Because both of my depressive episodes occurred during the postpartum period, I have learned a little bit with regard to how to handle this situation. Most of it, I learned in hindsight–realizing things my husband and I would have done differently after the fact. I’m no expert, but I have a few things I’d like to share that I hope will help someone else.
First, get help immediately. Speaking from my own experience as well as from friends that I know who have gone through similar experiences–it pays to talk to a professional right away. If you aren’t sure about medications yet, try a therapist first. If you are having difficulty with intense anger, feeling “wrong” mentally, having mood swings, intense fears and anxiety and especially if you are experiencing suicidal ideation or thoughts–I personally recommend seeing a psychiatrist as soon as possible. This is just my personal recommendation as a fellow sufferer–if I can’t function then I can’t take care of anyone else. With a new baby depending on me for all of their basic needs and more, I need to get better. For me, medication was essential. Don’t delay your care! In my experience, these things tend to get worse when they aren’t addressed. Get help immediately.
Second, get as much good sleep as possible. Did you just shake your fist at the computer? Or maybe you threw your phone across the room. Did I forget you have a newborn that wakes at all hours of the night? Trust me, I know this all too well. After my last baby I got to the point where I could not even fall asleep at night because I was already in a panic about having to wake up in just a few short hours. My symptoms were compounding and getting worse due to sleep deprivation. The worse I felt, the harder it was to sleep–it was a vicious cycle. This brings me to sub-point 2a: Consider bottle feeding. This was a hard decision for my very over-extended mind. I wanted to do what was best for my baby. Of course breastmilk is the ideal food for a human infant, but you know what is an even more ideal situation for an infant? A mother who is emotionally and mentally able to care for her child and herself. Formula is a modern day miracle, in my opinion. It allows women, who otherwise wouldn’t be able to, to feed their own babies–and allows others to help. Make the choice that allows you to be the best mom you can be, and don’t let anybody else guilt you into choosing otherwise. Bottle-feeding will allow others the ability to help with night (and day) feedings which will give you more sleep.
Third, let others help! Don’t try to be a hero. The first thing you need help with is the night feedings. Enlist the help of your partner or other family member or friend. The best situation here is probably to alternate nights. You do one night, your helper does the next night. Then you each get a night of full sleep every other day. If I were to ever have more children, my husband and I would hire a person in to do the night feedings. I have no idea how expensive this is, but wouldn’t that be a dream? That’s not realistic for most, so really tap into your support system here. Sleep is a non-negotiable part of your recovery.
My husband, was my hero during this time. Knowing that I couldn’t function without sleep, after we switched to bottle feeding, he handled all of the night feedings for me, every single night, while still working full time–and this baby did not sleep through the night for many months. As you can imagine, this was detrimental to my husband’s health. He was in a constant state of burnout for months and this took it’s toll on him. I wish we would have brought in outside help. No person is invincible. I was in no position to help with making important decisions, as incapacitated as I was, and Ryan (my husband) was just trying to make it through each day.
Ask for outside help. When a parent is struggling with mental illness it affects the whole family.
Let others help in any way they might offer. Maybe you have a friend who offers to bring you dinner–don’t turn her down! Let your friend bring dinner. Maybe someone offers to watch your baby/children so that you can get away for a break, or take a nap. Let them. Don’t turn down any offers for help. This is not the time for you to act like you’ve got things together. This is a time for others to help you as much as possible so that you can take care of yourself.
Fourth, share what you are going through with others. This goes along with number 3. If others don’t know what is going one, they won’t reach out to help.
When I was pregnant with my 4th baby, I was on bedrest for about 9 weeks due to some complications. Our church community knew what was going on and arranged to bring dinner in for our family, 3 days a week for that full 9 weeks. Many people also came and helped with cleaning, took my older children on outings, and visited me because I was home-bound and needed company. This was a sweet experience to be the recipient of so many acts of service. It made me want to do the same for others as soon as I got back on my feet.
I never got back on my feet. With the onset of my mood swings and extreme depression, I was really struggling to get through minute by minute, day by day. Although people knew I was having a hard time, they didn’t really know the extent, and if they did know–they did not know how to support and help us in this situation. I was only open with a few people about what was actually going on. Having just received so much help while on bed rest, and being so mixed up mentally, I didn’t even think to ask for help from our friends and family. My husband and I just struggled through this extremely difficult time on our own.
If I could do it again, I would have opened my mouth more–or had my husband open his mouth, to those we knew. I know people would have rallied around us and helped in any way they could, but we never gave them the opportunity. We could have used dinners on occasion, help with cleaning, help with our children, from time to time–this would have lightened our load considerably. Don’t follow our bad example. Reach out to your support system–let them know what is going on and tell them you need help.
Fifth, make time for yourself. With the help of family and friends, schedule time for yourself, every single day. If you have one child, this might be done while your baby sleeps. If you have multiple children, call in help for child care so that you can get away from the house and do something you enjoy, or just relax, away from the cares of mothering. You are important! You are the glue that keeps everything together at home. You will be a better mother to your children and a happier person if you will figured out how to make this for yourself, every single day. This needs to be a non-negotiable part of your self-care.
Sixth, go into survival mode. You can read more about this here.
You will get through this time and things will get better. Enjoy your new baby as much as you can. I spent lots of time just holding my last baby. Partly because I knew he would be our last child and partly because that physical connection to another human was good for me emotionally. It’s good for your baby, as well.
If you need more suggestions for navigating depression, check out my other posts.
Have you lived through postpartum mental illness in the past? Share how you got through it. Are you in the middle of it right now? Share your story.