My experience with postpartum mood disorder (PMD)

A couple years ago our family was plunged into a vortex of fast-paced, survival type living that seems kind of surreal to me looking back. Within a time period of just over one month I gave birth to my daughter (becoming mother to two children under 18 months old), packed us up to move out of our home, had a surgery, flew across the country on my own with two babies, moved us into our tiny student apartment, transitioned to the supportive role of graduate spouse (which meant not seeing a lot of my husband) and wound up in the hospital a couple of times with some health complications that took me many, many months to heal from.

I remember thinking during those weeks “What have we done? Can I get a refund on this decision?” I missed our comfortable house, our strong support network of friends, my good health and the community that we had been involved in. Everything had flowed before and now nothing did.

Aside from the exhaustion that comes from having a newborn, I was also experiencing nearly constant fatigue as a symptom of a health condition I was dealing with. Everything just felt so hard. Cooking. Cleaning up. Playing with my toddler. Going to group gatherings. Everything was a struggle. There were sweet neighbors who brought us meals to welcome us. Their gestures were much appreciated. But I felt so completely overwhelmed by my situation.

Looking back, I can recognize that I had been plunged into my first experience with the Baby Blues. At the time I did not realize it. I attributed my struggles and gray mood to my medical issues, adjusting to my new life and lack of sleep. I know now that I was not entirely incorrect–all of those things were very much playing into my feelings about life. But what I did not realize is that they were also contributing to a very real mood disorder that was beginning to manifest itself in me.

Did you know that some form of Baby Blues affects up to 80% of all new mothers? Yah, it’s not uncommon at all. I think many mothers do not even realize they are struggling with it, just as I did not. There are countless websites, articles and support groups that can help you identify if you are experiencing some type of postpartum mood disorder. I won’t go through all of the possible symptoms here. But I will share some of my experience and what helped me to get through it with my mind and my family intact.

I remember consistently having the following thought “I love my life and I hate my life.” And then I would loathe myself for even thinking that. I did love my life. My little family meant everything to me. I knew I would do anything in the world for them. And I felt so grateful. But, aside from my feelings for my sweet family, I felt miserable.

The two years we spent in that place were, in many ways, dark years for me. But they were also important years. I learned and grew so much through my experiences, though I would never have believed you if you’d told me at the time “it sucks right now but you will learn and grow so much from these experiences.” No one wants to hear that when they are having a hard time. But you know what? It is true. And I see it now that I am on the other side. It was just impossible for me to see it at the time. All I could do was get through it, one day at a time.

You know what, world out there? You can’t talk yourself out of depression. You can’t pray yourself out of depression. And you can’t just put on your big girl pants and “get over it.” But you can push through it and do it in a way that won’t destroy your life and your relationships. And you will be stronger on the other side because of it.

I did not realize that I was struggling with a postpartum mood disorder until my daughter was 18 months old. 18 months!!! My moods had come and gone. Sometimes I felt well, sometimes I didn’t. I always found some other thing to attribute it to. But at 18 months postpartum I weaned my daughter. And that was when it really hit me hard. The timing of our weaning was not the greatest. It was winter and we lived in a place that felt especially desolate in the cold months (to a native of warmer climates at least). I had had a hard time making friends during the months we had lived there, and some of the few friends I had made had graduated and moved on. My efforts at reaching out to several moms were rebuffed and I felt defeated, isolated and alone. Surely there was something wrong with me because everybody obviously disliked me. (My foggy brain was convinced of that.) And sadly, I began to believe that maybe those people were right about me. Maybe there was some unforgiveable flaw in my character, some abrasive way that I chafed people just-so, some reason why other women avoided me. And gradually my self-pity really talked me into it. I isolated myself from everyone, even from my own self–the true and confident voice inside of me who knows who I am and whispers it to me when I need reminding. The self that doesn’t care what people think and loves me even when I mess up or show my human imperfections. That self fell silent. And the rest of me mourned.

It was during those dark months that I finally was told what was going on. It came to me in the form of a cheesy mommy magazine that I picked up in a lobby. The magazine had an article on postpartum depression and as I read the first paragraph I froze at the following sentence “PMD can affect women who have had a baby, stillborn child or miscarriage, women who are pregnant, or after weaning their child from breastfeeding” (Hanley).*

Weaning could cause post-partum depression? What the heck, really? Why didn’t anyone warn me about that? As I read the article I realized that it very much described what I had been going through that winter, and–to some degree–since my daughter’s birth.

