I'm going to cut to the chase here, because you're busy thinking about itsy bitsy onesies and rosy-smelling baby poop. You're thinking about the sweet scent of that pretty baby's head at 2:30 in the morning, and about how great it's going to be to pee like a normal person again. You're thinking about the fairytale (as you should be). What you're not thinking about is postpartum depression. So let's do that right now. You and me. Together.
See, I've been there. I don't want you to end up there, but if you do — if you find yourself meandering down that dark, thorny path with no fairy godmother in sight — I want you to have on hand the bread crumbs that will help you find your way home. I want you to have help.
For me, postpartum depression was an isolating curse. I had support — I had a wonderful doctor, a caring husband and a small network of friends, all of whom would have tried to help me if I could have simply said, "This is bad. I need something, and I need it from you." But I couldn't.
At my six-week-appointment, I glossed over my symptoms of depression and my obsessive-compulsive behaviors. So did my OB.
I waged war with my husband and one, in a display of blind rage, I cleared the kitchen counter with one swish of my arm and screamed, "I'M DEPRESSED, DON'T YOU GET IT?!" He didn't. Neither did I.
I talked and joked with my mom friends about the exhaustion, the frustrations, and (a bit) of the helplessness. I noted my distress over our upcoming move. I broke the news that my father was dying. I shared and communicated. Or so I thought.
And that is how I fell apart. I didn't — couldn't — adequately express my despair over … over what? Over being the mother of a beautiful new baby boy whose tiny, gummy smile proved that the sun set and rose on my shoulders? Over having a husband who was desperate to make me happy and thrilled to be an involved and wonderful father? Over the ability to give up my career and be a full-time mom, something I wanted and spent a year setting up my life in order to do? How silly was I that I couldn't be happy when so much was right in my life? How ungrateful was I? Why couldn't I just get over it?
I couldn't get over it because postpartum depression isn't something most women can "just get over". Like being lost in a dark, twisted forest with whispering trees and hidden ogres all around you, you need to know where you are before you can wind your way out. You have to acknowledge that you're lost and that depression has an unshakable grip on you, and you must trust me when I say you cannot always figure that out on your own. You need a guide. (And, please, let me be the first to say that's OKAY.)
Before you go into labor, find a guide. (Hint: it's probably not your spouse.) Find someone who knows you so well and talks to you so often that they can gauge your mood shifts. But find someone who will be honest with you. Someone who will not cringe in the face of ugly rage or melt under hot tears, but instead, will tell you the truth. They will console you and tell you it will all be okay, but they'll also tell you when the time has come that you cannot get to that point by yourself. They'll tell you when you need professional assistance. They'll tell you when antidepressants are your friend. They'll tell you it's time to dip into your stash of breadcrumbs and find your way home.
Then place your trust in that person. When your outer and inner dialogues do not match, you need to call upon your guide:
"I love my husband, and he's a wonderful father. Look at him change diapers!" (He makes me so angry all of the time.)
"I wish everyone would just leave me alone so I can figure out what I'm doing." (Everyone's gone. I just want to stand in the shower and cry. I can't do this by myself.)
"I love being a mom. I'm so happy to have been given such a gift." (Am I the only person in the world who can't handle all of this responsibility? Morons and teenagers do this every day, but I can't do it. I can't.)
"I'm just a little tired, that's all." (If I'm just tired, why am I screaming and crying and raging? Why do I feel so helpless all the time? What's wrong with me?)
"Thanks for your wonderful advice, Mom, Mother-in-Law, Friend, Nosy Neighbor, Complete Stranger at the Grocery Store." (Shut up, already.)
Well, okay, maybe that last one isn't a sign of depression, because at one point or another all new moms think that. But those others? Those others can get downright scary, and when they become overwhelming, you need someone who knows when to tell you to lighten up and when to lead you to the light.
So reach out now, before your baby comes, and find a guide. Tell that person: I don't expect anything to go wrong. But if it does, if I lose my way, I need you. I need you to really listen to me and instead of telling me what I want to hear, I need you to tell me it's time for help. Will you do that for me? Will you get in your car or hop on a plane and come to my house to hold my hand while I see a therapist or meet with my doctor? Will you ignore me when I say, "No, no, it's okay! I feel much better today! All I needed was a little sleep?" Will you stand by me in line at the pharmacy if that's what it takes? Will you call me every day, and instead of asking how the baby is, first ask how I'm doing? In return, I promise to listen to you, no questions asked, and to do what you tell me to do."
Reach out. Create a mental health plan. Find a guide. Determine how often you'll speak with them after your baby is born. Agree to listen. Get a recommendation from your OB for a therapist, just in case. And please, if you have a history of depression, either personally or in your family, ask your OB to see you two weeks after you give birth to give you a short mental health exam, rather than waiting the standard six.
I want you to have a fairytale birth. I want your recovery from delivery and those first months with your baby to be filled with the magic of "happily ever after." I want you to sing and dance with woodland creatures as the trees in the forest part, and you and your family ride off in the proverbial sunset. But just in case you need it, I want you to have a map to help you get out safely and happily.
Congratulations and good luck on your journey. I wish you the utmost happiness.
Deb is the blogger behind Missives From Suburbia and mom to two cherubic children and two large dogs, none of whom create floral-scented poop. Between reruns of Blue's Clues and laundry loads, she contemplates writing a novel and having a third child. She has appeared on the "Today" show talking about her experience with postpartum depression.
What fabulous advice. We prepare & fret over having the right sort of bottle, enough onesies, the perfect preschool, but we don't prepare a contingency plan for ourselves following birth. It's all about the baby, but we need to remember ourselves. Thank you, Deb.
Absolutely spot-on advice. It's so easy to "forget" about Mom's experience after the birth, especially when the focus shifts to the new little one. I'm so glad you wrote about this invaluable topic!
You've left a beautiful set of crumbs for any woman to follow who reads this letter. Thank you.
I was one of those women who had the fairy tale in my head and when the story wasn't happening like I'd written it, I crashed. Thanks for the beautiful reality check.