It’s cliché, I know, but I certainly wasn’t expecting postpartum depression (PPD). Newly graduated from college and recently married, I couldn’t wait to start a family, to finally become a mother. It was something I’d wanted my entire life.
PPD Round 1
Fast-forward 9 months. I didn’t expect to be induced and deliver my first baby boy breach. He came out bottom first and had the most perfectly round, golden head. When I came home from the hospital, I didn’t expect sleep deprivation to make me feel so crazy, and I certainly didn’t expect a colicky newborn. I tried to turn to my doctor, but he was no help. My husband and I moved in and slept on the floor of my mom and dad’s living room for weeks while I just tried to figure out was wrong with me and what I could do to feel normal again. “Am I really the only one who feels like this?” I kept asking myself. It sure felt that way. I did feel normal again–thanks to lots more sleep and constant help from my parents and husband. Several months later, that is.
PPD Round 2
Fast forward 2 ½ years, and I didn’t expect to feel depressed again after the birth of my second boy. I loved my first so, and seeing him place a toy sword in his brother’s bassinet when we brought baby home made me love them both even more. Wasn’t that enough to keep me well? I had also prepared this time. I now knew that I’d had postpartum depression before, that sleep deprivation kicks my butt, so I created a postpartum plan: let others help me so I can sleep more and feel better. At first I thought I was better. But my dear husband kindly let me know that wasn’t the case, pointing out the words I’d written in my journal just two months in, “I wish I could run away. Not forever. Just long enough to feel like myself again.” I started graduate school when baby #2 was just 4 months old.
PPD Round 3
Fast forward four years and I had just graduated with my doctorate in psychology. Precisely 7 days after I graduated, in fact, I delivered our first baby girl. We moved 5 days later. Now I was a true “expert” on PPD. I’d done my dissertation on PPD and even produced a “Postpartum Couples” video. I was a volunteer for Postpartum Support International (PSI). I had resources, connections; I knew the leaders in the field, for goodness sake. But PPD doesn’t care about all that, and it hit me again, this time adding an extra dose of anxiety. Luckily, by now, I at least knew I wasn’t alone; I at least had support resources, and I used them wisely. I felt better much quicker this time.
PPD Round 4
But my fourth fast-forward was the hardest. Four years later and, just weeks before giving birth, my sister died suddenly and traumatically. I certainly didn’t expect that. My brother-in-law had died just 2 months prior of cancer, and we suddenly inherited our two nephews, our new sons. I gave birth to my second baby girl four weeks to the day that my sister died. I had three kids, and then I had six. Talk about postpartum depression! I can’t even say, to this day, exactly what I was even experiencing at that point, a bizarre and long-lasting mixture of shock, anger, sadness, anxiety, depression, and grief that required months of therapy, massage, support, and, yes, medication, to finally get me through. It’s too complicated to even touch on here. You’ll have to read about it in my book, This is How We Grow (coming end of 2013).
PPD 16 Years Later
Fast forward to now. A mom of six kids, my first baby boy is 16 ½ and my last baby girl is 5 ½. I know so much more than I knew back then—it almost makes me wish I could have the babies now instead. But then I wouldn’t know what I know. So, instead, I look back and think about what I’d tell those younger, postpartum “me’s.” What might make a difference in helping those me’s heal? Here are just a few things I’d like my postpartum self to know (and any other postpartum selves out there too):
1) You really aren’t alone. Having helped countless postpartum moms and dads over the years, it’s so clear now just how similar we all are, how hard it can be, and how alone we all feel. It’s tragic, really, to feel so alone when we’re all feeling the same way. Couldn’t we just feel alone together instead?
3) Feel what you feel. It really is the only way to get through PPD (and by PPD, I mean depression, anxiety, PTSD–all of it!). Don’t pretend you’re “fine” if you’re not. If it’s hard, say, “It’s hard!” Only in identifying what’s really happening can you begin to understand and work through it.
4) Getting well is top priority. The sooner you seek support and treatment, the sooner you’re on your way to feeling better. And it’s ok that other things slide while you focus on getting well. I call it Postpartum Survival Mode, and say, “Be where you are and give yourself a break.”
5) You may be wondering who you are now, and that’s ok. It’s part of becoming a mother. There’s no rush to figure it out. In time, you will know. And then you won’t know again. A mother’s understanding of who she is an ever-evolving process.
