Dear new mom,
Congratulations. Seriously … not in that trite, "I say this to all my friends who give birth just like millions of other women everyday do" way. Rather with sincerity and honest intent. you see, while millions of women do indeed become mothers by giving birth or adopting a child each and every day, no one has done so in exactly the way you have. Like little snowflakes, you and your child are an individual as they come. Unique in every way. Shaped by your history, your biological makeup and you experience.
You may encounter some people who will tell you that there is a right way to give birth, either before you do so, or after. These people might tell you that only one laboring method or way to give birth is "correct". That you should have done something differently. There will be others that will tell you there is only one right way to feed your baby. That you must do this a certain way, without deviation, or the earth might stop revolving or your baby might be harmed. These people will label themselves advocates, through really antagonists might be a more apt name for them. As a result of this pressure and bullying, you may be tempted to feel guilty or as if you have failed if your labor, birth or feeding methods don't 100% match up to the "standards" set by these self-proclaimed experts. I urge you instead to accept and celebrate your unique style of parenting as right and perfect for your family. I fell into a trap of guilt, fear and self-hate for my circumstances that prevented me from being able to think positively about one of the most miraculous and life-changing experiences I will every have … and I don't want that to happen to you.
After you give birth your way, you may begin to feel anxious, angry, concerned, sad or disoriented. When these thoughts and feelings arise you may wonder where they came from and be scared that they will continue. You may try to discern whether these feelings are "normal" despite having no prior experience with which to compare them. If this happens, I want you to know a few things. These are things I didn't know and that I wish I had …
You will get better. One of the most debilitating and frustrating symptoms of PPD is the feeling of hopelessness that accompanies the illness. Even though you probably don't believe me right now, you still need to hear it. You. WILL. Get. Better.
Be careful. Not every new mom has a blissful experience during pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum. One of the most common comments I hear at support group meetings is that many women who are experiencing a mood disorder feel very alone, even when surrounded by other mothers of young children. They often tell me that new moms in playgroups boldly proclaim how much they "just love" being a mother. Is that true? I'm not sure; maybe for some women. What I do know is this … at least one in eight new mothers experiences PPD. Not all moms fall instantly in love with their children and being a mother; for most it takes some time. Whether you did or didn't doesn't determine how "good" of a mother you are or will be. If being around these ever-exuberant new moms doesn't make you feel better and less isolated, then don't do it.
Please seek social support from women who DO understand. Whether it be in the form of individual or group peer support, it is important to your well-being.
Be open to various treatment options. Many of us go into pregnancy and motherhood with a very strong conviction about healthcare-related issues. I encourage you to be open to both "natural" and conventional methods. Sometimes postpartum depression and related disorders may require prescription medications and therapy with a professional to fully resolve. Your ultimate goal is wellness so that you and your family are happy and healthy.
Ask for and welcome help. Many of the personality traits that may have been risk factors for you (such as perfectionism or a controlling, rigid and/or inflexible disposition) may also prevent you from being comfortable asking others to do things for you and your family. Because sleep and rest, time to yourself and exercise are keys to your recovery, it is important that you embrace help from others, even if it doesn't come naturally.
Be as kind, gentle and patient with yourself as you would with your best friend. We tend to be our own worst critics and harshest judges. We also often feel (especially when we are depression and anxious) that we don't deserve to be taken care of and to be given time to heal. Remember that the best way you can care for and love your family is to take good care of yourself. A well mama equals a happy family.
Most importantly, I want you to know that you will be "yourself" again. When I was sick I couldn't muster the energy or motivation to cut my toenails. I ruined a lot of socks before I was my nail-clipping self again. But not to worry, my pretty pedicure is present now. Some women who have survived PPD say that they will "never be the same". This might be true, but I hope that you won't think of that negatively. I am not the same … I am a less rigid, more vulnerable, honest and humble person thanks to my PPD. I always write about my experiences in motherhood from the perspective of someone who survived PPD. Why? Because the journey doesn't end when you stop attending support group meetings, take your last antidepressant or attend your last therapy session. It continues. You are a mother.
Amber Koter-Puline is a survivor of postpartum depression and anxiety, and the author of the blog Beyond Postpartum. You can follow her on Twitter at @atlantamom.