by Hallie Rogers, PCD(DONA), CLC
Most of us have heard many “birth stories”: narratives parents weave to commemorate the arrival of a new baby. Typically beginning with early labor, birth stories are the emotional and factual account of how a new little human was birthed, and can be an important part of a woman processing her own agency, role, and part in that story. My husband and I have had three beautiful births, each different than the others. While we treasure our memories of those life-changing nights and days, in my experience, it’s my postpartum stories that have truly influenced my life and had a greater impact on my family. This is my first time sharing my postpartum story–my own weaving together of my three postpartum experiences. Why? Because I want to model my belief that a woman’s postpartum story is just as important and valuable as her birth story.
Our first child (G) came almost four weeks early. We were not prepared, emotionally or literally. We have a photo of our tiny G sleeping in her car seat just after we arrived home that first time, the room around her total chaos with opened boxes, papers, and gift wrap everywhere. As my husband took that photo, we both expressed to each other how we felt completely incompetent and at a loss for what to do now. How could they send us home with this tiny person? We couldn’t possibly know what we were doing. Those first two weeks were intense, with serious physical healing necessary for me that greatly limited my mobility. Breastfeeding was challenging right from the beginning, and I remember sitting in the bathtub one afternoon crying to my mom on the phone, telling her I’d been asking myself, “What did we get ourselves into?” It was clear that in those first few weeks, I was experiencing what’s called “the baby blues,” which is a normal reaction to the overwhelming hormonal and circumstantial adjustments women have to make following the birth of a baby. I struggled initially the first few weeks, but things got easier. G was born in May, and since my husband was a teacher, starting about 4 weeks after G’s birth, he was able to be home with us all summer long. Life with baby quickly got so, so much better, and we had a wonderful summer learning how to parent together. I had the luxury of unconditional, encouraging support every day. To make it even more incredible, that support came from the man I loved the most in the whole world, and I got to learn from him and watch him settle into parenthood alongside me.
Fast forward 16 months later to our second child (M), who also came a bit early. Born in September, it was not ideal timing for a family with two parents working in education, but she decided to debut on a gorgeous crisp fall day. Right away, M was a force to be reckoned with. Breastfeeding was much easier this time (she nursed like a champ!), but as the weeks went on, we could tell something wasn’t working for her. After researching on our own and talking with her doctor and some friends from La Leche League, we discovered M was intolerant of the cow proteins in my diet. I went dairy free for the next five months so that I could continue to breastfeed M, and while I didn’t mind doing it for her, it was not easy.
My postpartum time after M’s birth coincided with my decision to leave work and stay home with our children for a while, my husband’s return to a demanding job and classes in a post-graduate program at a university, and the chilling and darkening of the seasons in our northern climate. In those early weeks, I remember being unable to sleep while the rest of the house was sleeping. In retrospect, I was experiencing relatively significant postpartum anxiety, followed later–in the winter months–by depression. While there certainly were times of joy in those first 6-8 months after M was born, there were definitely moments I wish I hadn’t had to have, particularly with two little ones looking on and feeling the effects of a sad mom. I remember sitting on the living room floor in January with the toddler playing with the baby as I just wept, for no particular reason and with no particular remedy. I felt a deep sadness, emptiness, and loneliness, and I didn’t know how to get myself out of it. I felt guilty for not loving every minute of being home with our kids, I felt ashamed of my sadness, and yet–because it was different than the depression I had had as a college student–I couldn’t see the forest for the trees and did not recognize what I was dealing with in those moments. I made excuses for why I felt sad, and failed to reach out for the help I needed. Eventually, days got longer, baby M got older, and things got easier. That summer was a good one.
Unfortunately, however, my postpartum mental health issues reared their ugly heads again as M and I weaned that fall. As my body shifted from its lactating to non-lactating state, my hormones contributed to the return of anxiety, resulting in panic attacks during the day, night after night of insomnia, general worry over things I typically don’t worry about, and even heart palpitations. A few months later, I was able to feel “normal” again, and I thought my depression and anxiety were done and gone.
