Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Postpartum Emotions: Is Being a Little Bit of a Mess Normal?

What to expect after your baby is born

I write this blog post from my maternity leave, from my couch, on my laptop, on a Saturday night, wearing yoga pants and a sweatshirt flecked with bodily fluids - some my own, and some belonging to my son.

Since my son was born a month ago, I’ve planned to write a post. When several friends e-mailed me links to stories about the death by suicide of Aaron Swartz (the best of which I thought was this one), I really wanted to write a post. Though I’ve used this laptop many, many times over the past month, I have not had the time, energy, or brain space to compose my thoughts. Even when I went to write about Aaron Swartz, I ended up writing about my son. It’s that consuming.

It took a long time to have this baby, so my husband and I had years to think about how a child could change our lives. Of all the ways I prepared to be a parent, I’d prepared most for postpartum depression. I realized how over-prepared I was for that possibility when I made a list of all the ways I’d prepared: a short list of mental health professionals I could call if my husband or I thought I was at risk; multiple options for mom’s groups; a Google doc of friends who could come and spend time with me during the day; numbers for lactation consultants and a couple good suggestions for breastfeeding support groups; and signing up for a mentoring program for new moms.

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I have been extremely lucky. Our son is a very easy baby. He cries when he needs something. He sleeps, usually for two or three hours at a time. I have an incredible partner in parenting in my husband. We have truly amazing family and friends who have surrounded and supported us since the baby arrived.

Out of superstition and tradition, my husband and I didn’t choose a name for our baby until after he was born. We figured that we’d easily select one while still in the hospital. We left the hospital with no name. Several days later, when we really had to have a name because we were going to gather our family and friends for a huge naming ceremony, we still didn’t have a name.

That night, still in pain from the birth and completely sleep deprived (I’m pretty sure the little guy had been awake for five hours straight the previous night), I sat in my living room, eating dinner and crying uncontrollably in front of my parents and my in-laws. Later, I admitted to my husband, from a place of deep emotional and physical pain, that I was afraid I was too exhausted to choose a name for our son.

That wasn’t postpartum depression. That was completely normal for a woman who’d given birth five days earlier. I share that experience to normalize the emotions of the postpartum period, so that other women with similar experiences might feel comfortable sharing them.

From where I sit (on the couch, covered in a cocktail of bodily fluids), one of the aspects that makes the postpartum period risky for women is potential isolation. Isolation stemming from the constant care needs of a newborn can contribute to a new mother feeling disconnected from reality. Compounding that disconnection is the unfortunate truth that women - mothers and not - are not always helpful or supportive to each other. It’s a stark truth that a new mother can be surrounded by other women and mothers, but that no one will tell her - often until she says something herself - that her own emotions are part of what’s unpredictable about having a new baby.

As I imagine that I won’t have much else on my mind over the next few weeks, expect to see a couple more posts from me on postpartum emotions and depression, as well as resilience for new parents. If you have experiences to share, please comment.

Most importantly, if you’re reading this post as a woman who’s recently had a baby, or a friend, family member, or partner of a woman who’s recently had a baby, and you think that help might be warranted, there are many people who are waiting to help: pediatricians, obstetricians, primary care physicians. If medical professionals don’t seem helpful, you may find support through those that specialize in working with new moms, such as mom’s groups or lactation consultants. Try not to be afraid to ask for help, even if you aren’t 100% sure you need it.

Copyright 2013, Elana Premack Sandler. All rights reserved.

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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