I never thought I would be affected by postpartum depression. I didn’t have any of the risk factors: I had healthy pregnancies, my husband and family were supportive and helpful, and I had no previous history of mental illness. So when depression came knocking at my door after my second child was born, not only was I shocked, but I felt so ashamed. I’m better than this, I told myself, as though I could reason my way out of it. That line of thinking only led me to more shame and ultimately deeper into depression.
Thankfully a gentle older mom at my church reached out to me. Actually, she reached out to my husband one Sunday while I was still staying home with the baby. “If she ever feels depressed, tell her to call me,” she said. “I mean it!” Jeremy came home and told me about her offer, taken back by her forwardness. I acted as surprised as he was, deep down wishing I had the courage to approach this woman whom I barely knew. A few months later, I reached my breaking point and finally confessed my struggle to my husband. He held me, comforted me, and gently whispered, “You need to call Dawn.”
I did call Dawn, who turned out to be a peer counselor for moms with postpartum depression, or PPD. She gave me great tips – try to sleep at regular intervals, do light exercise for a combined 20 minutes a day (even if that’s 5 minutes at a time), soak up the sunlight, limit sugar intake… All this is great advice, but I probably could have found it on a website or blog. What she really gave me – and what I really needed – was a friend. She let me know I was not alone and that it was okay to ask from help, both from friends and from my doctor. She was there for me when I felt all alone.
If you know a mom who is battling PPD (or another mood disorder), here are some ways you can help:
- Listen. Sometimes new moms dealing with PPD will want to talk. While she may want to talk about her depression, chances are she’s not going to lead in with that. She’ll talk about the baby – milestones he’s reaching, how much he’s eating, how often he naps (or the fact that he never seems to nap), etc. She may talk about her work or her friends. She may tell you about this hilarious cat video she watched on YouTube. Whatever it is, listen. New motherhood can be very isolating, especially when battling postpartum depression. Many times moms just need someone to talk to so they don’t feel alone.
- Be patient. Sometimes new moms dealing with PPD will not want to talk. She may never pick up the phone or reply to your texts. She may blow you off when you try to make small talk or intentionally keep it superficial when you try to go deep with her. Don’t pressure her to talk if she doesn’t want to, even if you can tell that there is something wrong. Allow her to work through this in her own way – but make sure she knows you care about her and are available if she ever wants a friend.
- Give grace. Before I had kids, I was usually late. Now that I have 4 kids, my friends tell me to be places 30 minutes before I really need to be there, because they know I won’t ever make it on time. But when I was suffering from PPD, there were many times I just didn’t show up at all. Being late or canceling at the last minute, being moody or irritable, forgetting to do pretty much everything… these often go along with depression. Don’t expect her to do everything she did before baby in the same way or same time frame as before. Show grace whenever you can. It’s hard to get yourself out of bed when you’re depressed, so getting yourself and a tiny human dressed and out the door with smiles and laughter to boot – gosh, that feels next to impossible. (Which is why she may just cancel…)
- Make yourself useful. Let me tell you a little story: A few weeks ago, after my 4th baby was born, I confessed on our KMB contributors group page that I was experiencing PPD again and appreciated the prayers of the group. One of our ladies – whom I have never even really talked to (we have a large group, and I’m still pretty new) – messaged me insisting on bringing my family a meal. It just so happened that I had a conference with my son’s teacher one evening that week and wouldn’t have time to prepare dinner. Rather than me feeling like a total failure as depression would often have me do, she delivered a freshly cooked lasagna (and fixings!) to my doorstep right at dinner time. She was such a blessing to me. Whether it’s random acts of deliciousness, coming over to clean, or babysitting an older sibling so mom can have time to bond with the baby, do something really practical that can help your loved one out.
- Remind her who she is. When I made my little confession to our KMB contributors, one of the comments was so simple but brought me to tears: You are not your depression. Depression is such an overwhelming disease, and it affects every part of your life. It’s easy to feel caught in a downward spiral as you see your former, mentally healthy self slipping further and further out of sight. This is especially true when a new baby really is changing everything about mom’s life – her body, her schedule, her job, her relationships… Take time to encourage her with reminders about who she really is. Her life has been flipped upside down, but she’s still funny, compassionate, talented, or whatever you know to be true about her. Don’t point to superficial facts about her former life (for example, “You’re still a brilliant designer, even if you’re not working anymore!”) because this can make her feel worse about the changes she is experiencing. Rather, go deep. Speak to her soul, because that’s the part of us most heavily affected by depression. Not only will she feel encouraged in her sense of self, but she will feel loved and known.
- ASK. This seems like it should be obvious, but it really isn’t. So many times loved ones can sense that something is wrong, and they want to help, but they don’t know what to do. So they tiptoe around on eggshells or try to do what makes sense to them, but it often backfires. The thing about depression is that it’s very unique to each individual. Many people share common feelings or experiences, but the scope varies so widely, it’s a big risk to guess where on the spectrum your loved one falls. So just ask! Does she want to talk or be left alone? Does she want help with the baby or help with housework? Could she use a meal or a massage? You’ll never know unless you ask. Oh, and when you say, “let me know if you need anything” and she actually lets you know, please please please please please try your best to do it. It takes a LOT of courage to ask for help when you are depressed, so make sure she knows you are safe to come to.
Postpartum mood disorders affect as many as one in seven women, and they can accompany miscarriage and stillbirths too. You can be that friend for someone you know, and she will never forget your kindness. I know I won’t. (I love you, Dawn.)
Think you might be experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, or another mood disorder? Check this list of symptoms, and reach out for help. There are lots of great resources here in Knoxville, and they’re in other cities too. You are so not alone in this, and both you and your baby deserve for you to be healthy.