If we lived in an Instagram world, having a baby would be nothing but adorable outfits, lazy afternoon snoozes, and picture-perfect nurseries with sweet sleepy babies. All moms would be intensely in love with their babies and somehow manage to look entirely put-together without any sign of frustration on their smiling faces.
In the world we actually live in, motherhood is full of intense love and joy and moments of pure bliss. It’s also immensely overwhelming, constitutes a complete loss of control, and can be extremely isolating.
Dr. Patricia De Marco Centeno, medical director of the Maternal Mental Health Program at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, California, notes, “Women are told that the birth of their babies should be the happiest times of their lives. But for many, hormonal changes lead to a cascade of emotions, including depression and feelings of hopelessness. What surprises many people is that 1 in 5 women experience maternal depression, which makes it the leading complication of pregnancy.”
It goes beyond that, too. About 80% of women experience the baby blues immediately following the births of their children. And, 1 in 7 women goes on to suffer from postpartum depression. That is a staggering statistic – one that comes as a shock to many of us due to the stigma surrounding mental health disorders in our country.
Women, surrounded by visions of other women gliding through motherhood on their social media feeds and in their lives, become stifled in their own thoughts and feelings of inadequacy. We think, “Well, she can do it, why can’t I?” We drown ourselves in images of perfect motherhood and then come down hard on ourselves when our lives don’t live up to those idealistic terms. We tell our friends and families that we’re so happy and perfectly fine. We let ourselves believe it through all the struggles. We, as a society, hold tight to our realities – and what that does is make the next woman feel as alone as we did.
The truth is that new motherhood is so often so hazy and exhausting that we hardly remember what day it is. We try to do it all ourselves when we should be relying on our partners and friends so much more.
Here at The Everymom, we believe wholeheartedly in sharing every kind of motherhood experience. We also believe in removing the stigma surrounding mental health disorders, particularly postpartum mood disorders. And to do that, we must share and look out for one another.
So, here’s what you need to know about postpartum mood disorders – make yourself aware because it can affect you even if you’re SO excited to have your baby and there’s no history of mental health disorders in your family. Send this to your spouses, partners, and friends. They will be your eyes and ears when you are not yourself. And remember, the sisterhood of motherhood is on your side.
What Are The Baby Blues?
Pregnancy obviously comes with a ton of changes to your body, the most intense of which is the influx of hormones coursing through your system. These same hormones are what causes what’s known as the Baby Blues, which women experience immediately following the birth of your child. Perinatal and Reproductive Psychiatrist, Dr. Carly Snyder, MD, explains what happens: “Levels of estrogen and progesterone peak during pregnancy at over 100 times their pre-pregnancy baseline. There is only one direction for the levels to go after delivery — down, like a ton of bricks. This massive hormonal shift causes mood symptoms termed the “Baby Blues” for over 85% of new moms.”
The Baby Blues could include, but are not limited to, these symptoms: mood swings, anxiety, sadness, irritability, crying spells, decreased concentration, trouble sleeping, and feeling intensely overwhelmed.
The Baby Blues can begin a few days after delivery and last about two to three weeks postpartum. These feelings tend to resolve themselves as your body’s hormones regulate once again.
What Signs Should Partners/Friends Look Out For In New Mothers?
The first indication is that even symptoms indicative of the Baby Blues are considered to be a postpartum mood disorder if lasting beyond three to four weeks postpartum.
Many women don’t say anything at this point because they think things will resolve themselves, but sooner you say something or talk to your doctor, the better.
Postpartum mood disorders can get progressively worse without immediate attention or treatment. “Postpartum depression can affect any new mom, irrespective of age, socioeconomic status, and pregnancy history,” notes Dr. Leesha Ellis-Cox, MD, MPH. “Postpartum depression DOES NOT mean you are a bad mom,” she says firmly. “You are not a failure.”
Dr. Centeno lists these as the main indications of Postpartum Depression — this is what partners and friends should keep an eye out for in the new mothers in their lives:
- Constant tearfulness or sadness most of the day, every day. It’s very common to feel more sensitive and tearful for two weeks after birth. This is part of the Baby Blues, and it is normal. More intense feelings or continuous crying that lingers more than three weeks after delivery may indicate clinical postpartum depression.