After many months and much thought and discussion, my husband and I decided to have another child. We were absolutely in love with the beautiful daughters we had been blessed with, and were excited to welcome another little person into our family. By the end of the first trimester with baby #3 (L), though, I could tell there was already some anxiety mounting inside me with each passing week. I decided to try to “head it off at the pass” by talking to a counselor who specializes in perinatal mood disorders and works mostly with mothers. This was helpful, and I began to see some improvement through therapy with her, as well as the use of a prescription light box I sat in front of every morning at 5:30.
That January, however, I began to slip into what would become the deepest, scariest depression I’ve ever experienced. While I was never suicidal, it was definitely the darkest time of my life in terms of mental health. I began to see a counselor again, and with her guidance and that of my doctor, I was able to see that medication was necessary. For weeks and months I had tried every non-pharmaceutical thing I knew of to try to treat my perinatal depression and anxiety, and it had simply reached a point when those methods weren’t enough. I also began to work on a postpartum plan. I knew that for me, the postpartum time was likely to be a challenge again. So, I decided to have my placenta encapsulated this time around, to see if it would alleviate some of my symptoms and allow me to gradually “come down” from the hormone high point of birth, as well as replenish and sustain my own levels of iron a bit more easily. We also decided to hire a postpartum doula. I didn’t know postpartum doulas existed when we had our first two babies, but between baby #2 and baby #3, I had not only learned about them, but had become certified and began working as one myself. I knew the vast benefits of having trained, nonjudgmental support after baby arrives, so we arranged for our postpartum doula to come be with me and our children while my husband was working and other family was not available to help. I also asked friends and family members to help us by bringing us a meal after L arrived, and so many people generously responded. It was incredible to feel so loved and supported by so many people, and their food nourished our bodies and our souls.
My medication, my counselor, and my placenta were all helpful to me after L was born, but I truly believe that it was the support of other people that was the key factor to this postpartum time being worlds different than the last, and worlds different than even a few weeks prior to birth, when my depression in pregnancy was so serious. I honestly remember crying tears of joy and relief in those first weeks after birth, and I remember telling my husband, “This is what it’s supposed to be like. I am so, so happy. This is what postpartum should be.” They say the third time’s the charm, and for me, it seemed to be. I was able to come out of a darkness and into the light of a new phase of motherhood, eased into it with the support of our doula and many dear friends and family members who loved us into a new peace as a family of five.
Hallie Rogers is a certified postpartum doula and a certified lactation counselor, and seeks to provide a wonderful, supported postpartum experience to the families whom she serves. She lives in St. Paul with her husband and three young children. You can find out more about her doula and lactation services, read other blog posts, and contact her at www.betterbeginningsmn.com.
by Natalia Hals, CD(DONA), LCCE
It really grieves me to the core to think about the taboo around postpartum depression. Even the name weighs heavy when compared to “the baby blues”. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, depression is a common problem during and after pregnancy. Research tells us that up to 16% of women will experience postpartum depression.
But when you are battling PPD yourself, knowing that even one other mother has experienced PPD can mean the difference of acknowledging it and seeking help. I have a sneaking suspicion that the number may be larger but this is a subject that women are often ashamed of. Whether it is the fear or being seen as weak, not appreciating the gift of a new child, or fear that there may be some other mental illness that hasn’t been uncovered, it remains hidden. I can tell you from experience that things that are hidden like this seldom go away on their own.
A dear friend of mine asked me about the difference between postpartum depression and the baby blues. In answering, I hope to remove the unnecessary shame and loneliness that goes along with PPD. Here was my response:
I can tell you from experience. I had PPD with Riggity and Poots and the baby blues with Beaner. They are very different. I will underline the symptoms:
After I had Riggity I had to go back to work 6 weeks postpartum. I was a walking zombie and it wasn’t because of lack of sleep. Riggity was one of those rare babies that slept through the night early on. I wept on and off, I was clearly so unhappy that every one would mention it. I was not interested in any of the things I used to be, including friends. I started isolating myself – not wanting to see anyone because it was too much work or caused anxiety. I was not my self and it wasn’t getting better as the months went on. Her father worked evenings and I would have Riggity every night after work. I was exhausted and would come home, feed her (she was bottle fed) and I would sleep on the couch until morning. She would be in a playpen next to me (even though she had her own nursery…I didn’t feel like taking her there and I wasn’t so quick to attending to her). I truly loved her and felt so blessed to have her but I was disconnected from her because of how I was feeling. Unfortunately, I didn’t know what to look for at the time and it took my mom at about 6 months postpartum to plead with me to talk with my doctor.
