Eight ways to Prevent or Improve Postpartum Depression
Let's get one thing straight before we dive in.
If you are a mother of a newborn or in general a human that isn't yet capable of cooking themselves dinner, shut this off right now and go take a nap.
You are welcome to find your way back here in an hour after your nap, or in 15 years once your babies have gone to college.
Now that we've established those important points, let's jump in.
Long before being a mother, I was on anti-depression medication for over 3 years.
And ADHD and anti-anxiety meds for even longer.
Allllll the meds.
Currently (and by God’s grace,and God’s grace alone), I have been meds-free for almost 5 years!
Now. Hear me loud and clear here. It was by grace that I was on the meds when I needed them–when God willed it for my healing. And it was by grace that I came off of them–when God willed it for my healing. Did you catch that? Grace is the key factor here, not my perfect plan on or off the meds.
*Side note: at some point in one of these essays I’ll share about my journey getting on and off of meds. But that’s for later!
I have also been free from relapsing since going off of the meds, and again, that credit goes to God and His grace. He’s ON it.
But there’ve been times I’ve come daaaangerously close to relapsing into depression again.
And New Motherhood, my friends, was one of those times.
Those first 3 months of motherhood–12 weeks, 90 days, however you want to look at it–they are no joke.
For all of us new mamas, that beginning is HARD. Your entire world is turned upside-down. Like upside-down and shaken like a rag doll so that up is down and down is up and with your left hand you’re hanging on by one finger for dear life and with your right hand you’re holding a tiny crying human, and you haven’t slept in 57 hours. Oh and your body aches and you’re probably still bleeding everywhere. But it’s fine. I’m fine. We’re fine.
Then, just for funzies, add on top of that the fact that babies who are exclusively breastfed metabolize breast milk super efficiently (which is great for their bodies), but that also means they wake up from hunger wayyyyy more frequently throughout the night (which is the absolute worst for my body.) Regardless, whether your baby is breast-fed, or formula-fed, or fed straight manna from heaven, most likely you know sleepless nights. You know them like the back of your hand. (Notice I said hand, not pillow, because you haven’t seen the front or the back of your pillow since 1975.)
If you go for that many days and weeks and months only sleeping 2-4 hour chunks at a time, you really start to lose your ever-lovin’ mind. Those days that I thought I was literally losing my mind, I tried to verbalize it to my husband for the sake of not getting trapped in my own head, and he always reminded me that studies have shown you can die a lot quicker from lack of sleep than from lack of food*. For some reason, that always made me feel better. Affirmed even. Scientifically, losing my mind those first three months was to be expected–it was the natural human response. I wasn’t failing because I couldn’t keep it together. I was just being a human deprived of her most basic and essential needs for survival.
Now mayyyybe you’re a seasoned veteran mom and you don’t remember it being that bad. And you’re the mom who tells new moms to “cherish when they are that little because you’ll never get that time back”.
Well. No offense, but I’d be perfectly content to NEVER return to those first three months of motherhood with my daughter. (And if you do remember it so fondly it’s probably because in your sleep-deprived state you blocked it all out of your memory. Good job, brain! You got our backs!)
So, it’s hard. Let’s all agree on that whether or not you’d ever turn the clock back. We’re all entitled to our own insani–ah, ahem, I mean, “opinion”.
So, now FINALLY out of those first 3-6 months when babies literally don’t produce enough melatonin on their own to sleep long stretches (they start producing enough at around 10-12 weeks), I’m on the other side and no longer feeling like I’m dying every day. In fact I am loving motherhood most days. And I have just a few, quick thoughts for mamas battling the post-baby blues. These encouragements are NOT to make light of cases of serious post-partum depression where self-harm or harming a child is at risk. Rather, these encouragements are meant to simply give glimmers of hope for the mom with the blues, the depressed days, the weeks that feel gray and lonely, as many weeks do at the very start of motherhood.
There are a few key things that I held onto as anchors when I first became a mother which I believe prevented me from spiraling downward into a full on relapse. I hope they encourage you, help you breathe a sigh of relief, or if you’re not a new mama, help you understand a bit more how to love the new moms in your life.
Encouragement for New Mamas Battling Post-Partum Blues: Eight Ways to Prevent or Improve PPD:
1. See a Counselor.
This feels like a no-brainer, but sometimes we need reminded of the simplest of truths, AND we need to know that others have done it before us. We get counseling in our house. A lot of it. It’s as common as well-checks with the doctor. It’s not because we can’t handle life, or because we are weak, or because we are loonies (well, okay, maybe just a liiiittle loony). I met with a counselor the week before our baby was due. And a few months after. And literally two days ago. Change should always bring some counseling. Some of the counseling we get is preventative (“I know things are about to get hard, can you help me plan for the change so that I can adapt well?”). Some of the counseling is reactive (“Everything is HARD, I’m not adapting well, can you help me respond to this change in a more healthy way?”). We schedule regular dental cleanings for our teeth, because rotting teeth are zero fun. Why can’t we schedule regular counseling sessions to clean our minds, hearts and souls? Who wants to volunteer for a rotting soul? Not this girl.
