There is tremendous social and cultural hype around the joys, excitement, and wonder of pregnancy, birth, and raising children. Baby showers, parenting classes, and the array of pre-birth activities often convey the implicit and explicit message to parents-to-be that having kids is exclusively a magical albeit stressful experience.
This mythology does us a grave disservice by creating the sense that there is something shameful or abnormal about postpartum depression and/or anxiety. The truth is, negative emotional postpartum experiences are very common and tragically underreported as new mothers in particular often feel they should be nothing but glowing and ecstatic. The Mommy Wars—as competition amongst women to excel at being new mothers—have created a disturbing dynamic in which women often feel afraid to admit they need help, are overwhelmed, or are struggling. Women in particular—and men as well—may feel obligated to “put on a good face” or “act like” they are doing well when they are in fact not. Many fear judgement from friends who are parents or from family members.
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that in the United States, the prevalence of postpartum depression and anxiety is as high as 1 in 5 women in some states. Postpartum depression and anxiety affects women regardless of age, race, ethnicity, number of pregnancies, or prior mental health issues. These feelings can arise days, weeks, and months after birth, and may last years. Stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, hormonal changes, and the emotional intensity of pregnancy, childbirth, and bringing home an infant are all significant influences on postpartum mood issues, and feeling sad, anxious, and overwhelmed is by no means a sign that a new parent is somehow failing to rise to the task.
Postpartum depression and anxiety can range from mild to severe. Symptoms include feeling sad, anxious, nervous, weepy, blue, angry, and lonely—among others. Severe symptoms may include thoughts of harming oneself or the child. If you or someone you know is at risk for harming themselves or their child, immediately contact your local crisis support hotline or 911.
Getting help for postpartum mood difficulties like depression and anxiety is important for the health and wellness of families. Recognizing and accepting that one is feeling overwhelmed is the first step on the long road of parenting in which eventually, parents are ultimately supported by many other people when it comes to their children and parenting . . . family, teachers, coaches, counselors, and clergy, to name a few.
Initially reaching out is often the hardest part of asking for help when it comes to being an overwhelmed parent, whether it’s your first time or your fourth. If you’re having difficulty asking your support system for what you need (and maybe you’re even having a difficult time identifying what it is that would be helpful to you) try the Third Person Test. This is when you imagine what you would want a friend to say to you to ask for help if they needed it and were struggling to ask. Sometimes, imagining that the situation isn’t our own frees us up from the harsh self-judgements we tend to levy on ourselves but that we wouldn’t dream of when it comes to someone else.
Your medical professionals can be tremendously helpful when it comes to accessing the resources you need. Obstetricians, pediatricians, and even your family Primary Care Provider all have extensive experience supporting families through postpartum mood disturbances, and they can direct you to reputable, reliable, professional organizations and service providers to address your families’ specific needs. Postpartum Support International or PSI for example is a trusted organization for the education and support of new moms and their families surrounding the entire perinatal period. There are also compassionate, specialty counselors available to help new parents navigate these difficult feelings while engaging in this important new journey. These counselors can support you with practical skills and strategies for addressing the challenges that arise. Faith organizations and hospital systems frequently offer a wide variety of emotional and practical support services, including educational forums, support groups, peer groups, and links to other ancillary services that help new parents feel less overwhelmed by their exhaustive new responsibilities.
If you’re having difficulty getting the kind of support you need from your partner, friends, or family members, a counselor specifically trained in perinatal mental health can offer you practical advice for getting these important individuals on board in ways that are meaningful to you. Counselors often are excellent at providing communication training so that the individual can more successfully convey what it is they are needing to those who are in a position to provide it.
Having children can be a remarkably rewarding experience, but more often than not, it also comes with real anxieties about the infinite questions surrounding parenting. Give yourself, your child, and your family the gift of helping you through postpartum depression and anxiety by seeking and accessing the support you need.