Picture a baby shower: the room is decorated with pastels, sweet signs, and tasty treats. There are silly games involving diapers and onesies. There’s a light-hearted air as the mom-to-be opens her gifts; everyone is delighted as she’s showered with baby gadgets and tiny outfits.
This is the joyful energy we tend to associate with the idea of bringing a new baby home. But while babies are wonderful, and new life is beautiful, the reality is that bringing a baby home is extremely stressful, even when everything goes well.
Most new mothers experience the “baby blues” — up to two weeks of mood swings, irritability, and general malaise after having a baby. This is because hormones are fluctuating, sleep isn’t happening, life has changed in a huge way, and mom is recovering from delivery, and maybe even surgery.
The “baby blues” are the norm, even if a woman is genuinely happy in her new role as mother to this baby. And for one out of every five to seven new mothers, these painful symptoms don’t go away after two weeks; they persist, they intensify, and they make the daily activities associated with caring for a newborn extremely difficult at best — and impossible at worst.
One out of every five to seven women. That’s a whole lot of us suffering, usually in silence, at a time when everyone around us expects us to be happy.
While more providers are now screening women for Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders (PMAD’s) than ever before, there is still a gap in education and knowledge around what women need during this sensitive time.
Sadly, it’s not always helpful when women talk to their OB-GYN’s, midwives, or pediatricians about their symptoms. When a woman is honest about her experience, she will too often hear some version of the following: “It’s normal to feel that way after having a baby.” “You just need more sleep.” “Here’s a prescription for an antidepressant; take it, and you’ll be fine.” These responses can actually worsen her suffering and make her feel more alone and ashamed.
We need to #SpeakTheSercret — to start a conversation about the suffering so many women endure while pregnant and after delivery.
We need to talk about how it’s not normal to keep feeling bad after those first two weeks, and that there IS help.
We need to share our own experiences to communicate how common PMAD’s are — no one is alone in their struggle.
We need to talk about how almost all new moms have scary thoughts sometimes, like “What if I drop the baby down the stairs?” It’s normal and comes with the territory of new motherhood. But if these thoughts are so distressing or overwhelming that it’s hard to get through the day, there IS help, and there’s no need to keep suffering. We need to talk about how it’s actually a good thing that these thoughts are distressing; it means they’re anxiety-driven, and that’s totally treatable.
We need to educate providers about how important it is to not only to screen all women and to prescribe medication when appropriate, but also to create a safe space for women to share their honest experiences — and to refer them to therapists who can help. Medication can be very helpful, but research tells us it’s not as effective when used alone as it is when used in combination with psychotherapy and social support.
We need to talk about how dads can suffer too; one in ten new dads will experience postpartum depression or anxiety, and dad’s risk increases if mom is struggling.
We need to reach out to new moms and ask how they’re doing, and then we need to really listen. We need to reach out to new dads, too, and not just assume everything is fine.
We need to make it okay to talk about new motherhood — especially when it’s painful, difficult, and anything but what she thought it would be like at her baby shower.
For more ideas on how to have an honest conversation about new motherhood, check out these cartoons written by Karen Kleiman of the Postpartum Stress Center and illustrated by Molly McIntyre. If you’re a new mom and think you might be struggling with postpartum depression or anxiety, you are not alone, you are not to blame, and with help, you CAN feel better.
If you’re in or near Cary, NC, click here or call 919-344-1296 to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation where we can talk about how I might help you. If you’re not local, check out Postpartum Support International for resources near you. And if you’re experiencing a psychiatric emergency, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room for help.
Dr. Hilary Mandzik is a Licensed Psychologist serving Cary, NC and the Triangle area. She specializes in perinatal mental health and offers individual therapy for new parents who are struggling.