreaded every part of every day. I accepted the help of a psychiatrist to start a course of anti-depressants and began regular therapy. I felt like the biggest failure; if anything, accepting help made me feel worse about myself.

Read more: How to Open Up About Mental Health to Friends and Family

Yet I know that I wouldn’t have been able to keep going and move forward without the amazing care of my OBGYN, my psychologist and my psychiatrist. They persisted and didn’t let me fall through the gaps in the system when they easily could have because I refused help for weeks on end. I met the most amazing midwife who even visited me at home when I couldn’t bring myself to leave.

Somehow through all of the ugliness, my husband is still with me, supporting me in each version of myself and trying to understand how we navigate life and parenting. I have felt cared for, but there should be more services available. Whilst they’re busy checking the pelvic floor and diastasis recti, where is the same amount of research, awareness and intervention for anxiety, depression, birth trauma and postpartum psychosis in Hong Kong?

Partners and families should know where to get help for their loved ones; money and language should not be barriers to access. I know that I am privileged with the help I have received and that not everyone is so fortunate. 

In the last five years my journey has continued, adding ever more anti-anxiety medication, increasing the anti-depressant dosage, and dealing with suicidal ideations and plans that began only 18 months after the birth. This was not something that I had experienced much in previous depressive episodes, so they have been particularly dark and upsetting times. I have never hurt or wanted to hurt my daughter and I’m grateful for that.

I have worked hard to put myself back together in a different way. I have laughed, I have celebrated, I have showered my daughter with love and showed up for her every day in the best way that I could. I have absolutely faltered and failed and messed up. I have tried to give up but I haven’t. I have tried to leave, but I haven’t. Therapy, medication, yoga, journaling, walking my dogs, being present with my family and enjoying watching my daughter grow are parts of the healing process, and now sharing and writing this are parts too.”

Read more: How to Be Kinder to Yourself, According to Yoga and Meditation Teacher Natalie Söderström

“Negative experiences can create beautiful transformations; I don’t feel like I struggle anymore, and I feel like I'm in total flow with life”

Nav Kumari, mom of 3; founder of Sattra; senior director, client services, APAC

“Being continually pregnant and in postpartum for four years (since July 2015 with my eldest son until my third baby was born in March 2019), I was on a roller coaster of emotion. I have always been independent, focused, strong and open hearted, and these other negative emotions hit me like a freight train; I felt so weak, vulnerable and didn't know how to ask for help.

The constant spiral of emotions, anxiety over the simplest things, being really protective, and only ever feeling settled when I was with my babies made me feel so stuck; it was as if there was nothing in my world that felt right. No matter how hard I tried to justify how I was feeling, I wasn't able to get a grasp of reality.

It wasn't until I started to set up my wellbeing business that it gave me a sense of purpose. I didn't always know what I was doing, but I was curious and started meeting like-minded entrepreneurs and that gave me deeper insights into how things could be better.

I was actually in a blur until a year after my third baby; this timing was so distinctive for me as I felt a seriously positive shift when I took a long trip to the UK. Getting out of the negative space in Hong Kong made me realise that I didn't have to live like that. I wanted good for myself and decided to take responsibility for my life and my emotions.

With my youngest turning three, I feel like the bad times are long behind me. The photo shoot was a great way to express myself; I felt alive, open and powerful. The week after, I started a new corporate job and my business in wellness is continuing to expand. I feel so much closer to my family as each day passes, and we have just relocated to Singapore for my new role.”

NOW READ

Being Childfree By Choice: 7 Asian Women Share Their Stories

Nadia Nasimuddin on Creating Pop Neutral, the Body Care Collection for Mothers

How This CEO of a Digital Mental Health Startup Practises Mindfulness Amidst the Daily Grind


A resource for women to be their best selves, Front & Female celebrates trailblazers, breaks taboos and tackles timely issues in Asia. Join the community by subscribing to our newsletter and following #frontandfemale

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.