This is what Postpartum depression looks like.
I know it’s not National Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month (May), but in honor of Labor Day, and because there tends to be a bit of a spike in birthrates in the month of September (thank you holiday season), I thought I would do my part to raise awareness of Postpartum Depression & Anxiety.
Yesterday, this picture showed up in my Facebook feed, a memory from 2 years ago.
It squeezed my heart. Not just because it’s my girl’s tiny sweet face, but also because it’s among the first of the pictures I took of her and reflected on immediately with joy. Without panic. That picture was taken right when the fog of postpartum depression and anxiety began to lift. Isa was 11 weeks old.
It was supposed to be the best time of my life, the nesting with my infant time. The time you never get back, and supposedly long for any number of times through life. But those first weeks were the absolute worst for me. And I never want to feel that way again, ever.
During those 10 horrific weeks: I cried every day, multiple times a day; I felt panic every morning I awoke, every time I looked at my baby’s face, when I heard her noisy sleep at night, and almost every minute in between. That panic was overwhelming, and I was drowning, because there was no turning back. In those 10 weeks, there wasn’t a moment I didn’t regret what I’d done. And the guilt...was crushing me.
I did my best to hide it from Isa. I hated that I didn’t feel love for her, that it was so buried I couldn’t find it. What I did feel, thankfully, was a fierce need to comfort her, to be her source of comfort, a special sort of comfort only I could provide, because I was her home for the better part of life to then. But more than that, I was determined to set a course for our relationship that would be defined by connection. That was my beacon, my mantra. So I gave my body over to her, and I let my closeness soothe her, and I pushed my panic deep inside when I held her, sang to her, sat with her.
Interestingly, those moments seemed to soothe me, too. Giving myself over to that closeness, centering myself in the oneness of early motherhood and infancy, being in that moment and breathing in my baby were momentary salves. Inevitably, the panic returned. The guilt. And the crushing depression. If only I could have bottled that feeling of oneness to drink all day long.
I couldn’t stand the way I felt. I hated that I couldn’t make it go away. I hated that I wasn’t attaching to my baby, even as I was acutely thankful she was attaching to me.
I was lucky, I guess. It certainly could have been worse. It was depression, not psychosis. I had a real partner in my husband who showed up in a huge way. It could have gone on for much, much longer. But I had the education and experience to recognize it for what it was. I had the courage to face it head on, to seek help immediately.
I can’t imagine not seeking help.
I’m so glad I did. I shudder to think how much harder my journey would have been without help. Because it was hard.
It wasn’t hard to talk to my doctor, and it wasn’t hard to accept pharmacological help. That was the easy part.
For me, it was hard to find a community I could tap into that understood what I was going through. It was hard to find emotional support beyond my husband, who was shouldering the burden of my needs, our new baby’s needs, and his own suppressed (at the time) emotional needs.
I’d constructed a life for myself in New York City of which, up to that point, I was incredibly proud. My family was scattered around the country and beyond. I was self-sufficient. I didn’t need anyone else. And I liked it that way.
Until I had a baby. There’s nothing like having a baby to show you all your weaknesses and punch holes in all your carefully constructed beliefs.
This life needed a new construct.
I needed my family. I learned the hard way that it actually does take a village to raise a child.
I tried to build a village in New York, and there were plenty of women right in my neighborhood experiencing new motherhood. There were even groups of women brought together by Yahoo and galvanized by Facebook all with babies born within three months of mine on either side.
Only, these moms were in a completely different mindset from me. They weren't exhausted by life. They weren't that close in age to me. They didn’t seem to be suffering from depression and anxiety.
I know I wasn’t the only new mom in my 40s in New York. And I’m sure I wasn’t the only one suffering from PPD/A. But the point is I felt like I was. I felt isolated, real or not, which made it hard for me to make new connections.
I also tried to find support groups near me in NY. I figured maybe there I would find community as well as professional help navigating the PPD/A. I couldn’t find any. Not one. I tried as hard as I was able, at the time. I will grant that my stamina for research wasn’t then what it is now. But it just shouldn’t be as hard as it was.
Everyone talks about the lack of resources and support for working mothers. And while that definitely should be a topic of discussion (and action!), what’s equally important is mental health. And when it comes to PPD/A, that means facing it head on. But one can’t do that alone. That important village, again.
My village was a virtual one. My sister and our sister-from-another-mother, both in the Denver area, and both recently postpartum with babies close in age to mine. We spent hours on the phone, Facetiming and chatting, and they helped me through the roughest time in my PPD/A. They also introduced me to a fantastic resource named Patience (serendipitously given at birth, by her mother), a local Denver baby whisperer and parenting coach who helped calm my anxiety with empathy, encouragement, and practical advice.
I am sharing my story because it’s important to normalize this horrible hormonal nightmare—it is more common than you might think. I’ve seen many varying statistics. Some reports say 10-15%, others say higher. I have a feeling these numbers are underreported, because I’m certain too many women suffer in silence. If untreated, this terrible depression that can get in the way of building a healthy attachment with your baby can take a super long time to go away on its own. WebMD offers a pretty comprehensive look at PPD if you'd like to read more.
Here are the key risk factors for PPD, according to the American Psychological Association:
- A change in hormone levels after childbirth (Yup, check)
- Previous experience of depression or anxiety
- Family history of depression or mental illness (check)
- Stress involved in caring for a newborn and managing new life changes (check!)
- Having a challenging baby who cries more than usual, is hard to comfort, or whose sleep and hunger needs are irregular and hard to predict
- Having a baby with special needs (premature birth, medical complications, illness)
- First-time motherhood, very young motherhood, or older motherhood (check, check!!)
- Other emotional stressors, such as the death of a loved one or family problems
- Financial or employment problems (check, again!)
- Isolation and lack of social support (check check check!!)
Six of those factors existed for me, on different levels. The last one was probably more perceived than real, but perception is law, isn’t it.
Happily for me, as soon as my hormones were regulated, I was able to feel the love and joy I knew would come. I was ready to engage emotionally and mentally when my baby girl started to "wake up." Perspective came flooding in like never before. I found what was always in me, the limitless love that would enable me to be the mom I wanted to be for my girl.
Postpartum depression and anxiety are real, and they’re more common than you might think. If you are depressed or anxious, and your struggle is lasting longer than a few weeks postpartum, please seek help. Do not let it go on as long as I did. There’s no shame in asking for help--only rewards. My only regret is that I didn’t act earlier and get it in check faster, so I could enjoy my baby sooner. And if you are finding yourself in a similar boat to me, struggling to find the help you need, wherever you are, send me a note. I’ll be happy to help you get going. It definitely gets better.
Peace and happiness mamas and papas. Peace and happiness.