6) Solitude is good. Isolation is not good. Reach out to others. Support groups are great for this, or spending time with friends who have babies too. I never felt like I had support, yet it wasn’t until my third baby that I realized how I’d isolated myself before. Time alone is one thing. Isolating is another. Instead, with my third, I attended playgroups and girls’ night out. I never realized how much I needed it. I see it in my support group now too. The women who’ve become friends outside of group have help and support now. We need each other.
7) The fact that you feel like a terrible mom because you have PPD means you’re a wonderful mom. Oh, the guilt of PPD! It’s one of the hardest parts, isn’t it? But you must let it go. If it didn’t bother you that you have PPD, it would mean you didn’t care. But it does, and you do. That’s what matters.
8) Love matters most. Not how much you read to your baby or whether your toddler watches TV or whether you breast or bottle feed or whether you keep a tidy house, make organic meals, or bake your own bread. You may or may not do these things. What matters is that you hold and love that baby. And if you’re not feeling as much love as you wish you were, good news. Love is a practice. Focus on the good in your baby. Hug him. Snuggle her. Take care of her. The love will grow. Love is much simpler than we think.
9) If you feel like your baby is a burden, you’re not alone. The first time I left on my own, just for 15 minutes, to buy a binky from the store, I felt like I’d broken out of jail! I hated feeling like it was a burden being a mother. But, 16 years later, I can tell you: It is. It’s a huge burden. Especially if you love your kids. You’ll always have more work than you have hours to do it. You’ll always feel their hurts more than your own. It’s a burden to love someone so much. But, like any good burden, it’s really more of a blessing. It just takes practice to see and feel it.
10) Grief is part of motherhood, especially when you have a perinatal mood disorder. The only way to deal with grief is to feel it. It’s ok to grieve what you’ve lost while still appreciating what you have. It feels paradoxical, I know, but it’s ok.
11) PPD can make you more compassionate. Among other things. It’s one of the best gifts of having so much struggle—it makes you understand others and want to help them too. It helps you be a more compassionate partner, friend, and mother. PPD can open you up if you let it.
12) Actively practice gratitude; it’s one of the best things you can do. I don’t mean “positive affirmations.” Affirmations don’t work because you don’t believe them. Instead, search for the true little blessings that are right in front of you. I started a “little wonders” journal and wrote down every little magical moment I noticed: baby’s first smile, an unexpected moment of solitude, a good, solid nap. It helps you appreciate what’s right in front of you, and that’s one of the best tools to increase happiness. Period.
13) They actually grow up. Faster than you realize. Every parent says it later, but it’s true, and it’s important to remember when you’re feeling like you can’t wait for them to grow up. Some day you’ll be wishing they were tiny enough to just hold in your arms again. My oldest sons are full-fledged teenagers now and several inches taller than I am, and while they’ll put up with a hug from mom, it’s not the same as when they were little. I miss being able to cuddle them and so easily make everything all right.
14) You really will feel better. It doesn’t feel like it when you’re in it, but you will.
15) You can not only feel “better,” you can feel “better than better.” Great things are in store for you, but one thing at a time. “To everything there is a season,” the scripture says. This is your season to be a mother. Seasons always change, so enjoy the one you’re in. And when the time is right, flourish!
16) Motherhood is quite wonderful. It’s hard. Sometimes it’s really hard. The “job” of mothering (cooking, cleaning, changing diapers) can feel like drudgery. But it’s an honor to be a mother, even if it’s hard. Just remind yourself, “I can do hard things.” Say it as many times as you need to. It’s certainly helped me.
And one final bonus. Give yourself a big hug from me. Because I really do understand just how hard it is to be where you are. And I also know just how wonderful you’ll feel 16 years down the road.
[author] [author_image timthumb='on']http://www.drchristinahibbert.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/03/square-head-shot1.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Clinical Psychologist, Mom of 6, Postpartum Couples DVD Producer, Non-Profit Founder, and expert on Parenting, Women’s Emotions, Pregnancy & Postpartum, and Grief & Loss, Dr. Christina Hibbert loves songwriting, learning, and teaching what she learns. A four-time PPD survivor, Dr. Hibbert wants every mom to know she’s not alone. And every dad to know it too.[/author_info] [/author]
Speak Up When You’re Down:
May is Maternal Mental Health Awareness Month
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