2. Fully Enter Into Your Sadness So That You Can Also Fully Exit From It.
My wonderful saint of a midwife told me some of the best advice anyone could ever give a new mother: the more you resist the sadness, the harder and stronger it pushes back. We have GOT to stop trying to hold it together. Which brings me to my next point…
3. Let the Tears Flow Like a River. Or Like a Waterfall. Or Like Freaking Hurricane Irma.
Two of my closest friends (who were moms years before I had my first) lovingly let me in on glimpses of their early motherhood. Their stories helped prepare me. One told me about how her hormones were so all over the place post-birth that while she was nursing, sometimes tears would just start flowing and she would have no idea why she was crying. Another friend told me all she did was cry for the majority of the first three months of motherhood. Three months of crying, then she adapted. And everything was fine. Cry as often as you need to. I remember thinking the more I cried the better. It was like detoxing my system.
4. Know Your Warning Signs and Know When You Need to Tap Out.
This is, yet again, advice I got from a mom friend who was a mom long before I was. Don’t be a hero. If you are blessed to have Dad around, and you are seeing warning signs that you’re not thinking clearly… WAKE. HIM. UP. Wake him when you need to take 5. Or 45. Even if its 4AM. If you’re falling asleep with a newborn in your arms, or if bouncing the baby to sleep starts to cross the line into jumping jacks-ing the baby to sleep, it’s time to call for back up. It’s better to have you and Baby stay safe than to power through dangerous exhaustion. Single moms, this is the part I just sit down and bury my face in my hands because I have no words. You all are the real MVPs. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around what you experience. But the same principle applies. Know when to ask for help. Call a relative. Call a neighbor. Call someone. Asking for help isn’t you being weak, its you being a good mother.
5. Make Your Village One Text Away.
Have a small handful of trusted mom friends, or at least one mom friend who you can share “words of the wind” with. This is a fun term from Job, a book in the Bible that basically means “crap you say when you’re not thinking clearly.” When I first became a mom I had a group text going with four of my closest mom-friends who I could say virtually anything to in a completely judgment-free zone. I can’t tell you how many times I sent things like “I feel like I’m drowning” (except add a few choice four letter words sprinkled in there.) And they wouldn’t attempt to preach me out of it. They just let me be there. They were just with me. Reminded me how much better it gets after the first three months. Sympathized. Offered to come over and hold my baby so I could nap for 20 mins. It was amazing.
6. Answer Honestly.
When people ask you “How’s motherhood going?!” or, “How do you like being a mom?” it’s FINE if you answer honestly. In fact, it’s the only way you should answer. It’s such a sad thing to know that 99.999999% of moms are experiencing the same heartache and exhaustion, yet typically all we do or see from each other are the cute social media pictures and the put-together-self at Church Sunday mornings. I can’t tell you how many times I answered those questions with things like “Umm…it’s both terrible and amazing,” only to be stared at awkwardly. Well, guess what? This tiny human IS amazing. And yes I love her SO much. However, never sleeping and bleeding everywhere IS terrible. The point is to be authentic. Don’t try to be the mom who’s always “Good!”, “Great!”, “My babies are my world/life/everything!”, “I just made homemade baby food while simultaneously cleaning a toilet AND shaving my legs!” Ha! That mom? She doesn’t exist. And the sooner you can accept that, the sooner you will love the mother you actually are.
