Photo provided by Kate Rockland
I am one of those rare women who actually loves being pregnant. Case-in-point: I’m pregnant with my third child as I type this sentence! My symptoms are always manageable: Eating like a linebacker, feeling queasy, looking stoned because I’m completely exhausted… you know, the usual. Even toward the end when nothing fits my body but one brave pair of black leggings and I’ve gained 80 pounds, I still feel beautiful, like my body is a secret garden. What’s more, after experiencing a miscarriage with my first pregnancy, the experience made me appreciate the birth of my first son even more, despite the fact that he was breach, and I had a C-section instead of the natural labor I had planned.
However, I couldn’t have predicted the horror I experienced the summer my second son was born, again via c-section. (I tried for a VBAC but he was two weeks past his due date.) I can only describe the following ten months as a visit to the island in Where the Wild Things Are, where Max takes his little boat and sees monsters gnashing their terrible teeth and rolling their terrible eyes. My little bean never slept. He cried endlessly for hours, my 15 month-old and I pressing our hands over our ears in frustration. He had reflux and strange rashes. He woke up every three hours. He didn’t latch on for breastfeeding. Then he did latch, but my nipples became so cracked and sore that he would spit up my blood all over his little white onesie like a vampire baby. Oh, and during this time we moved twice, and my husband was working 15-hour days. We had no family nearby, and although I made some lovely mom friends, they were busy grappling with their own offspring.
I found myself daydreaming of ways to kill myself where my kids wouldn’t be the first on the scene. I also became fiercely protective of my children — I’d scoot down the stairs on my bottom, terrified that if I stood up while holding my son I’d drop him. My highlights grew out and an extra 50 pounds hung around my waistline. I watched the news incessantly, convinced that one of my children would be abducted or killed. All around me I saw “perfect” moms, who seemed to have mastered the art of showering every morning, applying makeup, and looking un-harried. I felt like the world’s biggest failure.
The author, at home with her kids. Photo by Kate Rockland
It took one of my shoot-straight-from-the-hip friends to tell me I needed help. She visited me one day, surveyed the pile of dishes with caked-on spaghetti sauce (and saw a crying toddler, a crying newborn, and a teary mother) and informed me that I had postpartum depression.
I didn’t speak to her for three months.
Her words stung. Who the hell was she, after all, to tell me I wasn’t handling everything? But the more I thought about it, I realized she was right: I needed help. So I joined a gym with childcare, found a good therapist, and borrowed enough money from my parents to put the boys in daycare for three hours, twice a week. After almost a year, my sense of humor had returned. I looked forward to small things, such as my morning coffee or going to the movies. I stopped crying at the drop of a hat. I felt less overwhelmed, and when one of the so-called “perfect” moms I saw around town confided in me during a yoga class that she had once suffered crippling postpartum depression and had taken anti-depressants, I realized how naive and judgmental I’d been.
Which leads me to my current situation, three months pregnant with my third child, terrified that PPD will strike me down again. As my pregnancy progresses, I am determined to fight this disease like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, armed with research, guns blazing.
In her recent New York Times essay, Preparing to Lost My Mind After Giving Birth, Kate Rope, the editorial director of the mental healthcare nonprofit Seleni Institute, wrote that she recognized the signs of anxiety and depression mere moments after giving birth to her second son, thus saving herself months — if not years — of misery. “As someone who has taken both the slow train to emotional recovery and the express, I recommend the express,” she wrote. But can PPD be avoided entirely? Not really, as there is no exact cause. PPD is the result of many factors. For me, it was a perfect storm of hormones, living far from family, financial struggles, lack of help with childcare, having consecutive C-sections, and the fact that I was still mourning my miscarriage.
“Due to the convergence of a number of variables, some biologic and genetic, others social and environmental, postpartum depression often has a mind of its own,” Karen Kleiman, the founder of The Postpartum Stress Center and the author of What Am I Thinking? Having a Baby After Postpartum Depression, tells Yahoo Parenting. “It can emerge at the worst possible time, and descend upon women who least expect it. The good news is that there are things you can do to reduce the likelihood that postpartum depression will hit. Or, if it does, reduce the impact on you and your family.”
Here are five steps women — pregnant or not — should take to avoid PPD.
Know your triggers: If scary pregnancy or child-related stories on the Internet make you feel anxious, avoid logging on. And talk to family members, friends, and your doctor about any of your concerns. Also, know your genetic history. For example, if any family members have anxiety or mental illness, you’re at increased risk for PPD.
Involve your partner: Scads of studies have shown that the strength of one’s primary relationship can minimize the risk of depression. So talk to your partner about what to expect and how he can help.
Develop a routine: Kleiman says cultures with postpartum rituals have lower incidences of depression and anxiety disorders. So decide who is allowed to visit (and who isn’t) and how long they can stay. Also, it helps to have a clear idea of when maternity leave will end and whether your partner will take time off from work after the birth.
Take S.E.L.F. care. It sounds obvious, but having your basic needs met can help ward off depression. Sleep, exercise, laughing, and eating are big ones. If medication is part of your plan, make sure you are being monitored by healthcare professional regularly.
Advocate for yourself: If you don’t like how you’re feeling, let someone know. Don’t try to “tough it out” or “wait and see.” Be proactive. If you can’t make sense of your feelings, find someone who specializes in the treatment of women and depression. A great resource to find a therapist is Postpartum Support International, which also has a hotline.
“Mothers often come to me who were reluctant to get help earlier,” Alexis Menken, PhD, a psychologist and one of the PPI’s coordinators, tells Yahoo Parenting. One reason is, it can be tough to know if you have postpartum depression to begin with since the feelings can fluctuate so wildly. “You’re really blue one week, but the next you get some sleep, some help, and you decide what you’re feeling is not so bad, it’s manageable,” she says. “It can go on like that for a year, sometimes, but that’s no way to live.”
Menken also stresses the importance of community. “I know it’s a cliché that it takes a village to raise a baby, but no one should be home alone with a baby all day.”