Six weeks after delivering my second child, I visited my OB/GYN for the standard postpartum checkup. Juggling my baby on my hip, I circled numbers on a questionnaire intended to assess a patient’s risk for postpartum depression (PPD). Questions like “How often have you cried in the last two weeks?” are tallied into a score that enables doctors to flag those patients in need of additional care.
There’s no such thing as “passing” this test, but I think we all know what I mean when I say I passed. No problem.
When I brought my baby to our family doctor for checkups, the doctor asked gently probing questions about my own well-being. I knew what he was looking for, but I breezed by the questions. Of course, life at home with two kids was an “adjustment” after working full-time, but I was functioning okay. I wasn’t crying (at least not very frequently). I wasn’t struggling to get out of bed, and I’d given myself permission to stick to the bare minimum for the first three months or so.
But three months came and went, and then a fourth. Without my even realizing it was happening, my expectations for myself shot way up but my “performance” didn’t keep pace. The house wasn’t clean. Meals weren’t often home-cooked. And worst of all, my toddler’s challenging behavior was making it very clear that he wasn’t getting the attention he needed.
I was failing. Or at least that’s how I saw it.
I was also just…off. I was irritable and impatient in ways that felt very foreign to my usual disposition. Faced with what I perceived as my own failures, I even grew angry. My temper was short, which again felt odd — when did I even start having a temper? I was yelling at my poor toddler far more often than I think is okay, and the distance between the family life I had envisioned and the reality of my parenting continued to grow.
Finally, more obvious “depressive” symptoms worked their way into the mix. Irritability turned to anger turned to yelling turned to guilt turned to crying — hard crying that melted down my functioning for the better part of a day. A couple of these episodes in quick succession finally made it clear to me that something was wrong, and I nervously called my doctor to ask about it.
I was nervous because I still felt like this was a failure on my part. What if I didn’t have PPD? What if I just sort of sucked at being a mom? (I’d later learn that thoughts like these are very characteristic of postpartum mood disorders.)
My doctor worked quickly to get me on a hormone supplement that helped immensely to break the cyclical thinking I’d been caught in. I still don’t really know if I had “official” full-on postpartum depression, but I certainly was experiencing something in the more nebulous neighborhood of “postpartum mood disorders.” In any event, this supplement was an important first step in lifting me over the hump I couldn’t get past myself. I still had bad moments, but they didn’t necessarily derail an entire day. And they were becoming fewer and further between.
The supplement also returned me to enough strength to call on my own internal resources, which were always there but felt inaccessible when the depression was at its worst. I was more able to tap into my problem-solving skills and make time for exercise and other self-care practices that I knew could help my mental health. I got brave enough to ask for help, finding babysitters when I needed a break.
I returned to a somewhat regular prayer rhythm, and was more able to trust that God was present to me in these struggles regardless of whether I felt that presence. I took particular joy in praying for others, which helped to partially overcome the sense of loneliness and isolation that many mothers of small children report.
Counseling helped me recognize my anger as a stress response and to proactively practice stress management instead of waiting until it was too late. In my life before kids, I’d always been able to combat stress in the moment: take a step back from the stressor, take a few breaths, resume. In life with kids, that wasn’t working. The stressors come too fast and too frequently.
I’m working now to use breathing exercises and gratitude practices as daily disciplines, whether I feel I need them or not. These aren’t new skills for me — in fact, I have at times felt a little embarrassed that I needed a professional to remind me to breathe — but I’m learning to apply them in new ways to a new way of life.
It is brutally unfair that the time after having a baby — a time that seems like it should be happy — is so often marred by mental health struggles. My own healing is an ongoing process, supported in many ways by the people around me. Hope is emerging again, slowly but noticeably, and for that, I am deeply grateful.