When I was pregnant with Poots my doctor was aware of my previous PPD and we developed a plan; to look for the signs, be accountable (she came to see me before I went home after having Poots and she sat down and talked with Hubs and I about what to look for) and also we discussed what were some options if I were to have it again; counseling, prescription medication, diet, combo of all.
I’d seen my doctor for my yearly check up and she asked me how it was going and I cried my eyes out. She said that my appearance looked different, my eyes were distant and I was not the same happy person I was a year previous. She’d said exactly what hubs had just told me (which led me to schedule the appointment) and I knew she was right.
I believe I waited too long to be treated. I had just lost my mother and thought I was heavily grieving and that was the reasons for my symptoms. I also thought it was something that could be reasoned and prayed away, a positive attitude and strong-will would help me overcome it. I eventually agreed to try some medication and after two weeks or more started I started to see more clearly and not walk around with my head in the cloud. I also started to see a counselor to process some things. Both helped. Again, I wish I wouldn’t have waited so long.
With Beaner, I had the baby blues. We were on alert and looking for PPD because of the hard pregnancy, traumatic labor/delivery I’d had. The baby blues felt like an emotional roller coaster that came and went around the second week. It was intense when it peaked and I had one melt down when I was feeling overwhelmed with healing, nursing, lack of sleep and my hormones had tanked but after that things settled and started to feel normal.
Another description: I was falling deeper and deeper in a black hole. I had my arms and legs stretched out to try to keep from falling but I was still falling, some days super fast and some days I was trying to stop the falling with my finger nails, barely holding on. Either way, I felt alone even though people were around me, and scared, anxious and unhappy.
By the way, all of this was going on and I loved my kids and hubby so much I could hardly stand it. The good news, kids are sooooo forgiving and resilient. They love their mamas so much that any mistakes along the way are forgiven. In spite of my rocky start with Riggity is really unbelievable how much she loves me. Poots thinks I am a rock star. I have to lock myself in the bathroom sometimes because they all want to hang out with me (this is even after spending all day with them). I am not saying this to brag about myself because like I said, I am not perfect. I still make mistakes and lose my patience and have challenging days but kids are pretty forgiving and resilient if your heart is in the right place.
Don’t feel guilty if you find that you do have PPD. It is nothing you did wrong, nothing you can control with will power and like any other illness if there were treatments available no one would judge you for using them.
Practical notes: Have someone to take babes while you sneak a nap, take a soak, have some quiet time. It will make you a better mama if you get as much rest as you can, stay hydrated and nourished. Stay connected to your partner and be honest about how you are feeling. Even if it is continuing to communicate about how all of the changes are affecting you both, snuggling up to a comedy or doing more if you feel up to it (don’t feel bad if you don’t).
Accept help when it is available; food, cleaning, errands. Breathe and when you are feeling overwhelmed acknowledge it and stop and think what do I need to be doing right now, or today? It may be just getting back in the bed with baby and counting her little fingers, smelling her hair, listening to her breath or eating a soulful meal, taking a stroll or a nap. Pace yourself, there is no pressure. You are the perfect mom for your child(ren) even if you are dealing with PPD.
by Ashley Ashbacher, LSW, CD(DONA)
My Experience With Postpartum Depression
My journey into motherhood was not at all what I expected. I had visions of a fluffy happy pregnancy where I was glowing and everything was exciting and wonderful. That unfortunately was not my reality. I was diagnosed with hyperemesis gravidarum (HG) which is characterized by severe and constant nausea and vomiting in pregnancy. It was a very debilitating condition and something that I was not prepared for. I ended up going on disability from my job and spent most of my days alone and in bed. The HG was isolating and completely out of my control. Feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, and sadness began to creep in. I felt removed from my pregnancy and cheated. When my hopes for an unmedicated vaginal birth turned into a c-section, I had a very hard time coping. I felt cheated. I felt like a failure. I felt broken. I felt totally and completely alone. I was very angry at myself. I felt that I failed to have a healthy pregnancy, I failed at having the birth I wanted, and when we switched to formula after never getting a good latch, I felt that I failed again.