- Excessive guilt and feelings of worthlessness. This means feeling guilty about numerous, unrelated topics including, but not limited to: being a good parent, birth experience based on your expectations, bonding properly with your baby, going back to work, marital expectations, work performance, body image, nutrition, and breastfeeding, among others.
- Lack of interest in things you used to enjoy, such as hobbies, leisure activities (movies, reading, walking), and even meals.
- Lack of sleep or too much sleep. As a new parent, some degree of sleep deprivation is expected and normal. After all, infants have not read a manual on sleep cycles. The real question is, are you able to get some sleep WHEN your baby is asleep? If your answer is no, most of the time, this could be a sign of depression and/or anxiety.
- Feelings of hopelessness. Most of the time, moms describe this feeling as “being trapped” or having “no way out.” This may be accompanied with negative thoughts or constantly worrying that something terrible is going to happen. More severe forms of hopelessness may turn into suicidal thoughts. (If this happens, please tell someone ASAP, call 911, or go to your nearest emergency room. You may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 immediately to get help.)
How Can Partners And Friends Support New Mothers?
There’s a number of ways we can support the new mothers in our lives and being aware of postpartum mood disorders is a major one, but not the only one.
“One of the most important things spouses can do is to make sure mom is getting enough sleep,” says Laura Winters, LCSW, a therapist specializing in infertility and pre/postpartum stress. “Sleep has a significant impact on our mood and anxiety. So partners can help with nighttime feedings or early morning wakings and give mom more time for sleep.” Friends can offer to keep an eye on baby in the afternoons or evenings so mom can take a nap or get to bed early.
“Spouses and partners can listen, really listen with all their senses to what’s happening for mom,” says Shana Averbach, LMFT, San Francisco-based psychotherapist specializing in perinatal mental health. “Ask how she’s doing and pause to wait for the answer without jumping in to fix things right away or minimizing her experience. Tell her she’s doing a good job, then tell her again.”
Moms are often enormously hard on themselves during this time, she explains. Partners and friends can also take some time to consider how they can make mom’s life easier without them having to spell it out, which is an emotional burden.
Practical support is a protective factor, so either doing or outsourcing help around the house, childcare for other kid(s), and meal preparation can be enormously helpful.
As friends and partners, we tend to want to fix our loved ones’ problems, but that’s not always the best way to approach. More than anything, new mothers (and people in general) want to be listened to and understood. Lending an empathetic ear while your partner or friend vents can go a long way in making them feel heard.
Dr. Snyder also offers these conversation starters as a way to get insight on the new mom in your life:
- How are you?
- How can I help? Can I do the laundry/cook/clean for you?
- How are you sleeping? How can I help you squeeze a nap in?
- How do you feel when someone else is holding the baby? Are you able to relax or do you just feel nervous?
- How does the reality of having a baby differ from what you anticipated? Are you finding joy in the experience despite it being hard?
- Can I get you something to eat?
- How is feeding the baby going? Is it harder than planned? How do you feel about the process?
- Would you like to see friends and family, or are you feeling less social than usual?
- Are you scared to have other people hold and help out with the baby? Does this extend to people who you know are actually competent? What are you scared of?
- Are you avoiding holding or caring for your baby? What are you worried about?
Asking questions like these will not only give you an idea on how to help out but also on mom’s general feelings and thoughts, which can be a gauge on whether or not you should encourage her to talk to her doctor.
As friends and mothers, the best thing we can do for each other is sharing our stories honestly and without shame. As Winters says, “Even if you didn’t struggle with postpartum depression or anxiety, you more than likely dealt with a number of parenting challenges and had your moments when you missed your old life. Giving a mom struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety something she can relate to is like tossing her a life preserver. Rather than believing she is a terrible mother, she can begin to understand that she is not alone and other mothers experienced something similar. And they survived.”
Our stories, all of them, not just the perfect ones, are important. By sharing them, we can shed light on the reality of motherhood and its many perfectly imperfect experiences. We can break the stigma surrounding postpartum mental health disorders, and help all motherhoods feel heard and understood.