Looking at other parents’ Facebook or Instagram feeds may make it seem like they really have it all… a wonderful marriage, a supportive spouse with a successful job, a beautiful house in the suburbs with a white-picket fence and a big yard for the dog, at least two children (including at least one boy and one girl), and fashionable clothes, shoes, accessories, cars, and everything else under the happy, bright, blinding, disgustingly flawless sun. They post pictures of their days filled with Pinterest-perfect arts and crafts, gourmet meals, impeccably planned and executed trips (even if just to Target), and every moment spent with their families looks like the best and most rewarding time ever spent. These social-media-queen-bees are called Supermoms. I have been called one. I do not have a utopian life, but I do have a wonderful life with many good things and some bad ones… including postpartum depression.
I was officially diagnosed with PPD (also called maternal depression) about 18 months ago, but in retrospect, I have struggled with it since my now 4-year-old was an infant. Some days are good, some days are hard, and some days are absolutely terrible. I have a spirited child, toddler, and a husband who – while successful – has severe ADHD. All of them have uniquely different needs, and as much as I love my family, trying to meet their constant, demanding needs really wears on me after awhile. Don’t get me wrong, I love caring for them, but sometimes I lose myself in all the meal planning, cooking, chauffeuring, laundry, bathing, playing, etc. Then there is the emotional and developmental support, which drastically varies and continues to change as my children grow older (and, sometimes, as my husband changes medication). As with many mothers (and fathers), supporting my family has overtaken my ability to support myself. At times it becomes too much for me–I feel paralyzed and unable to focus on my daily tasks.
So, some people may see me as “Supermom,” but I feel the exact opposite–weak, flailing, and failing. Trying to focus on the positive is crucial to keeping my spirits up, my energy positive, and I try to remember the good times among so many blurred days that fly by all too fast. Posting these memories on social media is not just my way of sharing with my family (all long-distance), it also is a therapeutic reminder to myself of all the good in my life.
I remember the exact day I was diagnosed with PPD like it was yesterday. It was one of my first times out with both kids (my son was 12 weeks old and my daughter was 2.5 years old). We met two mama friends and their new babies at a coffee shop with a play area. We were going to play for a few hours before going to ECFE classes. It was a huge personal triumph getting out of the house that morning. Not only did I have to get both kids and myself ready, but also had to plan for both trips making sure to include lunch, diapers, clothes, snack for ECFE, etc. It was an exhausting feat to get to the coffee shop, especially on little-to-no sleep, but we did it! Once we got there, my daughter started playing nicely and I started to have a nice conversation with my two mama friends. However, not long after, the baby needed to nurse (again), the toddler needed reminders to be gentle with the other kids, the baby needed to be changed, and the toddler needed to go to the bathroom. I excused my frustrated self to the bathroom with both kids, even though I just wanted to sit with some hot coffee and have an adult conversation. While holding the baby, I helped my daughter up onto the toilet. While she did her business, I tried to change the baby in the shoebox bathroom with no changing table. My son kept screaming because he was still hungry and my daughter kept touching every germ-infested thing in the bathroom. I asked her many, many times to stop touching everything, but being her normal 2.5-year-old self, she did not listen. I got so frustrated and completely snapped. I yelled at her, grabbed her hand too forcefully away from the toilet brush she was reaching for…AGAIN, and patted her on the head too forcefully, demanding she listen to me. I immediately realized what I had just done to her and we both started crying. I felt like I was no longer in control–like this giant outside force was controlling my body. I immediately hugged both of my babies and apologized to my daughter through many tears. She then said, “It’s okay, ‘so sad Mommy,’ I still love you.” That was the absolute lowest moment of my life. I eventually gathered myself and gave my friends an incoherent excuse about why we needed to leave. We got in the car and the waterworks started again.
I knew it would be good for all of us if we still went to ECFE for a break, so I drove us there through more tears. Once we got to the parking lot, both kids had fallen asleep and I took the opportunity to call my husband. I was on the verge of an anxiety attack and felt as though the world was imploding on me. The weight of constant nursing, bottle protesting, toddler tantrums, newborn diapers, potty training regression, picky eating, laundry, cooking, meeting his needs, meeting my work expectations, EVERYTHING was pushing me down–not even including my own postpartum physical recovery and hormone imbalance. To say I was a wreck is an understatement. So, I sat in the car and sobbed to my husband that I didn’t know what to do. He listened, and then he talked me into calling my doctor to ask about PPD. I then reluctantly called my doctor’s office and sobbed an appointment request to the nurse, who said she’d have the doctor return my call in-between patients.
What I was feeling did not seem like the “typical” postpartum depression I had heard and read about–a disconnect between mom and baby. I kept picturing the mother from the Ring movie series, who wanted to drown her baby in the fountain. I thought PPD was an inability to bond due to pregnancy and/or labor and delivery trauma. I had a fairly easy pregnancy, labor and delivery with my son. He was an “easy” baby who slept fairly well and ate regularly (and constantly). I felt much better after his delivery and throughout the first few weeks after, than I did when I had my daughter. I definitely was not lacking a bond with him–in fact I think I bonded more quickly with him. Even throughout my daughter’s rough first few months with nursing struggles and NO sleep, I still bonded very well with her and passed all of the PPD screenings at the doctor’s office. I loved my babies so much and never had thoughts of harming them, so why would PPD be the issue? Yes, I was going through the transition of one child to two, had just returned to work (albeit part-time, working from home), my husband had been traveling for work, we had been through new-parent marital strife, and on top of that, I was completely hormonal…but wasn’t that normal?
