As both a new mom and a single parent, I didn’t know that I had something more than the ‘baby blues’ after I gave birth to my daughter. Sure, I was exhausted both mentally and physically beyond words due to a traumatic labor and birth, and sure I would cry in the mornings feeling hopeless when the sun came up from being up all night with the baby, unsure of how I would make it through the day, but I would also cry at night when the sun went down, for no reason at all. I felt panicked on the inside, like my heart was constantly racing and I couldn’t catch a breath. Even hearing the lullaby song from the mobile crib play over and over seemed to trigger me into overwhelming sadness, for reasons unknown. I felt so sad and overwhelmed because even though others were helping the baby, no one was helping me. Here I was physically recovering from a 42-hour labor and vacuum delivery that required the obstetrician to give me an episiotomy which resulted in a 3rd degree tear, not sleeping since the baby was born, not eating properly since every waking moment was caring for the baby 24/7, trying to establish breastfeeding, and letting the household tasks such as laundry and dishes pile up. Not to mention the overwhelming mom guilt I had about not being able to give my dog, who was my first baby the attention that she deserved! And to add to that intrusive thoughts (which I didn’t even know at the time were intrusive thoughts), it was a recipe for a crisis. I didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to. So I suffered. Rather than sleep when the baby sleeps, which all mothers from our past generation seem to tell you, I thought I could do it all. Besides, aren’t we superwomen? We can work, manage our household, and raise children all at once, right? Well, what was wrong with me that I couldn’t cope? I must be weak. I don’t deserve my child. She deserves better. I’m not good enough. These thoughts ruminated my mind day and night, which looking back was a telltale sign that I needed help. Everyone loved the baby, but who loved me? Who thought of me? I needed to be taken care of too, and yet my silent cries for help seemed to fall on deaf ears.
I had gotten so used to not feeling like myself that I somehow convinced myself that this was just the ‘new me’. Gone was my laughter, humor, and smile. I was now anxious, uptight, and couldn’t seem to relax even if I knew my baby was in good hands with someone else. I lost the joy in life that I once had. I was constantly feeling overwhelmed, letting my "mom guilt" overtake my thoughts each day. It didn’t matter what the mom guilt was about either – whether it was not being able to breastfeed my child after trying every intervention out there, from skin-to-skin contact, pumping, expressing, to trying supplements and lactation consultants. I just wasn’t producing enough breastmilk. I also had huge guilt about not being able to walk my dog anymore-she is very active and we would normally walk at least 30 minutes in the morning and at night to ensure she got adequate exercise. Suddenly I was alone with a newborn, and since it was during the coldest winter months when I gave birth to her, we couldn’t last more than 5 minutes outside. She was so tiny that I was afraid she would get frostbite regardless of how many layers I bundled her up in. So even before it happened I would find myself blaming myself for the ‘what ifs’ that may happen. So instead, rather than reach out and ask for help, I shamed myself daily for not being able to walk my dog. Sounds so minuscule in the grand scheme of things but trust me when I say it’s the little things that plague mothers’ minds most often!
If there is one message I have for loved ones of any parent, it is be compassionate toward them. It is wonderful that our little bundle of joy has safely arrived, but based on my own lived experience, the one thing that parents need the most is compassion. It means the world if someone reaches out and asks "How can I help?". It is one simple question that is so powerful, and can greatly impact any new parent who may be struggling postpartum. That’s when you will find out what we really need help with. I myself didn’t have the knowledge or courage to speak up and ask for exactly what I needed, and I paid for it bigtime.
By the time I hit what I can only describe as my rock bottom, a year had passed postpartum and I ended up in my doctor’s office, shamefully admitting that I was having a hard time mentally. I wasn’t the happy mom that I felt I was supposed to be. I felt so on edge all the time and I knew that I wasn’t myself, but no one seemed to notice or say anything so I just carried on with my silent pain that I felt, all the while juggling perhaps the most significant event in a person’s life – the transition from womanhood into motherhood. I was suddenly reminded of my 6-week follow up appointment at the OB GYN’s office where the obstetrician was reassessing my 3rd degree tear, then suddenly asked me "So are you depressed?".
Looking back, that was such a pivotal moment for me, and yet I was so caught off guard by the question that I didn’t even know what to say. I remember quickly replying "No" followed by the silence of his keyboard typing on the computer. Now that I am trained as a perinatal mental health provider, I cringe at the thought that many parents may be falling through the cracks when they so desperately need support, all because their health provider failed to properly assess them for a perinatal mood disorder. For some reason that I can’t explain, maybe it was the sleep deprivation, the head fog of not knowing really what was really going on with me, or the inward grief that I had not dealt with yet regarding my birth trauma, but even with a background as a healthcare professional, I didn’t speak up and ask for help when I needed it the most. It took me over a year to seek and find the proper care that I needed in order to treat and ultimately recover from my perinatal depression and anxiety with OCD components in the form of intrusive thoughts, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t want my faults to be your faults. Hindsight is 20/20, and now that I have fully recovered I can wholeheartedly say that asking for help is a strength, not a weakness.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with a perinatal mood disorder, please reach out. I am here to help.