I attended a doula training this past weekend given by Rae Davies of The Birth Company. It was a very intimate gathering of compassionate women, choosing to educate themselves to support laboring mothers. So it was not surprising that the environment brought out the best in all of us. It also presented an opportunity to share our stories, experience, and hopes.
Near the end of the last day, as we focused on the doula’s role during the postpartum period, a local midwife talked about some signs of postpartum depression- crying a lot, insomnia-like lack of sleep, fear that something will happen to the baby, fear the baby will die. She talked about family and community support (or lack of support) and hearing what was happening to the relationship between the mother and father/partner.
But because she didn’t cover the signs of my illness, I decided to share them. And it was hard to listen to my own words. The feelings are still very raw. But I wanted to post it here, so if you are supporting a woman who recently gave birth, if you are friends with a new mom, you might see the warning signs that I can see looking back.
- Dramatic change in values. While women with new babies may change their minds about many things, a dramatic change in what is important could be a sign that she’s having trouble. My example: Although I am a committed breastfeeder, I went to the store and bought formula and a bottle- just in case I wasn’t there to feed the baby.
- Talk about “running away from home” or escape can be double-talk for suicide. This was the main reason I needed an alternate method to feed the baby- I was going to run away from home (die) and she would need to eat.
- I cried myself to sleep, because I felt like a terrible mom. I thought my kids were better off without me. My decision to kill myself was both the reason I felt like a bad mother, and the answer to being a bad mother. Please notice the lack of clear reasoning here.
- I was honest but evasive. If asked a direct question, I answered it honestly. But I did not volunteer information about being a bad mother. I was ashamed. And I was not questioned about how I was. Questions about the baby, about sleeping, about integration of baby with big sister, about cloth diapering, about breastfeeding, were the standard. My illness was found when my midwife asked “How are YOU?” and expected to hear an honest answer.
- I talked about losing my mind. I knew there was something not quite right, but I was warned having 2 kids would be more difficult than one, and I thought I just kind of sucked at it. I thought time would make it better, but it actually made it worse. Over time I became distraught at the idea of leaving my girls without a mother (especially since my mother died young) and decided we would all have to go together. I could not leave them behind.
It is raw and painful to know that I considered ending the lives of my children and myself. It is horrifying. It is unbearable at times. It is not enough sometimes to know that I had a temporary illness (now treated). It hurts in a way nothing else can. And if I’m going to be honest with myself, this is still my biggest consideration when thinking about future children- am I risking the lives of my children by considering having another?
Here is what you can do as a friend or family member:
- Ask about the mom. Ask in a clear, direct way- and look her in the eyes. Ask only if you mean it, because she may only tell you once.
- If a woman tells you she’s in bad shape, ask her permission to call her doctor. If she’s told you what’s happening, she will agree to help- but it’s important she feels she has a choice about who is helping. (In my case it was essential that our family doctor be involved, because she knew me well enough to know that continuing the breastfeeding relationship was just as important to my mental health as medical treatment- and so she prescribed a breastfeeding-friendly way.)
- Offer to stay with her. Offer to accompany her to the appointment. If Tammy didn’t show up at my house, I may have found a reason to miss the appointment. And her help watching my toddler so I could focus on the purpose of the visit was also very appreciated.
- Follow up. Call, drop by, have a play date- but keep asking how she is. It’s important for moms with postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis to know they still have support. We often feel alone, isolated by being “bad moms”, and just different. Your continued support and caring goes a long way to remind us we are not an illness. We can eventually be the women and moms we always wanted to be, with just a little extra help.
Please comment. Add your experience with PPD or PPP or with supporting women who experience this. The more information that is available, the better supported new moms can be.