4 Things Postpartum Moms Need & How to Help
Postpartum Depression Sucks.
In wake of the murders of three small children in Massachusetts, the world is reacting with vigils, flowers, and hotlines. It feels like the equivalent of the mass shooting “thoughts and prayers” message that is so prevalent it has become almost meme-like. And while everyone is attending church for the first time in a decade, wondering how a new mom could do something so terrible – my heart is aching for that family that has been absolutely devastated. Not just for the dad, or the extended family, but mostly for the mom. How terrible must she have been feeling? What must her internal dialogue have been? And who was the presiding physician that let that family down in such a catastrophic way? Postpartum depression is a terrible thing and exactly zero moms should feel invisible or alone. Yet, here I am, talking about it, with firsthand knowledge of what it feels like to experience both of those feelings during one of the most challenging seasons of life. I was one of the “lucky” ones, in that it took me about 18 months postpartum with each child before I regained some semblance of humanity. To say I have experience with postpartum depression is an understatement. Regardless of how long or short it lasts for you or your loved one, postpartum depression is a hellacious nightmare. And here’s the thing about depression and anxiety – hotlines are barely, if at all, a Band-Aid.
Our Society is Failing Moms.
Our society is failing moms. Between embarrassing maternity care, insecure maternity leave options, and the general evolution of society from face-to-face communities to Facebook, moms are struggling to patch together a “village” to support one another. Support is the keyword because people on social media are M.E.A.N. and have lots of opinions about people they don’t even know based on a singular post they read in passing. Do you remember when you were growing up and you could ride a bike in your neighborhood with the other kids? Parents were looking out to make sure the kids were safe. Now, neighborhoods are either geographically distanced or downright scary. Stay-at-home moms do not usually live next door to one another, making an afternoon coffee and playdate nearly impossible. What does this all mean for the postpartum period? Women spend an incredible amount of time alone with a human who cannot speak during an equally unbelievable internal chemistry experiment.
For someone whose never experienced PPD, you might be wondering: why don’t the hotlines help? It’s another adult to talk to, right?! Let’s start with the fact that postpartum depression/anxiety/psychosis is not something anyone can change with kind words and suggestions. It is pretty well known that women are hormonal during pregnancies. There are huge levels of estrogen and progesterone required to create a brand new organ (placenta) and the whole extra person that everyone wants a chance to cuddle. Some of these extra hormones are feel-good hormones, and the reason expecting moms generally seem happy2. Where do you think all those hormones go when mom has the baby? They come rushing out during that 3-6 week period of bleeding mom goes through. The placenta detaches from the uterus, and all the hormones start dumping out of the bloodstream immediately. Have you ever donated blood and felt drained afterward? Now imagine bleeding every day for three to six WEEKS. 21-42 days of bleeding is exhausting. Not to mention, making milk (whether using it or not) and trying to figure out a brand new language of baby cries, all while sleeping 2 hour stretches each and every night. By 3-6 weeks postpartum, all those feel-good hormones are now out of the system, during a time mom has likely been socially isolated. Our society has become so disconnected from the basic human life cycle, that we have begun to expect that mom can and should be up and running by 6-12 weeks postpartum. In reality, mom probably won’t begin to feel anything like herself again until around the time her menstrual cycle returns and her hormones begin cycling normally. Finally, a reason to be excited about the monthly bloodbath! The bottom line?
High expectations + no sleep x a hormonal shit storm = a perfect petri dish for postpartum depression.
Hotlines are another failure.
Boston gets many things right. But sometimes they swing and miss – hard. It must be part and parcel of being home to a major-league baseball team. In the wake of the Clancy deaths, Boston has created a “hotline” for moms struggling with postpartum depression. A mom can’t control her hormones. She also can’t control that the exponential increase in the laundry is giving her anxiety. Sometimes, it’s an act of Congress to get away for a few minutes and meditate or otherwise collect your thoughts so that the walls aren’t closing in. A hotline puts the burden on a person who is already overwhelmed and unable to carve out a few moments to shower or poop alone. Still yet, maybe no one in her life is reaching out to see how she’s doing. Or nobody is coming over bearing a steamy beverage and sitting in the midst of the chaos, without judgment or asking to hold her new baby. No one is calling her just to chat. Again, that mom is expected to reach out for help she may not really know she needs. Further, any “advice” given on a hotline may be impossible to implement. Calling a hotline doesn’t help with the laundry. Calling a hotline doesn’t help you get outside with your older kids or cook your food. And a hotline doesn’t help the people in her “circle,” either. Because if they’re suffering from phone aversion, does anyone honestly believe they’re going to pick up the phone and call a HOTLINE to find ways to help her?
