Postpartum Depression – The Overwhelming Emotions Nobody Told Me Came With the Baby

Postpartum Depression - The Overwhelming Emotions Nobody Told Me Came With the Baby

In my nursing school maternity rotation, I remember briefly talking about the “baby blues”. It sounded so benign and universal, like a shadowy cloud quickly drifting through the sky, crying a few tears as the hormones crash. In my mental health rotation, the idea of postpartum psychosis seemed like a rare anomaly on the opposite end of the spectrum.  

It never occurred to me there were a thousand different experiences in between.

From Birth to Postpartum Depression – And Everything In Between

The emotions I experienced after giving birth shocked me. I had never experienced anything of that intensity, or that out of control, in my life. I cried all of day three postpartum. My midwife was there to tell me it was normal and gradually I adjusted. I found a letter years later I had written my daughter when she was colicky, in it, I apologize for bringing her to earth where she had to feel so much pain. Reading it outside of the moment, I realized just how altered my mental state must have been.

With my second baby, the waters were smooth. Other than a few tears on day three that I knowingly embraced as a physical reaction to hormonal shifts, I felt tired but happy. She was born in the summer and the days were sunny.

Then baby number three. We had feeding issues from the beginning. I was in pain physically and mentally distressed at my perceived failure. I quickly spiraled into day three on repeat. I couldn’t stop crying. It was like a fog had settled. It took a solid support network to see me through.

Some Postpartum Truths

My experiences made me curious, as I’ve watched my friends experience postpartum depression and talked to the moms in the NICU where I work I began to see themes emerging.

No two experiences are alike.

Every woman who enters into childbearing comes with a unique genetic makeup. If there is a family history of depression her risk of experiencing it herself goes up. Each pregnancy is unique and depression may even begin in pregnancy. A loss in pregnancy or the delivery of a baby with complications increases the risk again. A traumatic delivery can result in symptoms of post traumatic stress for women, and for their partner, again increasing the chances that she will experience a form of postpartum depression.

Even the same person, as in my case, can have completely different experiences with each baby.

Having a baby is something you need to recover from both physically and mentally.

While having babies is commonplace, the immensity of this life shift is often downplayed. Media is saturated with women looking great after recently giving birth. Social media allows us to share the good moments, while withholding the bad, causing a skewed perspective. In many cultures around the world, women are honored after birth for a period of time. They are taken care of and encouraged to take the time to heal physically.

The recovery needs to fit the person.

Some women may find that staying home and having help with the baby care is what they need to recover. Other may need to get out, and themselves be supported in caring for their families. When we apply a prescribed solution to our stress because a nurse, our Mother in Law, or the internet told us we should, it can have the opposite effect. It can be difficult to advocate for our mental health needs when culture dictates something different.

For me, I had a lot of anxiety about others taking care of my existing children. The money and stress of putting them in care to help me when I was struggling would have had the opposite effect I wanted it to.

Birth and caring for a newborn sets you up for poor self-care.

Caring for a new baby is demanding. Even if delivery is ideal, and often it’s not, women and their partners are faced suddenly with broken sleep, learning how to take care of a baby, and remembering to eat. There can be unresolved feelings about the pregnancy and birth. If women are the first in their families and peer groups to have a baby it can be isolating. Many moms joke about never being able to shower or even go to the bathroom alone, but having to renegotiate these basic behaviors of self care can contribute negatively to mental health.

It’s something that isn’t talked about that much especially to new moms.

Recently, women have begun speaking out about the mental challenges that come along with a new baby. From celebrities, to friends over coffee, there has been a big shift towards realization, that while postpartum mood disorders are concerning and should be treated, they are common.

When the stigma is removed it gives women the confidence to admit they are struggling, which is often the first big step towards recovery. When shame stops women from speaking out, it also fosters denial. Instead of spending energy on finding treatment, it can be easy to put all that energy into convincing ourselves that these feeling aren’t real.

There are things to do to help prevent it.

There are many things we can do to buffer the stress of having a baby. Managing expectations is the biggest one. Having a realistic view of just how little sleep, or how hard breastfeeding will be, can go a long way in normalizing it when it happens. If women realize the challenges, they can be prepared with meals, knowing where to get support for feeding, and strategies for getting rest.

It has taken me three kids to finally acknowledge that self-care is not an indulgence. It is a necessity that makes me a better mom. It’s also something that looks different at each stage of motherhood. When I had a newborn just having 20 minutes for an uninterrupted shower was amazing. As my kids get older I’m looking forward to a whole weekend away.

There are things to do to fix it.

All the things that help depression can be used to fight postpartum mood disorders with some creativity.

  • Walk

My easiest postpartum was in the summer where we walked every day out in the sun. It’s harder when the weather is cold and dreary, but getting out even if it’s just for a brisk walk in the mall before the stores open, can make a big difference.  

