Giving birth to Sean was supposed to be one of Heather’s life greatest joys. Or so she believed all those years. Heather was an accomplished young woman. A best-selling author at the age of 27, winner of The National Book Award and teaching at a prestigious writing program. She came from a warm and supportive family and enjoyed a robust, loving relationship with her husband Dan.
Heather got pregnant at the age of 33 and looked forward to being a mother. She and Dan talked a lot about raising a family and enjoyed picturing their postpartum life with little Sean or Holly. Every time she felt her baby move in her womb, warm waves of joy filled her heart.
Of course, she was also worried. Who wouldn’t be? Especially in this day and age, when there’s so much information about baby rearing, it’s almost paradoxical how confused and overwhelmed you can get. But overall, both she and Dan felt confident about their abilities.
Sean was born on a sunny Friday, right in the middle of the day. It was an easy birth process – as much as those could be easy – and Sean was born healthy and vital. After a few days of recovery, Heather, Dan, and Sean arrived at their home as a new family.
Things went quite ok at first. They took care of Sean, getting to know him and themselves as parents. Whenever people would come to visit they would say how lovely Sean is and how he looks after his mother. She would hold him close to her, look into his small brown eyes and smile. But that was it. It was supposed to be one of her life’s greatest joys, but she just didn’t feel that.
Heather told herself that she loved Sean, but she didn’t really feel it in her guts. She took care of him, for sure, but felt like she was going through the motions. Heather nursed him, held him, rocked him to sleep, changed his diapers, but with each day she felt like a technician and not like a mother.
And she slept badly. Really badly, but she told herself that’s just what happens when you have a baby. Terrible thoughts popped into her head. Thoughts like visions of a childless life, of living Sean with a different family and running away. Thoughts that filled her with devastating guilt and shame.
Heather told no one about how she felt. Especially not to Dan. She watched him with Sean, how he looked into their son’s eyes with a look so loving it hurt her. She felt inadequate, ashamed and worthless. Heather didn’t know what to do.
Heather is not a real person, but her story is based on several different people, all of whom suffered from Postpartum Depression. In this post, I want to talk with you about what postpartum depression is, what does it look like and what can you do about it.
Postpartum Depression VS Baby Blues
Feelings of sadness, melancholy, and fear, and manifestations of mood swings, fits of crying or anxiety are actually quite common after birth. This phenomenon is sometimes called Baby Blues. Usually, the baby blues start in the first couple of days after the birth and last for two or three weeks.
Postpartum depression, on the other hands, lasts longer and is manifested with more severe feelings and symptoms. One of the most important differences between postpartum depression and baby blues that you should know about is that postpartum depression symptoms tend to hinder the parent's ability to take care of the baby.
Postpartum Depression Symptoms
Postpartum depression is basically an episode of depression. Hence, it usually contains common depression symptoms such as
(Adapted from the DSM-5):
- Depressed Mood during most of the day
- Diminished interest or pleasure from activities which are usually pleasurable and interesting
- Either a decrease or increase in appetite
- Troubled sleep – either too little sleep (insomnia) or too much sleep (hypersomnia)
- Feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and shame
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate
- Feeling agitated or, on the other hand, lethargic
- Recurrent thoughts of death
Specifically for postpartum depression, we should notice symptoms such as a markedly diminished interest in taking care of the baby, or diminished pleasure from the baby. It must be noted that taking care of babies – especially newborns – is not always interesting or pleasurable. However, usually parents find meaning and pleasure in the process, and if you find yourself not feeling that at all, that’s a red flag.
Basically, when a parent suffers from postpartum depression, he or she will find it really difficult to bond with the baby. Usually, the parent will take care of the baby, but – like Heather – will do so in a technical, going through the motions kind of way. On more extreme cases, the parent may neglect the taking care of the baby on some level.
How Long does Postpartum Depression Last?
The answer to that question is not definitive. There is no way to predict how long a postpartum depression will last, and usually, they last for a couple of months. However, if not treated, they can last longer, hurting the building relationship between parent and child. This is why an early diagnosis is important, as it will enable you to get treatment as soon as possible.
Your Postpartum Depression is NOT your fault
There is no subtle way to say this (nor should there be) – if you suffer from postpartum depression, IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Feeling depressed after having a baby, having difficulty with bonding, not finding it pleasurable, etc. – all of these say nothing about you, your character or your abilities as a mother or father.
Women who suffer postpartum depression are not weak, nor are they doing anything wrong and hurting their baby. If people say things like that to you or to someone you know, they just hurt you by bringing you even more down and hurting your motivation to get help.
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What should I do if I think I have Postpartum Depression?
If you think that you suffer from postpartum depression, the best thing for you to do is to schedule an appointment with your doctor or contact a mental health professional with experience with postpartum depression.
If you find that you have thoughts about harming yourself and/or your baby, don’t wait. Seek help from someone you can trust – your partner, parents, best friend – and go to the emergency center in your area.
If you think that someone you know may suffer from postpartum depression – it may be your spouse, your daughter or son, or maybe a friend – my suggestion is to talk to them about it. But do so in a sensitive way. Remember that many mothers who have the baby blues or suffer from postpartum depression feel strong feelings of shame and guilt over not being the best mom or feeling inadequate.
How to talk to your acquaintance about his or her depression? Remember to be as non-judgmental as you can. Remind yourself, and your acquaintance, that being depressed is not something that he or she DOES, it something that happened to them and it says nothing about their good will, their strength, etc.
By validating the difficult feelings, which means not attacking those feelings, you will set the stage for healing. Help your acquaintance to find good therapy and support them in the process. And most important of all – give them the time they need to get better.
Do Fathers Get Postpartum Depression?
Although this post was written in honor of the Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, and although postpartum depression is considered a women’s conditions, men can get it too. It is estimated that as much as 1 out of 10 men will suffer from postpartum depression.
It’s true that fathers don’t go through the hormonal changes that come with pregnancy and labor. And it’s also true that they usually don’t engage in breastfeeding and in most cases, they go back to work earlier than their mother. However, fathers can be overwhelmed as well. They can get over fatigued, they can feel sad as well as all the other symptoms of postpartum depression.
It’s especially important to note that sometimes fathers find it hard to bond with the baby, especially if they compare themselves to the mother. This has many reasons. For example, if the mother stays at home with the baby and is engaged with the baby all day long, she has so many bonding opportunities that the father just misses.
Every time she holds her baby close, and especially during feeding time, a rush of oxytocin – the hormone responsible for feelings of love and bonding – flows through both her and the baby. Fathers, traditionally, have fewer opportunities to do so. This is why it is recommended for fathers to feed their babies and hold them close, preferably with skin touching skin.
Another reason fathers find it hard to bond with their babies is social norms. As progressive and advanced as our culture is, we still regard women as natural caregivers and men as… not. We don’t really teach our boys to be caregivers when they grow up. Most of the toys and games that have anything to do with parenting and caregiving are designed to attract girls and not boys, and boys can be scolded for wanting to play with them. As long as we keep this stupid division, grown men will find it hard to bond with their babies in a natural way.
Postpartum depression is a prevalent condition. Estimates show that up to one in five women in the U.S. will suffer from it at one time or another. Fathers can have postpartum depression as well.
Estimates states that that 7 in 10 women downplay or hide their symptoms. However, postpartum depression, or any other maternal mental health condition, is not something to be ashamed of.
You are not a bad person for having those feelings and you can get treatment that will help you feel better and build the connection with your baby to the fullest.