My Own Experience with PPD
The flip side is a mom that knows exactly what she needs and has communicated this clearly to the people around her. After the birth of my third child, my husband went back to work when I was three weeks postpartum. This was the earliest he had ever left after a baby was born. I was left at home with a newborn, a 22-month-old, and a four-year-old. My toddler was still nursing for naps and my baby didn’t want to be put down (can you imagine?!). My oldest daughter was going through a period of ODD, which we later determined was related to gluten sensitivity, but made life insanely difficult nonetheless. My family is many hours away and unable to help. During my very first week solo (also the week of my birthday), I remember sitting on the ball, bouncing the baby to sleep while my toddler screamed in my face that she wanted to nurse. I was sobbing because I knew she couldn’t understand that I would help her get to sleep in just a minute, she was sobbing because she didn’t understand why we all needed the baby to be sleeping first. Every time I put the baby down, she started wailing.
This vicious cycle played out for multiple days and naps in a row. My neighbor had offered assistance multiple times, so I “phoned a friend.” I asked her to please come to snuggle the baby so I could get my toddler down, and she told me “I can’t, I’m getting ready to go into a meeting (remote work). If your kids are still rallying in a couple of hours when I’m finished, I’ll come up.” I don’t recollect that she ever called or texted back. I don’t begrudge her for prioritizing her livelihood, but it absolutely made me feel like a total burden and with terrible timing. And honestly, it felt like I was walking through the pits of hell. It wasn’t an isolated incident in my life, either. After a few times of being turned away for help that is so desperately needed, why bother asking anymore? I would rather figure out how to tandem nurse both a baby and toddler to sleep than have people let me know exactly how little they think of me at a time when I feel so low to begin with. Hard pass.
In the following few months, I had the worst postpartum depression of any pregnancy I’d had to date. It was so bad, that I developed psoriasis all over my face and eyelids. I reached out to multiple friends, explaining I needed to hear someone’s voice, and see a human in person. Multiple times I called or texted, explaining I was lonely and needed company. No one independently called, texted, or even returned the messages I left. My pleas for help were completely ignored. Calling someone and having them completely deny the help they previously offered OR acting like you didn’t even request it? It’s mortifying, humiliating, and demeaning. And, wow, does it let you know how small and insignificant you are in someone else’s world. Similar experiences occurred during labor, and while hemorrhaging during a miscarriage. People are so stuck up their own rectums that they either cannot fathom or generally don’t care how they make others feel. As a society, we can and should do better. We’ve really got to start being more authentic and less superficial.
Tangible Ways to Help
If you’ve made it to this point in the post, and are realizing you have potentially made someone’s postpartum period worse, it’s time to make it right by that person. An actual phone call is a good place to start. If you have a loved one who may be suffering and you’re wondering how you can help, I’m so happy you stumbled upon my soapbox because today I’m exploring meaningful ways you can assist a new mom, to ensure she feels supported and loved during such an intense period of life. You won’t be able to change her brain chemistry entirely, but you will be able to inject some feel-good hormones and do a world of good.
I’ve written about this before, and I’ll say it again: stop with the baby showers. Baby showers are the adult equivalent of a high school graduation party: life is shifting in a gigantic way, you’re pretty certain you’ll never see these people again, and it’s more of a goodbye party than a celebration of the new life joining the ranks. Lots of empty promises are made about keeping in touch and new adventures that lie ahead, but the reality is unless those people have been in your click forever, or you are in the exact same life stage, you’re going to form a new cohort. Moms go into the labor and delivery room feeling like rockstars, and leave feeling abandoned, alone, and needing to start a new community from scratch, at a time when it’s incredibly difficult to tackle such a feat. Instead of a baby shower, try a freezer meal party. A freezer meal party ensures that mom is well-fed during her recovery period, and doesn’t need to think about food in any capacity. Her focus can be on nourishing herself and taking care of her baby, and with each bite she takes, she can remember the people who love her enough to sacrifice their time and energy to ensure she is well taken care of. If the family you’re thinking of already had their baby, organize a meal train or gift a HelloFresh subscription. A meal train allows an expectation-free drop-off where the mom can show off her baby for thirty seconds and interact with another adult human being, then eat something she didn’t have to think about preparing.
Everyone knows quality sleep is essential to maintaining mental clarity. Everyone knows sleep with a baby is hard to come by. But does anyone fully realize what that actually means? According to a study by Owlet, and outlined by Parents, about half of all parents are getting less than 3 hours of uninterrupted sleep per night. With my first daughter, I didn’t sleep more than a two-hour stretch until she was two years old. I went two years without more than two consecutive hours of sleep. Of course, she was my first baby, and therefore I could nap during the days when sleep deprivation overcame me. But with my second? Third? Those kids still need care and supervision when the newborn is sleeping during the day. How is a mom supposed to “catch up” in that dynamic? Does sleep suddenly not matter for parents with multiple children? Besides completely taking the older children for a day (which might make mom uncomfortable), there are two other acceptable options to help moms get a couple of hours of sleep:
- Offer to entertain the older children with quiet crafts (you supply them and clean up afterward).
- Offer to take the kids outside while mom has a nap with the new baby. This is a double whammy because now the kids get out all their insane energy and will likely be tired later.