I met a mother of a 6-month-old recently. We were in a group of mothers, talking about postpartum adjustments as well as birth experiences. It was a safe space for sharing stories openly and honestly. This mama told her birth story and she bravely ventured into a place of deep vulnerability to share what she is experiencing now. As she spoke about the anxiety she felt at the moment of her unexpected cesarean, checking on her baby 9 times a night, waking nightly from 1-4AM unable to fall back asleep (despite her baby sleeping pretty well), and fear of leaving her baby with anybody else, she looked as if she was discovering something that not even she knew about herself. She said that whenever she shared a piece of her experience with others, the response was an offhand remark along the lines of, “welcome to motherhood, you’ll never sleep again.” These remarks had contributed to her belief that what she was going through was normal, and nothing much could be done about it. As she spoke, every mom in the room looked like as if she had something to say. One mother lovingly said, “it’s not normal. You don’t need to feel this way forever. You can seek support for this.” Until sharing with this particular group of mamas 6 months into her postpartum transition, this mom had not been given any feedback to help her see that she might seek support and treatment to help her feel better. She had been convinced, largely by quick responses and by the silence of others, that she needed to just deal with her extreme level of anxiety. As a group, we were able to encourage her to find support for potential postpartum depression and anxiety. We shared resources with her to help her do just that.
If you’ve read any of my writing, or worked with me before, you’ll know that a large part of my mission is demystifying and normalizing the postpartum experience. I believe that every new mother falls somewhere on a continuum of postpartum adjustment and I have yet to meet a new mama who couldn’t name a single challenge she faced or adjustment she experienced after having a baby. This may sound surprising to some, because we’re working within a cultural framework that expects us to be overjoyed with new motherhood and to remain silent about the struggles. And any discussion about the challenging parts is usually a bit more tongue-in-cheek. There are comments and passing remarks like the ones spoken to the mother in this story. It’s almost like we’re afraid to really dive down into the true pain we experience and we’re afraid to hear about anyone else’s pain.
As I work with families to normalize this transition, to help them verbalize what they’re experiencing, and to help them believe that they are not alone in their feelings, I am also careful not to minimize any part of their experience. It takes great care to strike a balance between normalizing the challenges of postpartum adjustment and helping families see when their adjustment is falling outside the range of normal, when they are experiencing true symptoms of postpartum depression or anxiety, and when they could benefit from seeking additional support.
If you’re a new mama, keep talking about how you’re feeling right now. Find supportive places to share your real truth. And if your instinct is telling you that your experience might indicate the need for more support, please tune into that. Make an appointment with your care provider to talk about it. And if your provider minimizes what you’re experiencing, go see somebody else. Use your community to help you find a mental health counselor and make an appointment to meet with her. Perhaps you’ll just meet once, learn some strategies for coping, and be on your way. Perhaps you’ll develop a relationship and meet many times, working through your challenges. Perhaps you’ll dig into what’s happening and decide that medication would also help. You don’t need to feel this way forever and what you’re dealing with is treatable.
If you’re a friend or loved one of a new mama and she shares with you what’s been challenging for her, please listen to her. Don’t brush it off and don’t make a joke of it. Encourage her to keep talking and keep sharing her story. Encourage her to seek support. We can’t afford to remain silent about postpartum depression and anxiety. Take the risk in encouraging her to be vulnerable. If it turns out she is falling within a range of normal adjustment, no harm has been done. And if it turns out that she is suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety, you may have just changed her life.
Below are a few helpful resources if you’re trying to figure out if you might have postpartum depression or anxiety. And remember that the best way to do that is to seek professional support.
The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale: This is a self-assessment tool you can use to help you sift through your experience and determine if you might benefit from professional support.
Resources for Symptoms of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety: Our resource page with additional links and information.