Adjusting to motherhood is never easy. Natural, yes, but not easy.
One of the hardest times is a few days after birth, when most women“crash,” or experience an emotional and physical low called the “baby blues.” It is completely normal and usually goes away in a few days. For some, however, the experience is more serious, and can linger for months. This is called “post-partum depression.”
When my baby was born, his father and I welcomed him with open arms, and the two of us were whisked back home, where we were cared for by loving relatives for over a week. My mother was at hand to rock the baby while I slept and to help me with breastfeeding. She made us meals and did laundry. She gave advice, encouragement, and lots of hugs. My husband was there constantly. In other words, my first-time-mother situation was ideal.
All the same, three days after the birth, I woke up in tears, engulfed in inexplicable depression. No happy music or reassuring words could take away my feeling of sadness. Whenever anyone left the house, I felt abandoned. Life seemed pointless.
One part of me knew it was ridiculous. I had no reason to be depressed, with my beautiful new son and all the support I had. Why was I feeling so lousy?
Depression can have many causes, but after childbirth, the major one is hormones. Throughout pregnancy, your body produces great amounts of estrogen and progesterone, as well as adrenaline, the “fight or flight” hormone, which provides extra reserves of energy. A few days after birth, usually around the time that your body starts making milk, these hormones subside to their pre-pregnancy level. This sudden change affects your moods and emotions, just as it does during PMS.
Post-partum depression is also an emotional release, after all the tension and anticipation of the last nine months. The countdown to labor seems so long. You are so excited to see your baby. Now that it’s all over, you just want to curl up and cry for no reason.
It is usually around this time that you begin to feel physically exhausted. Your body has been working so hard to make a baby for the last nine months and just undergone labor. This was a very big job. It took a lot out of you. Now your body is ready for rest, nourishment, and building up its strength again.
It is also around this time that you have had two or three sleepless nights as you and your baby get used to each other. Babies have no concept of night and day. Their “biological clock” tells them to take frequent naps and frequent feeds, twenty-four hours a day. Perhaps you’ve lain awake at night between feeds, listening to your baby’s breathing. Perhaps you have stitches that are hurting you. Lack of sleep is enough to make anyone loony.
So, you see, depression builds up, simply from physical factors like hormones and exhaustion. It took me several days of rest (good sleep, not just rest), good nutrition, and lots of holding and hugging from loved ones, before I was feeling better.
Depression can be more serious when you are in a difficult relationship situation. Things can be especially hard if you are unsupported by the people you most love: your parents or your baby’s father. This is the time you need them the most, but sadly, many girls find themselves “doing it alone.”
If you are, my heart goes out to you. You are so brave! My own experience showed me how much support you need during this time..and how quickly depression can escalate. If you are depressed, and you are in a difficult relationship situation, your depression is real and serious. Don’t let anyone tell you “it’s all in your head.”
Find out what can be done. It might be a matter of a few small changes. Let me share with you the things that really helped me.
First, if you are “doing it alone,” get support. Ideally, help should come from the people closest to you-your mother or husband, or even your best friend. This is not always possible. You might have to seek outside help. Don’t be afraid to ask for it. Everyone understands that you will need help with a new baby, and you might be surprised how willing your friends are. It is perfectly acceptable to ask a neighbor or acquaintance, or even to hire help if necessary.
Get your helpers to do whatever you are most worried about, whether it is paperwork, staving off visitors, keeping you company, or just being the extra arms to fetch things. In my case, it was housework. (Housework shouldn’t be a big deal, but I’m kind of uptight about it.) It was worse during my post-partum depression. I felt anxious and restless if my surroundings were out of order. I was worried that my guests wouldn’t have enough to eat (silly!), that my husband wouldn’t have anything to wear (very silly!). When my mom came and took over, I could relax and just rest and nurse my baby. This helped me get better.
Second, take care of yourself. This is one time in your life when it is OK to pamper yourself as much as you like. Take a little time away from the baby each day. Do whatever relaxes you, whether it be having a bath or getting your hair done. Take advantage of baby’s naptime to sleep. Tank up on nutritious snacks and drinks, such as hearty salads and fruit-shakes. You’re allowed to be a little bit obsessed with your own health for a while! Simply follow the safety instructions that they give on airplanes “Always put on your own oxygen mask before assisting a child.” After all, you are the chief source of life and comfort for your baby. She or he’ll thank you for taking care of yourself. Above all, it will help you get better.
Third, whatever you do, don’t look at the big picture. People always tell you, when you’re feeling depressed, to “look at the big picture.” Well, the big picture is awful. It is scary and depressing, and always colored by your mood at the moment. It will only make you more overwhelmed.
The best advice I was ever given was from a wonderful woman who struggled with depression for years. She told me that being depressed is like being in a dark pit, with no way out. She would only look at what she was doing at the present moment (having this shower, eating this piece of toast, wiping this dish). Step by step, the events of the day would build a ladder, with which she could climb out of the pit.
I remembered her advice when I was struggling with post-partum depression, and it saved me. I had to let go of my fear, especially fear of the future and anxiety about my responsibilities. It helped me to just live in the moment and enjoy my baby.
Finally, you need to take a honeymoon with your baby. You can do this no matter what your situation is. Even if you are stuck in a hospital bed, zone out the rest of the world and remember that all you have to do is love your baby. Let the rest of the world take care of itself. This is the enjoyable part, because there is nobody in the world like your baby-literally-and nobody who adores you like your baby does.