Despite all the work mental health professionals have done to break down the stigma of postpartum depression, society keeps shoving a message in the face of a new mom: having a baby is the best thing in the world.
“Are you loving being a mom?”, “Isn’t it just the best thing ever?” and “Treasure this time” are all phrases a new mom will hear in the first weeks of her baby’s life. It can leave her wondering what she is missing, what she is doing wrong.
Well-meaning friends, family and ever-present social media can place pressure on new mothers. This can morph into a belief that if you are not loving your newborn who is screaming for no apparent reason, waking up ten times a night and pooping all over you, there must be something wrong with you. Add that pressure to the out-of-whack hormones coursing through a woman’s body and you have a recipe for postpartum depression.
The CDC estimates upwards of one in five women experience postpartum depression. This number is based on the women who report it and does not account for the women who don’t reach for support.
A few things set postpartum depression apart from major depression: trouble sleeping when your baby sleeps (more than the lack of sleep new moms usually get), feeling numb or disconnected from your baby, having scary or negative thoughts about the baby (like thinking someone will take your baby away or hurt your baby), worrying you will hurt the baby and feeling guilty about not being a good mom, or ashamed you cannot care for your baby. Postpartum depression can manifest anytime in the first year of your baby’s life and can persist for years without therapeutic or medical intervention.
Why So Many Women Don’t Get Help
Friends, family and even the medical community mislabel postpartum depression as the “baby blues.” The National Institute of Mental Health [NIMH] estimates up to 80% of women experience baby blues. The baby blues describe the feelings of worry, unhappiness and fatigue many women experience after having a baby. Symptoms are mild and will resolve in a week or two.
When new mothers talk about feeling unhappy, some rush to assume it’s the baby blues and it will go away on its own. Whether it’s the baby blues or postpartum depression, both are important to talk about. What might look like the baby blues can be postpartum depression. It’s important not to assume these feelings will go away without help.
It can be hard to know when you feel depressed. When you realize you feel depressed, it can be difficult to admit to others you are struggling. Add to that the pressures and expectations of motherhood and it can be almost paralyzing to ask for help.
During pregnancy women hear how much they are going to love being a mom, how it will be the best time in their life. They hear throughout their life that a baby will fulfill them; they will love being a mother. No one has told them they might feel sad, hopeless, overwhelmed and utterly exhausted. No one has told them they might have a really hard time and that it’s OK.
So when baby comes and they don’t love it, it can be incredibly difficult to acknowledge that, even to themselves. Women who do bravely admit they have been feeling down get brushed off as a tired, sleep deprived mom who will feel better in a few weeks. It’s agonizing enough to give a voice to postpartum depression, but to then be rejected by loved ones who don’t understand can end up worsening symptoms. To hear “you’ll feel better when you get some sleep” invalidates a new mother’s experience and might cause her to stop reaching out for help.
There is fear that people will not understand — or worse — be judgmental about postpartum depression. This fear is enough to scare new moms into suffering in silence. Depression convinces you you’re hopeless and alone. Postpartum depression adds to that a worry you are not good enough as a mother, that your child would be better off without you.
A New Complication of Postpartum Depression
There have been several studies in the past few years connecting social media use and mental health issues. A new study from the University of Michigan found the more people used Facebook between text messages, the less happy they felt. Another study suggested envy and social comparison can increase with social media use. This is a particular danger for new mothers who are up all hours of the night with their babies with the easiest distraction being their phone.
Scrolling through social media seems like a harmless way to spend 30 minutes in the wee hours of the morning. Iit can, however, lead to feeling more depressed and isolated. For a new mom it can be a brutal reminder of what you don’t have, a black hole of comparison. Other mothers seem to be having a grand old time with their children, why can’t I? My friends are having fun, going out and going on vacation. Why can’t I?
Spending time on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter doesn’t take much mental energy. When you’re sleep deprived and depressed, it can be a way to escape. This escape could actually be making you feel more depressed and less likely to ask for help. The reality of people’s lives is not what social media tells us. The mom who posts the picture of her staring lovingly in her baby’s eyes isn’t posting when her baby wouldn’t stop crying. It’s hard to remember that at 3 a.m., so do yourself a favor and don’t look.
Don’t Ignore It, Kick It to the Curb
Ditch the yoga pants. When you’re home with your baby it’s easy to get in a rut of yoga pants and sweatshirts. Postpartum depression makes it difficult to feel motivated to do anything, including taking care of your basic hygiene. Get dressed for the day. It can change your perspective and make you feel more confident and competent.
Leave the house. Postpartum depression wants you to feel isolated and alone. Going out can challenge those feelings and help you see things in a different light. Anyone would start to feel caged in if they stayed at home for days or weeks at a time. A new mom is no different. Go for a walk, go to the mall, visit a friend, step outside, whatever you can manage. Just get out!
Say yes to help. Postpartum depression tells you no one will understand, that you are a bad mother if you can’t do everything yourself. The reality is, every new mother needs help. It is OK to accept help and it is OK to ask for help. Let people make meals, take a night shift with the baby or watch the baby while you take a nap. If loved ones aren’t offering, it’s OK to ask them.
Going to therapy and processing through these feelings helps. Talking to your doctor and going on medication might be the thing you need. Giving a voice to postpartum depression can be intimidating. Talking to a professional who will not judge you can be less daunting than talking to loved ones. Overcome the shame, fear and guilt that postpartum depression creates and set yourself free.