The concept of a blog has been brewing in my mind ever since E was born. I’ve done a good bit of writing since she was born as a form of reflection so many posts should come organically. There’s one thing that really ended up being the catalyst to my blog’s creation. Three counties in Florida (Alachua, Hillsborough, and Sarasota) have proclaimed May 1-7 Perinatal Mental Health Awareness Week. This is my public health pedestal to discuss a topic that has recently grown important to me.
Perinatal Mental Health Awareness Week
Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders are a spectrum of mental health issues that manifest during pregnancy and within a year of birth. The most well-known is Postpartum Depression (not to be confused with Postpartum, the period immediately following the birth of a child). Postpartum Depression is often perceived incorrectly as a woman who wants to harm her child or herself, or is just sad or even numb to the world. These are just extreme symptoms. Some other less extreme symptoms include feeling overwhelmed, guilty, confused, scared, irritable, and/or angry. There’s also Postpartum Anxiety, Postpartum Panic Disorder, Postpartum Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Postpartum Psychosis.
While up to 4 out of 5 women will experience some form of mood disruption in the form of baby blues within the first week of birth like irritability, sadness, or anxiety, these other more intense, longer lasting disorders will be experienced by 1 in 7 mothers. I’m sure you know 7 moms. Now imagine, at least one of them has been affected by a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. Think of all the mothers who are suffering silently.
My Rough Start
I’ve shared with a few people how I had a rough postpartum period, and vaguely left it at that when people respectfully didn’t pry. I now know I need to share this experience, because if someone had told me that they had a similar experience, mine may have been different.
I had a friend tell me the reason some people have a hard time transitioning into motherhood is because they expect it to be easy. At the time, I wanted to punch her in the face, because her baby was around the same age as mine and she was having a cake walk into early motherhood. I had no expectations besides the fact that babies eat, sleep, poop, and cry a lot at first. I didn’t expect my emotional and physical rollercoaster that would accompany my baby’s endless eating, sleeping, pooping, and crying. I had done tons of research on pregnancy and birth. I’ve taken courses on how to help women breastfeed. We had all the baby gear. I thought I was ready for this ride.
The Physical Stuff
Lets get the awkward physical stuff out of the way first. After my daughter’s birth, I no longer recognized how my body looked or felt. My vagina was sore from tearing and stitches. My nipples were cracked and bleeding from breastfeeding struggles. I had hemorrhoids, a yeast infection, and a UTI. Birthing a 9lb baby left me feeling like I had been hit by a train a few times! I was in pain everywhere. The pain I experienced during birth felt so minute in comparison to the continuous torture that ensued afterwards. Most of which I’ll attribute to breastfeeding, but that experience is worthy of its own blog post entirely.
Those Crazy Hormones
A woman’s hormones go crazy after childbirth. Everything is out of whack. As a result, my emotions were in high gear. It was just like being emotionally sensitive while PMSing, but way more intense. I cried at everything! My baby dropped a significant amount of weight after birth and I cried hysterically, because I literally thought she was dying. I pumped the last of my colostrum and my husband had to give it to her in a bottle, and I cried hysterically, because I felt like a failure and betrayed by my body for not being able to feed my baby. I cried hysterically, because I couldn’t cherish these fleeting moments due to the agonizing pain of everything. I cried endlessly. So much so that my husband thought I should seek out a counselor. I said I was fine, because feeling Baby Blues was supposed to be a part of the postpartum experience.
I felt guilty, because I didn’t love my baby immediately. Society tells us we’re supposed to fall madly in love with our baby the moment you set eyes on it. I didn’t feel this overwhelming, intense love for my baby until she was almost a month old. I’ve heard from some moms it can take even longer. I think my entire system was already in shock and there was no more room for this feeling. My initial feelings toward my baby were fiercely protective. I would lay down my life for this baby to live. The love didn’t come until I could actually enjoy her presence after the fog began to lift.
I felt so alone in everything I was going through. Of course there was a flood of people to greet the baby and make sure I was fed the first few days for which I am eternally thankful! But once they left and my husband returned to work, I was entirely alone. I stopped eating anything but the dinner he would cook me. I couldn’t move from the couch all day due to my baby’s exhausting nursing schedule. She would nurse for an hour every two hours like clockwork. I was covered in sweat, milk, spit up, blood, and tears, and I’d go days without showering.
I finally felt more human at four weeks and we started venturing out of the house a few times a week. By 6 weeks, I felt even more better, but still not quite like myself. These first three months postpartum are often call the fourth trimester primarily because the baby is adjusting to the world, but this is also a period of time for a new mom to adjust to motherhood. It’s a huge transition and it’s one during which I spent the time drowning.
My Mom Tribe
I attribute this progress to a group of mothers I met at the Red Tent Collective. They gather weekly to discuss various topics from self-care, breastfeeding, parenting, relationships, women’s topics, and so much more. I learned I wasn’t alone in my experiences and they supported me so I could begin to feel more like myself. They were like-minded women who listened while I cried or celebrated moments in motherhood.
