It's supposed to be the most exciting time of your life ... and everyone is telling you how lucky you are to have a beautiful baby, but all you can do is cry. You're pretty sure none of your new-mom friends are feeling this way. But they might be. Because 15 to 20 percent of new moms, about 1 million women in the US each year, experience some form of postpartum depression.
Truth be told, my baby days were the most difficult and painful hours of my life. I was a hormonal and stress train wreck. Looking back now -- my youngest is five -- I see that a few alterations in my lifestyle might have helped matters. I'll share them with you, so that you don't have to feel so bad ... or, you know, all alone.
1. Say it ... "Yikes."
Take a moment to consider all that has changed in your life. Your social life is ... poof ... gone, not to mention your sex life and any romance that was left in your marriage. You don't remember becoming a Navy Seal but, like them, you operate on about three consecutive hours of sleep at night. Plus there is this seven-pound creature that you are responsible for - and let's just say it's more demanding than the fern in your kitchen that will forgive you if you forget to water it for a day or so. Oh yeah, that adorable, Gerber baby is louder than the Winnie the Pew keychain one of your frenemies bought you. But the very act of registering all the modifications can be surprisingly comforting ... like proof that you're not imagining it: you've entered another world, and you definitely don't speak the language.
2. Identify the symptoms.
At some point, you're going to need to distinguish symptoms of the new-mom culture shock and its accompanying baby blues from a bona fide mood disorder. You can find a list of the standard symptoms for postpartum depression by clicking here, but better than that, I think, is the description actress Brooke Shields gives in her memoir, Down Came the Rain:
At first I thought what I was feeling was just exhaustion, but with it came an overriding sense of panic that I had never felt before. Rowan kept crying, and I began to dread the moment when Chris would bring her back to me. I started to experience a sick sensation in my stomach; it was as if a vise were tightening around my chest. Instead of the nervous anxiety that often accompanies panic, a feeling of devastation overcame me. I hardly moved. Sitting on my bed, I let out a deep, slow, guttural wail. I wasn't simply emotional or weepy, like I had been told I might be. This was something quite different. This was a sadness of a shockingly different magnitude. It felt as if it would never go away.
3. Start talking.
Journalist Tracy Thompson begins her insightful book, The Ghost in the House with two brilliant lines: "Motherhood and depression are two countries with a long common border. The terrain is chilly and inhospitable, and when mothers speak of it at all, it is usually in guarded terms, or in euphemisms." Which is why you need to start talking .... often, for long periods of time, and loudly. But with safe people.
4. Find safe people.
How do you find these so-called "safe people" who won't report you to the pope or child services for saying things like you want your body back, you want your old life back, and at times you wonder if you made the right decision by having sex with your husband without a birth control method in place? That's tough, and like so much else in life, you just need to feel your way through. I personally look for a sense of humor. Any mom who can laugh at the squash stains on her new Ann Taylor sweater is a candidate. The mom who left the playgroup 15 minutes early to get in the half-hour pre-nap ritual is definitely not.
5. Get support.
Once you identify five or six suitable moms who aren't too annoying, it's time to start a support group, known in some parts of the country as a "playgroup." It can be fewer than five or six, but you should be able to corral lots of takers if you hang out long enough at your library's children's hour, Tumble Tots or some other gymnastics class, or attend any workshops or social events organized by national mom groups like "Professional Moms at Home."
Me? I walked around my neighborhood and put a flyer into the mailboxes of homes in which I could see a stroller. I also posted signs at a local office supply store, coffee shop, and diner. Once ten moms confirmed interest, I hosted a playgroup every Wednesday morning at my house. For a year. The group eventually disbanded when I asked folks to take turns hosting because my house was getting too trashed. It didn't matter, though, because it had served its purpose: which was NOT to help our children socialize -- that's only what we claimed -- but to provide an outlet for us to spill our guts because many of us were absolutely going crazy.
