Most of us have heard of postpartum depression and many are also familiar with postpartum anxiety. Often both of these illnesses are thought to present with similar symptoms such as overwhelming and often unexplainable sadness, difficulty performing non essential tasks, lack of focus, constant exhaustion, being impatient, constantly feeling overwhelmed and worried about all of the “what-ifs” to the point that you feel frozen, etc. Essentially, when most people think of postpartum mental illness they picture scenes like the ones above. While many women do have these symptoms while battling PPD and/or PPA there is a group of women that have a very different experience making it harder for friends, family, and even healthcare professionals to recognize. This lack of recognition means a lack of proper support and treatment for these women which can be very dangerous for their mental and physical health over time.
To teach us more about what it is like to be one of these moms I spoke with a mom that has struggled, and continues to struggle, with these types of symptoms. It is her hope that by sharing her story more women who live with this will be able to get the help that they need.
I was incredibly excited to be a mom. I had always been pretty “together” so I didn’t think it would be a hard transition. It wasn’t too bad at first. Sure, I had to work hard to stay on top of everything but I also had time to play and relax some. It didn’t start to get harder until my 3rd was born. At that point I became obsessed with being the *best*. I wanted to do and be everything and refused almost all help from everyone. Trying to do everything took its toll and I became short tempered because I had the constant stress to be the best and being the best meant doing everything really well. It was exhausting.
My 4th baby was more difficult and needy than the others had been and that threw me for a loop! It was terribly difficult to get everything done and so my sleep was put on hold most of the time. In public I was a patient and doting mom who was on top of everything but at home I used screens to “baby-sit”, lost my temper with my family often, and barely slept. When my 5th baby came along I had finally hit my maximum. I began to let more things go and the things that I was still doing were often done at 70% or less instead of everything being done at 150%. It was a very hard time for me and I often compensated either with too much caffeine, junk food, or over exercising. Anything to block the feeling that I had now lost who I was. Both who I saw myself as, and who everyone else saw me as. At this point I showed more of the classic PPD signs and was often depressed and on the verge of tears. This was when I had to also come to terms with how crushing it had been all these years to lose who I was way back before I had kids at all. It had been easy to hide that even from myself when I could wrap myself up in being this new person that was a seemingly perfect mom but once that started to slip away I truly had no idea who I was and my soul felt like it was going to implode most days.
Once I had finally admitted to myself that I had PPD and PPA I still couldn’t admit it to anybody. If I admitted that then it would be like admitting that I really wasn’t this incredible woman and mother. It took me over a year to finally admit to my doctor some of these thoughts. Even then I presented everything in a way that minimized it so she thought that vitamin D and exercising more would be enough to get me back on track. I knew leaving that appointment that I had not represented my symptoms correctly and that her recommendations would not be enough. It took me another 6 months to call back and set up another appointment to discuss medications.
Once I started the medicine it was a dramatic change almost immediately. I also did some therapy which made a difference as well. After a month my doctor and I spoke and decided that the dose needed to be changed and eventually we also decided to add another medication to the mix. I still struggle with the obsessive compulsive exercising, junk food, and caffeine and occasionally other things as well. I also struggle with being organized and getting things done without drifting back to my old obsessive ways and having my identity as a mom and person directly related to what I was able to accomplish in a day. To be honest, it went on for so long and was allowed to fester and get worse with each baby that it became my normal and it has been extremely difficult to break through that. I am not sure if I will ever be able to say that I am “better”. I can say that I am learning to be a better person and be mentally healthier every day.
I asked this mom what she thinks everyone should be on the look out for and what she wishes others had done for her so that she could have gotten help sooner.
Moms need help. They need a village not just to help raise their kids but to help moms to be healthy. When a mom with a new baby in particular says that she has it and doesn’t need help but is clearly doing an outrageous amount of work (volunteer, job, housekeeping, etc.) that should be noted as a possible problem and not a reason to stop checking in and offering to help. Moms that are constantly doing everything and seem to have it all together are often struggling more in private than the moms that might be identified as a “hot mess” mom. It may not mean that they have PPD/PPA but it can mean that they are having a hard time with finding a new identity that they feel proud of after having a baby and feeling like they are no longer who they were.
I don’t know if anyone really could have said or done anything at the time to make me realize what I was doing to myself. I was so stubborn and determined to prove my worth to everyone that I probably wouldn’t have listened if someone had suggested that I had a problem. For me I think that the only thing that might have helped was if people had continued to come around, offered to help, or had just done things to help without me requesting it. Everyone thought that I had it all together because that was the impression that I gave and so they stopped offering to help and that made it even harder for me to ask for help. I guess that is what I would say about being around a mom with a new baby, whether it is their 1st or their 12th, they always need help even (especially) if they say they don’t.