“Just the Baby Blues?” Surviving the Postpartum Period

Warning signs of postpartum depression include constant fatigue, feelings of inadequacy as a parent, lack of joy in life, withdrawal from family and friends, excessive concern for the baby, or thoughts of hurting the infant. Is it impossible not to feel some of these things?

I am writing this while my baby naps. Looking through the Daily Mental Health News section on this site, an article catches my eye: Postpartum depression worse than ‘baby blues’. It refers to an article in a New York paper about a young woman who called the emergency services to say “I have just killed my baby. He was crying uncontrollably so I smothered him with my hand”.

The article stresses that postpartum depression is much more serious than the 10 days or so of mood swings which are commonly known as the ‘baby blues’, and are suffered by 10 – 22% of new mothers to varying degrees, the most severe being postpartum psychosis which seems to be what the young NY mother was suffering from, involving a complete emotional disconnection. This is extremely rare, happening to some degree to about 1 in 1,000 new mothers, usually those who had a serious psychiatric disorder before pregnancy.

Postpartum depression seems to resemble the baby blues, but the feelings last longer and are stronger. According to PsycPORT, warning signs include constant fatigue, feelings of inadequacy as a parent, lack of joy in life, withdrawal from family and friends, excessive concern for the baby, or thoughts of hurting the infant.

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Although I would not class myself as suffering from depression, I certainly recognise those signs! Living with a newborn baby I would argue that it is impossible not to feel constant fatigue, and feelings of inadequacy and lack of joy in life often follow from this. There is a reason that sleep deprivation is a proven method of torture! A newborn can feed every half an hour or so, and it is a closely kept secret amongst mothers that frequent night wakings often continue for the first few years of life. It can be hard to find the time and energy to maintain relationships with family and friends, the new mother is often cut off suddenly from her work-based social network, and the world can seem to shrink to the needs of the baby, which are overwhelming enough in themselves. Thoughts of hurting the infant are rarely spoken about, but experienced in fleeting form by many of us, driven to the end of our tethers by sleep deprivation, having to be constantly vigilant, constant noise, a hormonal rollercoaster, and for first time mothers the fundamental change from being at the centre of their world, more or less in control, to being totally responsible for another, for mothers of larger families the responsibility to help each member find their new places in the family.

For those with a history of depression, it seems obvious that this situation is likely to provoke it once more. It seems to me that, while there is medication which appears to be safe for newborns and nursing infants, and this clearly seems necessary for some people to help them function, the absolute key to well being for new mothers is a good support system. I would argue that looking throughout human history and across various cultures, it is hard to find a situation where mothers are as isolated as they are in our contemporary nuclear families, in societies with so much financial pressure, where one person is expected to do so much. Isolation breeds depression.

New mothers need physical support, time to have a nap, have a bath, and do something which makes them feel like themselves again. And they need emotional support from other mothers, rather than rivalry — which often comes about when people feel bad about themselves. Personally I don’t know what I would do without an online community, and I would recommend to any new mothers that they find a community, virtual or online, close to their own values, and start to share their true experiences of motherhood, which always include some pretty desperate yet totally normal feelings.

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