What does normal postpartum depression look like?
In honor of Maternal Mental Health Awareness Week, I’ve decided to share my own story of postpartum mental struggles. Frankly, I did not once think that my situation was unusual or that something was really wrong with me. I want to share my story to show one example of how we can in fact experience postpartum mood struggles, and yet not need to be medicated or “treated” clinically. Rather we need to call for “support” of the mother and the family during these changing and often challenging times. If you are experiencing mental health struggles and feel that you cannot handle them with the support you already have, or if you are afraid you will harm yourself or your child, please don’t hesitate to reach out for outside help. Head to https://www.postpartum.net/ for resources.
Having had experienced suicidal depression and crippling anxiety during my adolescence and early adulthood, I knew I was potentially at a “high risk” for postpartum depression. As I checked the box for it on my intake form at the midwives office, I readied myself for the increased questions and information about postpartum depression. My partner even once told me he was sure I would get it (very loving of him, yes). I was completely open to the fact I might not, having long ago made serious changes to my physical health and diet, but also knew I had a propensity for these issues.
On the flip side, I actually feel I had an edge when my baby was born. I knew full well what anxiety and depression felt like. I knew what the very beginnings of those feelings looked like for me, and I had a huge toolbox already of how to steer myself in a better direction when I saw them coming. So many mom’s don’t have this knowledge and skillset and are blindsided by their feelings, but I honestly felt prepared to deal with whatever came. I planned for lots of walks and healthy foods. What I could not plan for was the smoke.
The day my daughter was born was the first day a massive heat wave set into Seattle, and simultaneously marked the arrival of thick smoke from forest fires all across the NW. I had a glorious, healthy new baby in the middle of a beautiful summer, and I became a prisoner in my own home. It was sweltering but we couldn’t open the windows because of the smoke which was of course, toxic for infants. I could not leave my house for even short periods of time without checking the air quality levels on my phone. My whole family slept on a futon mattress on the floor of our unfinished basement to try to stay cool. My newborn slept all the time because she was so hot, and I had to wake her up for feedings (which left me feeling exhausted, guilty, and confused).
I lost the ability to go outside, which has for years been an anchor to my sanity. I could not exist happily or easily in my home. It was too hot to cook any food, and I didn’t feel like eating the nourishing broths and dishes we had made a head of time. Enter all the feelings.
The first thing I experienced was intense sadness. Sadness about everything and nothing all at once. I was deeply grieving no longer being pregnant, even wishing that I could put her back. This little baby was much less fun than the connection we had shared while she was still inside me. I was sad she was already growing up so fast and yet desperately wanted her to grow up. It was the confused and blameless sadness of my depression. It’s similar to the feeling of when you don’t want to die, but you also just don’t want to live right now. Thoughts of “I don’t want to do this.” It showed up most clearly each afternoon around three, when I would sit in our coolish basement and weep just because. I texted a few doula friends to check in about how normal this was, and felt reassured by their confidence that “the weepies” were definitely “a thing.”
That info allowed me to accept it without panic. I recognized that this depression was coming from hormonal shifts of this new stage and was acceptable. I allowed myself to be sad when I felt sad, and moved on when I felt ready to. When my partner expressed confusion as to what to do, I assured him I would be okay, but he needed to let me cry and be okay with it. Sometimes I turned on Game of Thrones and numbed some of the pain, other times I simply fell asleep in it.
As life slowly normalized over the course of a few days, I began to notice the ways anxiety also began to creep in. The smoke certainly didn’t help as I was actually surrounded by a cloud of ash threatening to hurt her health permanently. But I noticed I was afraid of so much. Driving with her in the car, letting people who might be sick near her, letting people I didn’t like hold her. Was she getting enough milk? Sleeping too much? Was she going to get SIDS and die despite all my best efforts? And you know what… those are normal fears that everyone has. I believe postpartum anxiety is probably experienced on some level by most new parents. The problem of comes when you let these thoughts take over and rule your decision making and the way you are able to care for your child.
One day we had gotten all geared up to go out into the world and visit a farmers market. The air quality was moderate and we could go out for a little while. Lyra was probably 2 weeks old. And I was so worried about all the things that might happen. All the things that scared me about leaving the house. It just seemed so dangerous and so difficult. And Trent noticed my energy as we began to step out the door and asked if I was sure I wanted to go. “I don’t.” I admitted, “But we need to go anyways.” Because the thing I know about anxiety and fear is that their only power is in making you do what they say. If you hear them but act differently than they are asking you to, it’s going to be okay. I really didn’t want to deal with facing the world that day, but also I knew that I should. That it would benefit me and all of us in the long run.
As life did normalize, and as my hormones adjusted, and as the smog lifted, my anxiety and depression decreased naturally. I will be really clear and share that I took as good of care of my mental health as I knew how. I didn’t eat any sugar during this time and ate nourishing foods. I slept got enough sleep through naps and the old adage of sleeping when your baby sleeps. And I committed to staying present and loving with myself through journaling and meditation. I more or less came through to the other side of the postpartum mental health issues that had manifested for me.
I want you to know that the best thing you can do for yourself in many cases is allow the feelings. Welcome everything just as it is. Don’t make yourself wrong or crazy. Just see yourself as a mother experiencing a lot and if depression, anxiety, or another issue is a part of your experience, let that be okay. You are normal. You are beautiful. You are loved.