  • Connect

Some of my best friends still are coworkers who had babies at the same time. We would drag each other out for walks even when we didn’t feel like it and be reminded that it’s hard for everyone as we shared our joys and struggles with motherhood.

  • Recharge

Mindfulness and relaxation are important too. From baby and me yoga to listening to a relaxation meditation or mindfulness app while the baby is sleeping. I used instagram to take pictures everyday of the small things I was a grateful for.

  • Nourish

Then there is nourishment. It is so easy to forget to eat and drink when there are small people demanding our attention but our bodies need whole, healthy foods and plenty of water to recover from birth, to produce milk and to cope with caring for a baby. Sometimes good food need to be supplemented with iron, omega 3s and other vitamins to address specific deficiencies as well.

  • Medication

Then there is medication. There comes a time when the symptoms of depression and anxiety are so overwhelming that all of the above seems insurmountable. Medication can be the one thing that allows women to reclaim their life. It can be what it takes to bring them back to a place where they are capable of eating, drinking and sleeping.

It doesn’t make you a bad mom.

There is a lot of shame around perinatal mood disorders. There is shame for many of us who thought we could do it all and were sideswiped with realizing just how challenging motherhood can be. There is guilt over needing medication, and over not taking it, over stopping breastfeeding, and for powering through.

Shame and guilt has become the norm for so many parenting decisions. When moms are vulnerable with their stories of how hard it is, and the many factors that went into their decisions, it is harder to judge and easier to empathize. Managing expectations can only be done when other mothers share not just the joys, but the challenges.

When We Share our Story

When I share my struggles with motherhood it is met with an overwhelming response of “me too.” Knowing that other moms feel the same way makes it harder to believe there is something wrong with me. It’s normalizing.

All women find parts of motherhood challenging, as it should be. The task of raising human beings is one that comes with great honor, but also great expectations from society and ourselves. There is so much pressure to find the one right way that we’ve lost sight of the millions of good ways.

Knowing that anger and anxiety, sadness and numbness are all things that come with the positive emotions of having a baby, can leave us prepared for both. It’s normal to feel everything.

When the negative feelings take over and crowd out the joy and the happiness, when they steal the peace and the calm, knowing that it is ok to seek help can aid in creating a better balance.

When we suffer alone, we fight alone and it becomes a vicious circle of not realizing we need help, and not realizing that we are not alone.

If you, or someone you know is struggling with the emotions that come with pregnancy and postpartum, which left untreated can extend far into motherhood, Postpartum Progress is an excellent resource. It has everything from current research to personal stories.

Women shouldn’t suffer alone. As a society we need to care for our mothers who are raising the next generation. Then they can be empowered and equipped emotionally to do it well. It affects us all.


About the Author: Jenn Shehata

Jenn is a messy mom and ordinary nurse living a beautiful life. She writes to remember and to reimagine the story. You can find her at www.cryandnurseon.com writing about motherhood and nursing and all the thing that make her cry.

When she’s not chasing her three kids, watching Netflix with her husband, or working in the NICU, she is a voracious reader, always looking to understand the world better through people’s stories. Preferably with a latte in hand.

Find out more about Jenn on Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter.

4 Comments

An

I too suffered postpartum depression that I was no way prepared for. All the prenatal magazines and books I read, this in 1985-86 during my first pregnancy, also talked about baby blues but not about postpartum depression. Depression for me manifested in increased anxiety. My son was almost 2 years old before I finally sought professional help. Thankfully by 1990, when my second son was born, I was prepared and recognized the symptoms and got help quickly. I think more obstetricians, doulas, midwifes, pediatricians, and perinatal healthcare nurses should be fully educated in postpartum mental health so they can in turn educate their moms-to-be before, during and after the birth…to ask perinent questions regarding exactly how they are doing, not just 6 weeks after birth, but during well baby checks as well.

Reply
Jenn

yes, yes, yes. I agree so much. Health care professionals need to be much better as assessing and straight up discussing mental health with women and know the resources to offer them.

Reply
Jana

Great article. I think those in a ‘compatible’ profession with raising children (I’m a teacher and ex-nanny) end up with greater perceived pressures to ‘excel’ at motherhood, which is totally unachievable – we all find our own way and have different strengths and weaknesses. I followed all your bulletpoints in my own journey to recovery, and now I speak freely to people about my own experiences in the hope it will encourage them to not feel the pressure (self-imposed I hasten to add) that I felt to be a self-sufficient, perfect mum. They don’t exist – we all need others and no-one is perfect!

Reply
Jenn

I agree. I think when we take care of children professionally we give ourselves less room for struggle and have skewed expectations.

I love this. “They don’t exist – we all need others and no-one is perfect!”

I’m slowly learning this.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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