Few life changes occur with such forethought, delight, and anticipation as the birth of a baby. Months of anxious planning, perhaps made more intense with the potential for tragedy, come to fruition through sweaty, noisy, and exhausting labor. And you are certain that worries about postpartum depression will not apply to you.
Then, suddenly, you are a parent.
You realize that the problems have just started.
Caring for a newborn is an emotional roller coaster. Those impossibly tiny fingers and toes! Crying for food every three hours! The joy and attention from friends, family, and even strangers! Baby vomit on the burping cloths, furniture, and your clothes!
And a new feeling settles in. You can’t put your finger on it, exactly. You feel like you are not at the top of your game. You aren’t the parent you believed you would be. Your motivation is missing.
You’re not alone. After having a baby it is common to experience bouts of periodic depression, anxiety, or even full-fledged post-partum depression.
Here’s how to ward off some of these symptoms, and to tell if perhaps it is something more than exhaustion and common parent self-doubt. And, importantly, how to make sure that postpartum or postnatal depression gets recognized if you start to show signs.
1. Take care of yourself
This is an important time to intentionally think about yourself. Never before has another life so fully depended on you. And, just like they tell you in the event of an airline crash: put the oxygen mask on yourself first.
You can’t help anyone if you are not in the best possible condition. Set some parameters for yourself using these guidelines, and give yourself permission to hold others around you accountable to supporting you.
2. Make sleep a priority
Whatever sleep program or plan you are using for your child, make sure to account for your own sleep needs. A lack of sleep can contribute to poor decision-making, anxiety and depression.
It can also contribute to failing to screw the lid on the bottle, or dropping a glass on the floor at the worst possible time.
Schedule part of your team to give you a break. Have nights that your partner is fully responsible for meeting Baby’s needs – if you’re breastfeeding, utilize the pump and let him experience the joy of a midnight skin-on-skin feeding experience while you sleep soundly down the hall.
“Best you” needs sleep.
3. Have a “real” friend
There are going to be great moments over the next few weeks and years. Fabulous firsts, and private moments of bonding and connection.
Likewise, there will be moments of darkness and serious self-doubt. Few people feel prepared to be a parent 100% of the time. The confidence you had while watching others’ babies or perhaps helping to raise your own siblings can ebb in the dark nights alone with a colicky infant.
You need at least one “real” friend who lets you share your fears and doubts without any embarrassment or judgment. Tell them how you are feeling when you have doubts and when you are filled with joy.
Sometimes just sharing these moments of fear can help dispel the sense that you are failing at a very important task. And a real friend can help you know when the problem is something more serious.
4. Give yourself permission not to be perfect
Some moms seem to have everything together. Popular parenting magazines have glossy photographs of sunlit rooms where babies are happily watching the flawless hand-made origami mobile spin gently above their spotless designer crib.
Those moments are bunk.
They are manufactured, and they can never compare with the real moments of cradling your baby while reading a hand-me-down book. Or waking up after a full night’s sleep.
Start with the basics. Is Baby healthy? Is Baby hitting milestones as described by your doctor (and not the pretentious hipster couple down the street whose preschooler is somehow quoting … was that Shakespeare? How?!?)?
Those milestones, and a happy and healthy baby, are the most important measures of your success. So what if all of your blouses have mile stains? You’re a Mom, not a model.
Unless you’re a model. In which case, you still need to find a healthy balance, and maybe you shouldn’t hold the baby while wearing other people’s clothes.
5. Know your resources and have a plan
So these friends that you gathered, who are helping you sleep and keeping it real? These are your resources. They can be used to gather resources and help give you what you need. They also are there when you need them most.
Have a plan for when you are not feeling your best. If days go past where you feel no joy at all, share that with your real friend. Implement a specific plan to do things designed to lift your mood.
Have you stopped sleeping because of anxiety, or is the work of parenting putting stress on your marriage? Put that information forward and come up with a plan.
6. Get professional help
When anxiety and depression keep you from feeling your best for days or weeks in a row, it is time to reach out to a therapist to discuss your self-care plan.
Perhaps you read this disturbing account of a mother with untreated postpartum depression.
Or perhaps you are responding toChrissy Teigan’s revealing discussion of her own experiences as a new mother in Glamour magazine.
Sometimes a person who is fully removed from the situation can give you a perspective to help you come up with new solutions or a new understanding.
Getting information from this Mayo clinic article is a start, but it is not a solution in itself.
Always this person can give you a place to talk about your deepest fears, even when they involve doubts you are trying to keep hidden from friends and family.
Sakina Issa is a psychotherapist and a mental health expert who addresses mindfulness, self growth, and topics related to parenting, including setting parenting goals and strategies for single parenting. Read more of her insights, or schedule an appointment at her site SakinaIssa.com.