This is me taking a risk.
When I was in college, I wrote an article for our weekly newsmagazine about what it’s like to have depression. I can’t remember what inspired it, but I think it may have been a counterpoint to someone else’s piece about how Americans are wussy and overmedicated and have too many feels. After it was published, some member of the newspaper staff criticized it for revealing too much personal information, to which my indignant 22-year-old self said “Oh, please.” Which is what I’ll say to anyone who makes a similar remark about where I’m going to go with this post.
I’ve seen a fair number of posts relating to postpartum depression on social media recently. I mean, my friends and former classmates and coworkers and I are, I suppose, in what some would call our prime baby-making years, so pregnancy and childbearing and the postpartum period are popular topics of conversation on Facebook and elsewhere. And I think women who experience postpartum depression often feel incredibly alone–I know I did. When I was in the midst of it, I wasn’t aware just how common my thoughts and experiences were, and that really freaked me out. So, in the interest of reaching someone–a new mom, her partner, other people who love her–I’m going to share a little bit about my experience. I would love for pregnant women and their families to know more about what really happens when pregnancy isn’t easy. It’s so much easier to heal when you know your symptoms are common and that you aren’t crazy or disturbed, just human. And tired. And sore.
I think one of the biggest myths I’d like to help dispel is the idea of “postpartum” depression. Sure, it can sneak up on you after you’ve left the hospital or even months after you’ve had the baby. But, for me, anxiety, fixations, and compulsive behaviors started almost as soon as I saw the pink lines. I know most first time parents-to-be are a little nervous, but I was really out of control. It was like someone took all my small quirks and annoying habits and turned them up to volume 55. I was afraid that everything in the world would make my baby sick, so I washed and sanitized my hands constantly–we’re talking red, raw skin. I was terrified of foodborne illness, so I nuked everything I ate, including meals I’d just cooked … just to be safe! I even freaked out over things like blue cheese dressing on my salad, because what if it wasn’t pasteurized? (At a sports bar … right.)
It got worse as time went on. I did way too much Googling, and I never failed to scare myself with my findings. At some point, I read that rodents can transmit a rare but dangerous disease to pregnant women and their unborn babies, so I asked my parents to adopt my pet hamster during my pregnancy. That part is reasonable, but even three months after we’d rehomed poor Fluffernutter, I wouldn’t go in the bathroom where we used to wash his cage. I was just not myself in any shape or form. And I knew my neuroses were unhealthy, but I couldn’t just wish them away. I’m very grateful that I was as exhausted as I was throughout those nine months, because at least being asleep provided me (and my husband!) some relief.
I don’t think depression is something that’s “all in your head,” but the fact is that most of these concerns were the product of my wild imagination and raging hormones. The thing is, we hit a couple unrelated bumps in the road that weren’t just in my head. My pregnancy was physically difficult because my baby was so big, and I was in a lot of pain, and I mean A LOT, for about three months. Being unable to get out of bed without crying and screaming doesn’t help when you’re already feeling vulnerable. But that didn’t come close to being the worst thing about those nine months. When my son was about 25 weeks gestational age, I got a fetal echocardiogram–which is a fancy was of saying “an ultrasound that takes a close-up of the baby’s heart”–to make sure everything looked okay. All my regular ultrasounds were fine, but one of the doctors I was seeing made a comment relating to my baby’s health that made us want to be extra diligent about it. So my husband took a day off, and we drove about a half hour to a pediatric cardiology office just to verify that everything was looking good.
If you go looking for trouble, you are going to find it. That is a fact. During that ultrasound, the cardiologist and ultrasound tech found several small issues and asked me to come back for a follow-up in a month. When I did, they spent about 45 minutes scanning me while I cried in silence. The results looked about the same, so they advised me that I needed to deliver at a bigger hospital with a level I neonatal intensive care unit, where they could monitor my son after he was born. If he did, in fact, present with some of these issues when he was born, they could require surgery to correct. So in my third trimester, I started going to a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine (who named me “Mega Type A,” actually) and made arrangements to have a planned delivery so that we could keep everyone safe. (By the way, if the ONE AND ONLY thing you state in your “birth plan” is the date you’re going to have your C-section, your baby WILL decide to send you into labor the day before, just to keep things exciting!)
It turned out that surgery was, thankfully, not necessary for my little guy. He spent 4 days in a fantastic NICU where his health was verified from every angle. We went home the day after he was discharged.