6. Beg for help.
In A Deeper Shade of Blue, Ruta Nonacs, M.D., Ph.D., writes: "One of the most challenging aspects of caring for young children is the social isolation. In traditional cultures, a woman's family fathers around the mother after the birth of a child. They help her learn how to care for her child ... Nowadays most women with young children spend most of their time at home, alone."
I advise you to get on your knees, to skip all those manners and laws of social grace that keep you from pleading with your in-laws for some help. Barter with them, negotiate, promise to name the next kid after them if they babysit for a night, ANYTHING you possibly can to get some free help because you are going to need it, and the less of it you have, the more risk for developing a serious mood disorder. If your relatives are unable to assist, buy the help. Cash out the retirement funds for this one. Trust me. You'll be glad you did.
7. Sleep. No really ... sleep.
Part of the reason I'm so adamant that you get help is because the longer you stay sleep-deprived the better chance you have of winding up like me ... in a pysch ward. Brain experts have always made the connection between insanity and insomnia, but new research suggests that chronic sleep disturbances actually cause certain mood disorders. You stay up one too many nights with that crying baby, and you are bait for a mental illness. Not to scare you. But, again, BEG FOR HELP so that you can at least get a few hours of uninterrupted sleep ... consistently. Don't follow in my tracks and get your first night of slumber in a hospital.
8. Hang unto you.
The second biggest mistake I made as a new mom was throwing my old self into a locked closet until, well, I graduated from the outpatient hospital program, where I learned that motherhood doesn't require chucking my prior existence: my interests, my friends, my career, and so forth. In fact, the nurses there convinced me that if I could recover a little of my old self, I might even be a better mom. So I hired a babysitter for a few hours a week, which allowed me to pursue some writing projects, go on an occasional bike ride, and have coffee with a non-mom friend and talk about something other than poop.
9. Watch your language.
I'm not talking about the profanities that you're no longer allowed to utter in front of the miniature tape recorder disguised as your infant. I'm referring to your self-talk. Erika Krull, a mental-health counselor who blogs for Psych Central, wrote this in a recent blog on motherhood and depression: "It's the combination of 'must, can't, won't, should, could' kinds of thoughts with the high level of emotion that can send moms down into the pit of depression or anxiety. Black and white thinking is a setup for disappointment, despair, lack of satisfaction and meaning, and low self worth."
10. Eat "brain food."
I hate to be a killjoy here, because I know that you've already had to say bye-bye to lots of pleasures in your life. But here's the thing: the more stressed and sleep-deprived you are, the more inclined you are to grab for the chips and the cookies. Research has actually confirmed that: sleep deprivation and stress both contribute to obesity. It's a vicious cycle, because the more chips and cookies you consume, the more out of control your world spins, and so forth.
Ideally, you want to shoot for lots of omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin B-12, and folate. Unfortunately, they're not hiding in a Hershey's dark chocolate bar. If I were God, I would change that. You can find omega-3 fatty acids in boring but tasty things like salmon, tuna, sardines, walnuts, canola oil, and flaxseed. Vitamin B-12 is found in fish, seafood, meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products. Folate is found in fortified cereals, spinach, broccoli, peanuts, and orange juice. Your brain will thank you.
11. Get online.
You're lucky, in that cyberspace is pretty much ruled by new moms. A few years ago I attended a BlogHer conference, where approximately 80 percent of the blogs represented were mommy blogs. In fact, the BlogHer site is a good place to start if you want to know what other moms are experiencing and writing about. Other winners: Postpartum Support International, The Motherhood, CafeMom, Maternally Challenged, Postpartum Progress, and Dooce.
12. Don't lose your sense of humor.
If one thing saved me during those years my kids were babies it was a sense of humor. "If we couldn't laugh, we would all go in sane," sings Jimmy Buffet. So, if you have already gone in sane, it's best to snicker at the madness in front of you. Ah, the relief I felt some of those afternoons, once all the tension held in my shoulders and in my cheeks released into a wild laughter ... after I had spent an afternoon chasing two kids at the mall, one with diarrhea and the other hiding underneath the bras in J.C. Penny's lingerie section. Flexing that humor muscle ... it's as important as the tight abdominal muscles that you'll never get back.