Having a baby is hard—they don’t call it ‘labor’ for nothing. And then? No rest for the weary. You’re suddenly and wholly responsible for this fragile, helpless being. Top that with some serious sleep deprivation, turbulent hormones, and the cultural expectations around bonding, bliss, and being “mom enough,” and you’ve got another kind of rude awakening on your hands—one not precipitated by middle-of-the-night feeding requests.
It’s no wonder that, through no fault of their own, 9-16% of moms will experience postpartum depression. Indeed, a mix of genetics, hormones, predisposition, support (or lack thereof) and stress lay fertile ground for the illness.
Once silenced and written off, women with postpartum depression are, thankfully, gaining a voice. So this week, we’ll amplify that voice through some mythbusting—plus, eight symptoms to watch for.
Mythbuster #1: Most postpartum depression doesn’t start ‘post’ birth. In fact, in fully 50% of moms with postpartum depression, symptoms begin during pregnancy, not just after the baby is born. Additionally, for many moms, anxiety, not depression, is the first inkling that something is wrong.
Mythbuster #2: Postpartum illness doesn’t have to start within the first four weeks. While the official word on postpartum depression is that it begins within four weeks of giving birth, if you are suffering, you don’t have to fit into a neat little diagnostic box to get help. Nothing about having a new baby is clean, including exact symptoms and timing. Many advocates have argued that changing the onset to anytime in the first six months or even the first year after giving birth would more accurately reflect the experiences of moms with postpartum depression. No matter the label, you should be treated the same by your physician or mental health provider: with compassion and action.
Mythbuster #3: Postpartum depression isn’t the only postpartum illness. Indeed, there’s a whole collection: postpartum anxiety, postpartum OCD, and rarely, but often enough to be recognized, postpartum psychosis, are all challenging disorders new moms (and even dads) can experience.
More from the archives: What is Postpartum OCD?
Mythbuster #4: Postpartum depression isn’t just “baby blues.” Baby blues is the name for the period of emotional adjustment that occurs after having a baby. But baby blues goes away on its own and consists of experiencing the symptoms below in a transient way. By contrast, with postpartum depression, you feel some or all of the symptoms more often than not.
What exactly are we talking about? Let’s go through some of the symptoms. It’s important to note that not everyone will experience every symptom, plus there are also the classic symptoms of depression like crying and changes in eating and sleeping. Don’t worry about matching up perfectly—you know if you’re miserable.
So, what are the symptoms of postpartum depression?
Symptom #1: Guilt or shame. You feel like you should be doing better than this or know how to do this. The words “I should” go through your head a lot. You think you’re bad or damaged or worthless and don’t deserve to be a mom. You don’t want anyone to know and you keep how horrible you’re feeling a secret. You worry if you confide in someone, they’ll either judge you or have your baby taken away.
You feel like you’re not cut out to be a mom and that this was all a terrible mistake.
Symptom #2: You can’t be reassured. With baby blues, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed at moments, but you feel better with some kind words from your partner or a friend you trust. With postpartum depression, you feel overwhelmed, sad, or anxious more often than not and the reassurance just feels like a lie.
Symptom #3: Fantasies of escape. This goes beyond joking about a one-way ticket to Jamaica. Instead, you fantasize about driving away and never coming back because your family would be better off without you. You may have thoughts of escape by killing yourself or getting killed, like being hit by a bus. This persists even if you get some rest and support. Note: if your thoughts of suicide are more than just passing thoughts, or you have a plan or means, get help right away. You can even call 911 and tell them you can’t keep yourself safe.
Symptom #4: Feeling overwhelmed. You don’t just feel overwhelmed at particularly hard moments, but most or all of the time. You feel like you’re not cut out to be a mom and that this was all a terrible mistake.
Symptom #5: Not loving your baby. You don’t feel affection for your baby. This goes way beyond taking awhile to bond, which is normal. You may not even want to look at him or take care of her.
Symptom #6: Feeling inadequate. You worry you aren’t good enough or can’t do this and your baby will be harmed or stunted forever and it will be your fault. You’re convinced that you’re broken or defective (not just disappointed or regretful, but that you are truly inadequate) because you didn’t give birth “the right way” or can’t or don’t want to breastfeed.
Symptom #7: Anger and irritability. You snap at the baby, at your partner, or anyone who comes near you. You resent your baby for putting you through this.
Symptom #8: You’re worried your baby’s got you pegged as a fraud. You worry that you’re not fit to be a mother and that your baby can tell: he or she doesn’t like you, doesn’t love you, or resents you for crying all the time or being crazy.
The take home message is this: bringing a new little person into the world is tiring, emotional, and, at times, overwhelming, but if you are miserable more often than not, resentful more often than not, worried more often than not, or think you’re losing your mind, you deserve some help. A new baby is hard, but it’s not supposed to be torment.
Most importantly: postpartum depression, anxiety, OCD, and psychosis are all treatable. Having postpartum depression doesn’t make you a bad mom. Reaching out for help makes you a great one.
An excellent resource is postpartumprogress.org, an award-winning, non-profit website with a wealth of information, validation, and support.
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