While waiting for the doctor to call me back, I took my daughter into her ECFE class. She was excited to go and I wanted to maintain her routine for her own benefit. It must have been very clear to her teachers that I was having a hard day. They were amazing at helping me get her in the door and settled, while juggling my son and trying to find my phone, which the doctor was right then calling. I took the call and my son outside because I was embarrassed. Embarrassed about being late, embarrassed about the crying, embarrassed about what had happened in the bathroom, but mostly embarrassed to talk about depression. My sweet, empathetic doctor named just about everything I was trying to balance and told me it’s impossible to keep all the spinning plates in the air–at one point or another, one or more of them would fall. He asked me if I wanted to try a super low dose of breastfeeding-safe medication, to help get me over the hump until my hormones balanced out. I reluctantly asked him to call it into the pharmacy and said I would think about it.
Once I was off the phone, our ECFE class had separated. I walked into the parenting room and our parent educator pulled me aside and asked if everything was okay. I told her about the PPD diagnosis, and that I was considering – but very hesitant – to take medication. She encouraged me to do it, and reminded me she was a La Leche League facilitator with many clients who had used antidepressants while nursing. She reminded me that in order to be the mom I want to be, I need to take care of myself first. I understood and I didn’t want my daughter to think of me as “so sad Mommy.” After class, I picked up my children, gave them the biggest hugs ever, and drove to the pharmacy. I owed it to my children to take care of myself.
It took me a couple days to start feeling better, which was better than the couple weeks or even months my doctor had warned me about. I made other changes as well–I started seeing a counselor (along with my husband), asked for more help, and cut back on too many stressful activities. I learned to relax a bit, forgive myself, and to stop putting so much pressure on myself to be perfect “Supermom.” This is still something I work on every single day. I recently joined a gym to start doing yoga and running again, but also for CHILDCARE! While my marriage is much stronger now, I plan on returning to counseling to address family of origin issues that I continue to struggle with as I learn how to be a parent to my own children.
Many mothers (and fathers) share these feelings and experiences to some degree. But when it feels beyond your control and it negatively affects your day-to-day life, it may be more than just “baby blues” – and it is okay, even admirable, to ask for help (sooner rather than later). Depression looks different for everyone. Help means something different to everyone. But the bottom line is, you are not alone.
May is National Maternal Depression Awareness Month. Ironically (or maybe intentionally) it also is the month we celebrate Mother’s Day. In addition to showing appreciation for mothers this year, let’s also remember those struggling with maternal depression. Here are a few ways to help take one of those spinning plates off a mom’s hands:
- Help her take care of herself. Give her a gift certificate for a massage, or watch her kids while she takes an uninterrupted shower, a trip to the gym, or a solo visit to a coffee shop.
- Help with meal planning, shopping, or cooking. Bring a meal (for her family or just her), or a gift card for Bite Squad, Let’s Dish, eMeals, Coborn’s Delivers, Instacart, etc. If you’re going to the grocery store, ask if you can get something for her, too.
- Give the gift of rest! Let her sleep in. Right when the kids wake up, take them into another room where they can’t wake her up. Make or get her coffee, too! Bonus points if you leave sweet notes on her coffee mug, like my husband did.
- Do the laundry. You may not know where where she wants it to go, but if you’re a close-enough friend or family member to see her piles of clean unfolded laundry, chances are she’ll be okay with you folding it (especially if it looks like kids clothes and towels/linens). There were some days, I wouldn’t have cared if the mail carrier folded my clean underwear.
- Do dishes and clean. Just like sleep and self-care, ANY cleaning help you provide is huge. Take out the trash if you see it’s full, refill napkins or paper towels if the holder is empty, etc.
- Run errands. Take the pile of library books back, pick up the dog from doggie daycare, make a post pffice or Target run. If you’re already going somewhere, ask if she needs something.
- Have fun with her! She’s not just a mom, she’s still an adult and wants to do fun adult things. Go to a happy hour, dinner, coffee, even just a walk with her. Something where she can unwind and remember she’s not just a mom – and if she needs to bring the kids, help watch them!
- Listen and speak without judgment. Talk to her–not about her. Just because she has plethora of happy pictures on her social media feeds, you do not always know what is under her “Supermom” cape.
- Finally, offer to help, however she needs. Ask her what would help her the MOST, and then do it.
And remember, day-t0-day help is wonderful, but moms (and dads) also need long-term action plans – especially those might feel a little too much “failing and flailing.” Some helpful resources include:
- Postpartum Progress–a national nonprofit that provides support via blog, private forum, an annual conference, social media connection, and local events.
- Postpartum Support International (PSI)–an international organization that provides support, education, advocacy and research.
- PPD ACT–an app to participate in a PPD study, but it also sends helpful reminders such as “Self care is important–take time to eat nutritious foods and do things that are soothing.”
- Suicide Prevention Hotline –just in case.
Mom (and dad), you probably know yourself pretty well by now. If you DO feel hopeless, lost, or out of control, please call your doctor. It is NEVER a bad idea to ask for help when you need it. And remember, you are never alone!