May is apparently postpartum depression (PPD) awareness month, and that’s an important thing to talk about. You may hear about it, but you might not realize how prevalent it is or how many different forms it can take until you have a child yourself. I didn’t know that untreated PPD is “the number one complication of pregnancy” or that in some places, 1 in 4 mothers (that’s 25%) experience it. It’s serious business, and it doesn’t always manifest in obvious ways or at expected times.
The “baby blues” commonly occurs during a period of really heightened emotions from hormonal surges in the weeks directly after childbirth. Similar predictable emotional periods occur during “hormone dumps” that can happen at a few specific times: 3 days after birth, when your milk comes in, when your milk supply establishes, when your period starts again, when you stop breastfeeding or pumping. And then there’s more pervasive depression or anxiety that may ebb and flow, or get worse with time instead of better. I didn’t get treatment for PPD until 4 months postpartum and I didn’t begin any medication until 6 months because I wasn’t sure I “needed” it. I wasn’t incapable of getting out of bed, or afraid to leave the house, or having thoughts of harming myself or my baby, or hearing or seeing things that aren’t there, which is how PPD is usually described. I loved my baby and I was happy most of the time. But I was also wracked with indecision, every emotion was heightened, every argument with the Fiasco felt desperate, I had trouble sleeping even though I was exhausted, I was very quick to anger (unusual for me), and was often on the edge of tears (not that unusual). I regularly had “intrusive thoughts” which were (for me) horrible, gory, detailed waking nightmares of the baby accidentally getting hurt in many ways, most of which involved me falling while holding him or dropping him. When I began medication, I was amazed at how much more energy I had. I hadn’t realized how hard everything had been before until it was suddenly much easier. And that’s how insidious depression can be.
And let’s not forget: fathers can experience PPD, too. There are studies that show that hormones change for new fathers as well, and regardless of hormones, it’s a huge life event combined with sleep deprivation, figuring out new roles, changing relationships, having little time to clean or cook or eat, juggling job pressures, and a tiny crying ticking time bomb who will need things from you at any given moment in a more urgent and complete way than anybody has ever needed you before. That’s a lot of stress, and for some fathers it can trigger depression or other latent mental health issues just as with mothers.
So this Mother’s Day, hug a parent. Ask a new mom how she’s holding up, feed her some dinner, hold her baby while she showers, tell her she’s doing a great job, tell her everything will be ok, tell her to trust her instincts, help her find other new mom friends, send her to her doctor, suggest therapy if she can’t fall asleep when the baby sleeps, and check in with her over and over again. Ask a new dad, too. Tell him he’s doing just fine. Tell him the roles will sort themselves out, and if they don’t, counseling can help. Tell him he is loved and needed. Be there, listen, and ask questions. People don’t always ask for help when they need it most, so let them know you’ve got help to offer.
This went deeper than I expected it to, but there you have it. I’ll end on a lighter note, with a poem I wrote that was inspired by my beautiful boy and by a quote that I’ve heard many times but read most recently on the Yarn Harlot’s blog.
Oh Walking Heart
“Making the decision to have a child – it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.” – Elizabeth Stone
this is so true and because it’s so true i must proclaim in all caps that THIS IS SO TRUE and it’s something i hadn’t realized before. oh my god you tiny perfect incredible being you are my heart, my soul, my love made visible and tangible and vulnerable as the wee bundle of cells you once were in my uterus but now you’re outside, a crawling babbling kissing loving dancing growing galaxy of cells with your own wants and opinions and needs and likes and it is incredible so incredible to see your world develop to see you learn and watch you watch me watch you become a toddling little boy, child, teenager, man. to know that one day you will sometimes hate me and hurt me and probably leave me when right now i hold you and soothe you and rock you is so scary and so normal and so much a part of the deal along with fear, the insidious undercurrent in this ocean of love. because now, after our first mother’s day and before your first birthday, your first steps, your first words, your first day of school, your first test, your first fight, your first car, your first graduation, your first wedding dance, your first day of fatherhood– now, when you’re about to learn how to literally walk away from me carrying all of my desperate love and fervent hopes with you, now i can proclaim that THIS IS SO TRUE while i keep singing lullabies to soothe the glittering remnants of my old yearning heart.