Things it might be helpful to know before reading this: After the birth of our first child, I had the usual "baby blues" but within a week or so after giving birth I felt mostly like my normal self. I enjoyed new motherhood most of the time — there were days when I was too tired, too bored, or too frustrated, but I loved my kiddo and we had fun. I took thousands of pictures. We went for lots of walks. But then when my son was about 8 months old, I started to feel different. I felt confused. I felt lost. My husband would take Evan for the day and tell me to go do something fun and I couldn't think of anything to do. I was sick with one cold after another. By the time my son was a year old,I had started feeling sick all the time. Eventually, I realized it was part dread, part anxiety. Sometimes my hands would shake even when I was supposedly having a good time. I sought treatment, went on medication, felt like I would never be okay again. But by the time my kid was 18 months old, I felt like new. By the time he was 21 months old, just 8 months after I began treatment for postpartum depression and anxiety, I was ready to think about number two. And then I was pregnant …
At the time of this writing, I am eight weeks pregnant. I will admit right away that this time around is so different than the first. The biggest difference is that while last time I never even considered PPD, this time I'm terrified of going through it again. This letter is my advice to myself and to any woman sitting in a similar position, facing down the possibility, the memory, or the current reality of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders. I left out all the standard advice (this will end, it will all be worth it, be proactive, etc.) because a lot of it just upset me more when I was in the throes of the depression and anxiety.
So if you're a new mom for the first time or a new mom for another time:
Don't forget that being a new mom to a new baby is exhausting, boring and can make you angry. Remember that it's okay if you don't love every moment of it.
Don't forget that you know yourself better than anyone else knows you. While "everyone" may struggle with parenting and "everyone" may sometimes hate it, you know better than they do whether what you're experiencing is quote-unquote normal. When I was eight months postpartum and starting to feel a lot of dread and anxiety, I let a lot of people tell me they all felt the same way, and that sucked. It sucked because I felt so awful — so much like something inside me had broken and was hanging awkwardly within the confines of my body, clanging against my skull and my bones and my skin with every movement — and consequently so discouraged to think that this was my new normal state of being. It delayed my seeking help for a long time.
At the same time, don't forget that everyone feels the way you feel, just maybe not with the same immediacy, intensity and alarm. Something may be happening inside of your body to amplify whatever normal thing you're feeling. But you're not a bad mom for feeling it.
Don't forget that the best thing for your kids is whatever is the best thing for you. If you need a full hour and a half of quiet time in the morning and then you're good to go for the rest of the day, then by all means get that quiet time. Put the kids in a stroller, sit them in front of the TV, or drive around in the car if you need to. Take care of your needs and you will be able to take care of theirs.
Remember to be creative. There are lots of ways to be a good mom.
Remember that the way you feel physically and the way you feel mentally are related. Remember that your anxiety can make it feel like your insides are bubbling out or like you can't breathe. Remember that depression can hurt.
But at the same time, remember that you don't have to let your physical state dictate your mental state. Remember that sometimes you can feel physically horrible and yet be in a good mood. Finally, remember that sometimes your emotions are really as simple as certain chemicals flooding your brain or body. Sometimes you feel anxious for a genuine reason, but sometimes it might be nothing more than just that your pituitary gland* just projectile vomited all over the inside of your head. Remember also that if given the time and space, your body knows how to clean up toxic hormone spills inside your brain.
(*I make no claim to actually know which gland threw up in your brain, or even that the gland was actually in your brain. Let's just pretend that I know it's the pituitary gland, 'kay?)
Some days, stay in your pajamas all day. Ditto for the kids. Call it fun instead of berating yourself for being lazy.
Occasionally, get all dolled up even if you're not doing anything but sitting home with the kids. Be daring: wear something dry-clean only.
Remember that your mom gave you juice, stuck you in a play pen (oh, I know, they're called pack-n-plays now), may or may not have breastfed you, and let you watch General Hospital before you could even speak. Remember that it is highly unlikely that you will be able to do much damage to your kids as long as you love them, do your best to keep them safe, use your common sense, and relax already.
Don't' watch Jon & Kate Plus 8thinking that it will guilt you into loving your own life more, what with you not having a set of twins and a set of sextuplets. Comparing yourself to the Gosselins will not make you think, "Oh, my life is so nice and easy and it makes me so happy." It will make you think, "What's wrong with me? I only have (insert number here) kids and I can't even keep it together. I suck."
By all means remember to let other people watch your kid or kids as often and for as long as they are willing.
Remember that you may be able to control some things — like whether or not you take a shower most days or do nice things for yourself — but that you can't necessarily control your mental health by sheer force of will. If you're having a bad afternoon or a bad day or a bad week, just own it. If your bad week seems to be sliding into a bad month, ask an expert for help. You can't diagnose your own problems, you can't will your own brain chemistry to change, and you can't just snap out of it.
Perhaps most important of all, remember to keep some things sacred. Choose something like a story before bedtime or giggles over lunch and hang onto it like Jane hangs onto Tarzan. Cultivate special moments. If you do fall to the deepest depths of depression or anxiety, you may dread 23 out of 24 hours in a day, but try to find a way to love the other hour. To cherish it and to cherish spending it with your child.
Remember, you will be okay. So will your kids.
P.S. Please also remember that if any of this advice feels wrong, it is wrong. Hang on to the right stuff and let the rest go.