The women who I see in my office constantly amaze me. These women work hard. They ask themselves difficult questions and do their best to uncover the answers that resonate most for them. They face their fears head-on. They exemplify a braveness that comes from a desire to get well. And they do.
So often, the women who leave my office for the last time after months of suffering, hard work, and recovery do so with a new sense of self that feels stronger, more clear, and more deserving than before postpartum depression or anxiety walked, uninvited, through their doors. Many of these women will continue to work with a therapist throughout their lifetime. Yet, even for these women, there comes a time when their suffering decreases or no longer exists and when the crisis phase of their work is over.
This new self feels hopeful, and optimistic, and at ease. For many of them.
For these women, now it is time to celebrate, time to realize that being a mom feels more “right” than “wrong.” Time to celebrate a sky that looks more blue. Time to get to know a sense of self that feels more forgiving and human. And a time to (dare we say it?) be happy.
And yet, lately, I have seen a number of these moms back again only weeks after leaving my office for that final session. Understand, these moms are not back because their postpartum depression symptoms have returned so soon after realizing that they feel better, although this is something that almost every mom fears. These women are back because something unexpected has resulted from their new, emerging self: Their relationships with their partners have seemed to unravel.
And it is a particular type of unraveling, one that feels different from when they were in the depths of postpartum depression despair. This type of marital/partner conflict seems to come out of recovery at a time when these moms actually feel their best. Rather than partner conflict coming at a time when these women feel incapable, it is coming at a time when they feel, perhaps, more capable than they ever have before.
Why is this? Why is it that just when a mom feels happier, better about herself, and more optimistic, she feels unable to connect with the person with whom she is the most intimate? Why is it that as she begins to feel more at ease, her relationship begins to feel even more difficult?
I have heard women say that their spouses/partners make the following statements:
“You have gotten better but you have left me behind!”
“I thought things would be better between us when you got well, but now you seem even more unhappy with me!”
“Why can’t things just be the way they were before postpartum depression?”
Individual change is both exciting and strange, especially when it happens in the context of a relationship. When a mom recovers from a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression, she often feels evolved somehow. She has learned limitless things about herself, including both who she wants to be and what she needs to feel her best.
While PPD may have been an unwelcome and unbelievably traumatic experience, the recovery process can allow for new insights that may have never been uncovered had it not been for the need for exploration. And, while these moms might have grown and changed through this process, their partners may not have. Because of this, suddenly, the dynamics of their relationships are different.
Postpartum mood and anxiety disorders change women. Thankfully, once they have recovered, a large number of these women will say that they have grown from their experiences and that they have changed for the better; the necessity to slow down and explore the pieces that may have contributed to despair (be it lacking self-care or awareness about what is needed to feel her best, early childhood or family of origin issues, negative thought patterns and challenging belief systems, or undiagnosed and not yet treated mental illness) has actually created opportunity to grow. And man, oh man do these women grow.
And so when a partner makes a comment like “why can’t things be like they were before PPD,” a new ripple of disconnect can be felt. Before postpartum depression? Very little remains the same after experiencing a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder. And relationships really do have to adjust to these changes. It is important to realize that while you may feel like a new and different person, your partner may not… and he or she may simply expect things to go back to “normal” and back to the way that they were before the two of you negotiated this very turbulent journey.
Some couples may not make it though this journey. Statistics tell us that the first year after having a baby is often the most difficult in a couple’s lifetime. Add postpartum depression into this already chaotic time, and the strength of a partnership may be too tested to remain in tact.
However, before you decide that the two of you are incapable of weathering this storm or that your partner and relationship is unable to change with you, I encourage you to reach out for support from a trained couples therapist, from a spiritual counselor, or from someone else who has the skill and insight to walk you through the particulars of this new challenge, of the struggles and accomplishments of your past, and of the expectations and hopes for moving forward.
It may be that you find your relationship to be as capable as you are.
~ Kate Kripke