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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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