I would look at my little girl that I fought so hard to carry and birth and I would know that I should have warm loving feelings for her, but I felt nothing. I didn’t know how to bond with her. When she would cry, I would cry and break down begging her to stop. I couldn’t soothe her. Sometimes I couldn’t touch her. I felt like a terrible mother. Sometimes I hated myself. I had thoughts of killing myself.
I also felt like no one understood what I was going through and worst of all no one cared. I knew something was very wrong at this point but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it. I could see my husband getting angry at me and that he didn’t understand what was happening to me but he never said anything. Once I tried to confide my feelings in someone I trusted and their response was that I needed to get over it. That I had a baby now and that was all that was important. It reaffirmed to me that I didn’t matter. That my pain didn’t matter. That my grief over not having the pregnancy and birth I expected, didn’t matter.
Eventually I went to see a therapist and I told her my story. I will always remember what she said to me next. She said, “What happened to you was a trauma, and it is ok that you feel this way.” She was the first person to give me permission to feel both sad and angry about my experience and to acknowledge that I mattered too. My experience mattered. My pain mattered. This is where my healing began and with the help of my therapist, I recovered. I was able to forgive myself for what happened and develop a strong bond with my little girl.
It’s still difficult for me to discuss that time in my life but it is a story that I feel needs to be told. So often we as mothers who experience postpartum mental health concerns suffer though it in silence and we don’t talk about our experience after. I talk about my experience because I know there are other moms out there in the same place I was. Moms who are feeling lost and alone. Moms who are feeling overwhelmed by sadness and can’t seem to find their way out of that dark place. If you are feeling that way now or if you have found yourself feeling that way, you are not alone and there is help available. You have nothing to be ashamed of and you don’t have to go though it alone.
How to Determine if You or a Mother You Care About May Need Help
Sometimes we have a hard time figuring out what is often referred to as the baby blues and what is postpartum depression. Here is some information from Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota (PPSM) that can help you start to determine what you are experiencing.
The Baby Blues (experienced by around 80% of mothers)
The baby blues occurs within the first few weeks after giving birth; it is mild and short-lived. The experience includes: intermittent crying, feeling overwhelmed, irritability, frustration, anxiety, up & down moods, exhaustion, trouble falling or staying asleep. These feeling may come and go within a day and often coincides with periods of feeling just fine. Sleeping or crying usually helps lessen the negative feelings. It generally resolves within 2 weeks and treatment is not necessary but support is helpful.
Depression (experienced by 10-20% of mothers)
Depression includes symptoms that persist for at least two weeks. The experience includes feelings of being overwhelmed, sadness, irritability, guilt, lack of interest in the baby, difficulty experiencing pleasure or joy, fatigue, changes in eating and sleeping habits, trouble concentrating, thoughts of hopelessness and sometimes thoughts of harming the baby or yourself. Sometime people are depressed before they become pregnant, or develop symptoms during pregnancy. Often this experience continues after baby is born and may become more severe. A variety of treatment and support options may be helpful and necessary in order to find your way through this difficult experience.
Where to Seek Help Locally
Pregnancy and Postpartum Support Minnesota is a great resource where you can find mental health resources and providers (http://www.pregnancypostpartumsupportmn.com/). PPSM also has a helpline that you can call and get connected with another mother to provide support (612- 787-PPSM).
HCMC has recently opened the Mother-Baby Program which includes a telephone support line (612-873-HOPE), a mother-baby day hospital, and outpatient counseling (http://www.hcmc.org/birthcenter/familycenter/the-mother-baby-program/index.htm).
If you are thinking about harming yourself or your child: Call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room right away.
There is growing awareness and understanding of postpartum mental health. If you or someone you know is suffering, please reach out and know that you are not alone.
Ashley is the mother of an almost -three-year-old girl and recently welcomed a baby boy in a healing VBAC. She has been a doula for two years. She is currently completing her master’s degree in social work and hopes to provide counseling focused on issues of motherhood and mental health.