Learning to Function
I spent months 3-7 learning to function again. I resolved I needed to fill my cup first if I was going to be able to serve others. I was able to feed myself again. Although I was pretty close to turning into a PB&J sandwich by month 5, I actually ate food at least twice a day. I was able to get a chore or two done so I felt accomplished with my days. I started to exercise again which was a big part of my pre-baby identity. I started looking for little wins like these.
I stopped crying after the fourth trimester, but the tears were quickly replaced by anger, irritability, and anxiety. I would have hulk-like reactions to situations that were completely irrational and unlike me. There were many times when my baby would thrash about while I was changing her diaper or clothing, and I would have to walk away. My husband wouldn’t do a simple chore around the house the way I liked it and I would lash out. He really had the patience of a saint during this period (and throughout all of this really).
I eventually discovered these reactions were associated with sleep deprivation and my controlling, type-a personality. I started napping with the baby at least once a day. I went to bed earlier when the baby would get her longest stretches of sleep. I started taking an omega-3 supplement to give my brain an extra boost. Finally, I let go. I surrendered to my baby’s sleep and the rhythm of her life.
I had experienced some anxiety early on like constantly having to make sure the baby was breathing, but I thought all moms did this. They do, but I wouldn’t sleep in case my baby stopped breathing. I also experienced anxiety over leaving the house. I was terrified that my baby would start crying in public and the only way I could get her to stop crying was by nursing her. Then I would have to find a way to nurse my baby in public. I resolved to not venture anywhere except a few places where I felt safe and supported by others to nurse my baby in public.
I felt anxiety over leaving my baby and returning to work. I would hate when people wanted me to leave my baby, because “it would be good for us.” The separation made it worse. This was also a determinant in not returning to work.
The anxiety I began to experience was crippling. Someone would ask me to make a simple decision, and my chest would tighten up and my mind would panic. One weekend, it got to be too much to handle. I was testing the waters in a professional capacity and nothing went right. My problem solving skills were not as sharp as they used to be and my mind kept freezing when I needed it to work. Then on the way home from this event, I was told to make a simple decision at a fork in the road. It didn’t matter which direction I went for they both would get me to the destination. I slammed on the brakes, because I couldn’t decide. It was a simple decision that was meaningless, and my body responded like I was having to fight off a tiger in the room. I cried the whole way home, because something was not right. It just took me too long to realize it.
The following week, I met with Evelyn Ojeda-Fox, the owner of the Red Tent Collective. Through her mentoring and a session of her Cranial Sacral Therapy, I feel I have a better control over the anxiety. As the panic wells up in my chest, my mind now has control over how it processes this reaction. I’ve also learned how to breathe through these sensations with the help of yoga.
I’m now 9 months postpartum and I feel like I’m on the edge of thriving again. I’m sharing this story in case someone else goes through something similar. You’re not alone in this. You’re not weak. There are ways to feel like yourself again. The first thing you need to do is tell someone you need help. Tell your partner, your friend, your mother, or your sister. The best person is your doctor. Even though they should be screening for this, they often don’t. I wasn’t screened by the two maternity healthcare providers I’ve seen since E’s birth. Find your tribe and love them hard. Many of our struggles through motherhood are so common, but no one is talking about them.
If you’re the partner, friend, mother, or sister, take the initiative and help a mama out. Women are so used to helping others, they often forget about themselves or don’t know how to ask for help. Come for a quick visit with a prepared meal. Do a load of laundry or the dishes. Hold the baby so mom can shower, nap, or do the chores herself. Just listen to her talk. If you’re really concerned about her, offer to drive her to a doctor or a support group so you can help her with the discussion. Share resources with her. Try not to leave her alone for long.
I have so much gratitude for the support I received postpartum.
- The family that came to hold my baby or my hand during the hard, tearful times, and the friends who brought us food.
- My tribe and Evelyn Ojeda-Fox at the Red Tent Collective.
- Gladis Rubio at The Fourth Trimester for lactation support.
- Christie Colbran at Buddha Belly Birth Services for her empowering doula services and her supportive postpartum care.
- Sarah Schaber at Om Sweet Om for teaching me how to breathe and do yoga with my little one. She welcomed me with open arms into our local Momtourage.
- The Seventh Mom Project for their work to raise awareness and money for perinatal mental health services in the Tampa Bay Area. They’ve recently trained 14 providers on screening and referring moms to the proper resources. They also offer support groups. They were recently featured in the Tampa Bay Times for initiating Perinatal Mental Health Awareness Week.
- The United States Congress for putting this topic on their agenda. Write your Congressional Representatives in support of H.R.3235 and S.2311 – Bringing Postpartum Out of The Shadows Act 2015. This will allocate grants for states to establish, expand, or maintain programs for screening and treatment of pregnant and postpartum women for postpartum depression.
If I help even one mom, then it makes this demonstration of vulnerability completely worth it. I’m sharing this to demonstrate the spectrum of postpartum mental health. Many mothers will not experience much more than some Baby Blues or maybe nothing at all. A few may have it much worse and require medication to feel normal again. Every mother, baby, pregnancy, birth, and postpartum is different.
If you’d like to read more about the spectrum of Perinatal Mood & Anxiety Disorders, please check out this website. For a brief overview of Postpartum Depression & Anxiety symptoms in plain mama english, check out this article.