You’d think my woes would end there, right? No more pregnancy pain, healthy baby, everything’s great. Ummm, that would be a little too easy. I was MORE terrified than ever, and my hand-washing habit became even more obsessive. I was afraid if I didn’t clean my hands before I picked up a pacifier to give to the kid, he would get seriously sick. (In reality, even after I’ve had major surgery, my home is not that dirty! Geez!) If I took some medication, I would see the bottle spilling the pills all over the floor, where my baby could get to them (never mind that he couldn’t roll over, crawl, pick anything up, or bring it to his mouth yet.) Every time I picked him up, I was petrified that I was going to drop him. The first day my husband went back to work after paternity leave, I was burping my man and realized I was (very gently) patting his head … and I called my mom and asked her if I should take him to the hospital. (I can laugh at this now!) I can’t even estimate the number of unwanted, unpleasant thoughts I had each day. And the worst part was that I felt completely alone and that I’d better not bring up my concerns to anyone, because they made me sound insane. I think I simply resigned myself to the idea that this was my life now.
Finally, my ridiculous Googling habit did me some good. I found this book, and my immediate reactions were both laughter and tears. I was incredulous that my emotional state was so common that someone wrote a book about it. Like, shit, all I do all day is worry about dropping the kid, and then I chastise myself for thinking these unpleasant thoughts, and that’s the title of a book, are you kidding me? I felt so much better after I read some of it, but to be honest, I didn’t finish it. I didn’t need to (plus I was a little busy.) Just the knowledge that my feelings were common and not indicative that I was losing my mind was enough to set me on the path to feeling better. And once I knew I was on that path, I could visualize getting completely back to my old self … which I did. Well, as much as anyone does after becoming a parent for the first time. I’ve definitely changed … but I’m back to feeling like a normal person.
I’ve told this much of my story with specificity because before I experienced it, I didn’t know these things happened–perinatal (as opposed to postpartum) depression and OCD. Because I think that if we talked about these things more, women wouldn’t be so afraid to ask for help, and the people around them could be more supportive. I was very, very lucky–I had people around me who understood what I was going through. If I had to break it down into ten ways to help a pregnant woman or a brand-new mom who might be suffering from PPD or a related problem, I would list them this way:
1. Let her sleep as much as possible, post-delivery. Giving birth is exhausting, physically, mentally, emotionally. If you can take a night feeding shift and let her get 4-5 continuous hours of sleep, you’ll help a lot. If she’s exclusively breastfeeding and not pumping, do her a favor and bring her the baby for the nighttime feeds so that she can stay in bed.
2. Bring her some pre-prepared meals. It sounds like a cliche, bringing a casserole to a family with a new baby, but the fact is that people don’t do these things as much as they used to. When you are feeling shitty, the last thing you want to do is make dinner, and most delivery meals will put you in a food coma. A ready-to-eat homemade meal tastes better because you can taste the love that went into it.
3. Don’t make her feel like a loser if she supplements with formula or exclusively formula feeds! (!!!!) Yes, we’ve all heard the lecture about how breast is best, and no one is denying the science behind it. If a mother has decided to use formula, which we’re all aware has fewer benefits than breastmilk, you can bet it’s for a good reason, which, if you’re not her partner or her pediatrician, is none of your business anyway. Just leave it alone.
4. Hold the baby so she can take a shower or bath. I barely fit in our stall shower by week 39, and showering was extremely difficult while I was in the hospital because I was in so much pain from my incision. When I felt well enough to return to my daily routine, it felt AMAZING to shampoo my hair.
5. Don’t give her a guilt trip about how she feels at any point in the process. It really sucks when people tell you that you should be grateful and happy. It is totally possible to acknowledge your many blessings and be absolutely thrilled with your new addition while feeling scared, sore, clumsy, stupid, anxious, weepy, moody, and exhausted.
6. Be patient, just for now. There are certain things that will pass in time. You know how I said I washed my hands before picking up a freshly cleaned binky to hand to my son? I totally let him eat a Cheez-It off the floor today. You relax about things and you let stuff go.
7. Let her know that she’s not alone. As I said, the single scariest thing for me was thinking that I had just lost it. As soon as I recognized that I was dealing with a hormone-based issue that affects something like one-third of postpartum women, I turned a corner. It is extremely common to feel HIGHLY shitty during and after pregnancy. It helps to know that you are not a freak.
8. Encourage her to talk to someone who knows how to help. Because my baby was in the NICU, I had nurses and hospital social workers checking on me all the time, and I have to say it really helped to vent to them. But PPD and related issues don’t just strike parents of NICU patients. It’s really important to let a professional help at this time in life. If you meet with one who isn’t understanding or helpful, don’t be afraid to keep looking.
9. Be openly forgiving of her neuroses and little mistakes. It will help her to forgive herself. You know what, if she has to get up and check on the baby at 4 AM for two weeks, just let it be.
10. Above all, just keep reassuring her that it will get better. It will take some time and some active effort to get better, but it will pass. The only part of the experience that came close to scaring me as much as feeling like a freak (see #7) was thinking that the rest of my life would feel this way. It won’t. I hate to draw on a cliche, but it gets better, really.
Maybe I’ve shared too much. Whatever. YOLO. I hope that this helps someone out there. If it does, and you feel comfortable dropping me a line or two about it, please do.