7. Take Preventative Routine Breaks
So often we don’t communicate needing a hand until we’ve bottled up all of our exhaustion, frustration, sadness and anger for so long that we explode–whether “exploding” means anger and rage or lying lifeless on a bed of tears , eating an entire tub of ice cream or buying an entire clothing store in one day. We’ve all experienced some degree of our own mom-plosion. (Unless you haven’t…then God bless you. Also are you secretly a robot? Mother Theresa? Jesus Himself?) The point is, we all have our breaking point. But if we proactively ask for help as a ROUTINE part of our day–yes, even on the days we feel like Wonder Woman and we are ON it, we accomplish two things. 1.) We practice asking for help when we aren’t overwhelmed, making it much easier to ask for help efficiently (and kindly) when we are overwhelmed. 2.) We can step away and refill our tanks preventatively on a regular basis so that we rarely end up in a sticky situation and running on empty (aka punching walls and tearing apart chairs, or on the floor sobbing uncontrollably…not that I’ve ever done either of those things (spoiler alert: I have.)) It’s kind of the same mentality that says you should fill up your gas tank at a quarter tank instead of when it’s on E. This can look different for us all depending on what our lives and daily routines look like, but here’s an example of what it looks like in our household: my husband gets our daughter out of bed every morning. He goes in, and it’s the sweetest thing to hear from another room; they say good morning’s, snuggle and giggle and sing, and he changes her diaper. This not only gives her a consistent sweet time with her dad before he leaves for work, but it also helps me start my day with calm. I get to sit on the couch and read or think or pray or just stare at a wall for 5-15 minutes. He also does bath time almost every night with her, and again I use this time to go for a walk, chat with friends, sit and close my eyes, WHATEVER; I just get a breather after a long day of mom-ing. The tricky part with these things is to see them as gift-offerings, not hard and fast rules that if for some reason he’s running behind one morning or schedules just don’t work out, I’m not stuck feeling bitter and angry that he didn’t “hold up his end of the deal”. Rather, we are constantly looking for ways to give each other gifts–gifts of special one-on-one time with our daughter, and gifts of getting a breather. If he’s had a particularly stressful day and I can tell he needs some time to himself after work, I have asked in the past if he wants me to do bath time. Normally he does it anyway, regardless of the kind of day he’s had, but my offer means a lot to him. And his offers mean the world to me. I have gotten in the habit of communicating something like “it would be really great for me right now if you helped me preventively protect my sanity.” And he gets it. He knows that means that I’m seeing warning signs of stress and need a breather.
8. Love Your Mind Well By What You Eat.
This one is HARD, guys. And it may just become a full on essay of its own, because it really can change everything. The food we eat really does effect our mental well-being. Like, on so many levels. So, I won’t get into this one because I’ll save it for another day so I can show you some cool science to back it all up and encourage you, as well as some initial first steps you could try out. But just try to love yourself well by the food you eat, at least 90% of the time. If right now loving yourself well means embracing that left over 10% by eating the moose tracks in the freezer, no one’s judging. We get it. Eat the ice cream.
I hope these thoughts encourage you and take some weight off your tired shoulders.
A final recommendation is to read some encouraging, short, and easy Mom books. Emphasis on SHORT, and ENCOURAGING. Not heady or long or complicated. In fact, this blog post is already too long. Stop reading right now and go take a nap. New motherhood is NOT the time to learn. Its the time to nap. As often as humanly possible. Its the time to have people and short words to lean into when your body hardly has strength to stand. Quick reads that can flood your heart with some light on a regular basis. My favorite so far has been “Chin Up: Wearing Grace, Strength, and Dignity when Motherhood Unravels Our Souls,” being published in just a few short weeks by my dear friend Amy Seiffert (I will post a link here and on FB when its available for purchase). I got to read an early copy in my first few months of motherhood, and it changed my whole entire world. It’s a quick and easy read; I could read a chapter as I nursed (another pro-tip: get books on the Kindle Reader App or iBooks and you can read them on your phone! Helpful for one-handed reading while nursing.) Amy’s words will make you laugh and cry and be so uplifted.
Thanks for stopping in, friends.
If you have more input on things that have helped your post-partum blues, I would love to hear from you!
Edit to add**
Some of you actually chimed in, and your thoughts were SO valuable I had to include them, so THANK YOU! You beautiful, wise, delicious, mom superheroes. #MOMSUNITE
Encouragement from Amanda:
"I had some really hardcore PPD with each of my girls. One thing I would add to the list is move/get out of the house. It helped me so much to soak up some vitamin D! Also just getting out of the house, even when I really didn't want to, forced me to go out into the "normal world" even if it was just a trip to Target."
Encouragement from Christy:
"Since it's my second kiddo I had an idea of what these first few months can bring but you just can't prepare for that lack of sleep. Phew....that and nursing around the clock is exhausting. I've been learning to be more honest when it's hard this time. One thing I would also say is have grace with yourself when it comes to your to do list. Sometimes getting a shower is an accomplishment 😊 Remembering that caring for your sweet babe is more than enough in this season. (Preaching to myself, I struggle with this big time)."
Encouragement from Lisa:
"I would add one thing: give your self permission to do what works for you and your baby rather than stick to some arbitrary rules that you somehow believe are the right way to parent."
*See Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s book “On Combat” for an in-depth look at the crippling effects of sleep deprivation. It’s geared towards soldiers, but applicable to moms, and the chapter on sleep will make you feel like you’re not just a crazy person.