For me, identifying what was going on was an important first step. It gave me such relief to know that my life was not doomed, but that I was going through something very normal that thousands of other women have experienced and made it through. It was helpful to be able to put words on it and to talk to people I trusted about it.

I tried to do better at the things I knew made me feel good–the things that had been helping me during the past year and a half, before I had even had words for what I was going through. The simple recommendations I share here allowed me to navigate through my PMD and emerge stronger on the other side.

1) Sleep. I know we all hate this one. We know it’s the one biggest thing we need and it’s the one we just can never seem to get enough of. I know. It is hard. But do what you need to do to improve your sleep patterns. Baby naps? You nap. Can’t fall asleep? Just lie down and rest anyways (and don’t bring your phone—it will not allow you to relax!) Who cares if your house is a disaster because you napped instead of cleaning. You need to do what is going to help your family function, whether or not the neighbors judge you for your mess. (Not speaking from personal experience or anything…) Also do what you need to do to get better sleep at night. Maybe that means breaking the co-sleeping pattern, or putting on a noise machine, or getting a weighted blanket. Nights have been hard for us, as we have babies who want to be in our bed. But at some point, a rested mommy becomes the most important need for EVERYONE.

2) Exercise. I cannot say my gratitude enough for this one. Through my nearly two years with some form of PMD this was perhaps my biggest lifesaver. We have all heard about the physical, mental and emotional benefits of exercise. Well it is all true. Try to exercise often and push yourself. If you are not currently in an exercise routine or are having a hard time leaving the house (been there!) then try signing up for a class or joining a gym. Shelling out cash and making a commitment will likely help you get out and move more. Also, try some form of group exercise. There is a synergy that comes from exercising with other people and you will find that the social connecting lifts your spirits too. The hardest part is always getting started, so commit to a class or a schedule and stick to it for a few weeks until it becomes a habit. You will never regret this!!

3) Eat a nutritious diet (and what I mean is do your best!) Because of some of my health conditions after my daughter was born, I was forced to eat a very limited diet while I recovered. I tried really hard to maintain healthy habits once my physical symptoms had improved. And I noticed the times I veered into junk food overloads my body and my brain really suffered the consequences. There are numerous studies about the links between consumption of sugar and processed foods and depression. We don’t need to go through it all here, but watch it on the refined sugars and processed foods. They won’t do your brain or emotions any favors. Instead of junk food when a craving hits, opt for satisfying foods that have natural sugars and fats like fruits, nuts, yogurt, and whole grain carbohydrate options. Your body can get what it needs from good foods and by doing this you can essentially re-train your cravings so that you no longer crave the foods that harm you. And of course, when you do indulge in treats—don’t beat yourself up! Let yourself enjoy treats in moderation and then move on.

4) Focus on other people, as often as you can. My day to day during this period was mostly playing with my kids. Imagining with them. Or just reading to them for most of the day if I didn’t have the energy to actually play. The times I felt the very happiest were consistently the times I was focusing on them and engaging in their world. It really helped me not get swallowed up in my moods. Also, see if there are ways you can make a positive difference in your community. This may mean reaching out to a neighbor, volunteering with a youth group or school, or watching a friend’s kids for them. I found that using my energy to serve someone else left me feeling a lot more satisfied with my life every time.

5) Use your lifelines. You know who the people are that you can trust and call on at any time. Call on them. They need to know that you are struggling so that they can be a listening ear, support you, pray for you. Cling to these people right now. They will be lifelines for you.

6) Try your best not to isolate yourself. I know it can be really hard to put yourself out there when you just feel like curling up under a blanket`. But even though it was hard, even painful, for me to extend myself to others sometimes—I knew that I needed to. I craved connection with other people. Just do it. Some people might shut you down, but you lose nothing by reaching out to others in kindness. And I think most people will eagerly accept a friendly gesture.
Social media tends to be an isolating type of human interaction, contrary to how it may seem on the outside. Find ways to limit your use, especially when you are in the same room as other breathing human beings that you can have meaningful, face to face interactions with. You will find this to be very rewarding and renewing.

7) Feed your soul. What is it that feeds your soul? Is it meditation, reading a good book, getting outdoors, playing or listening to music or taking a long bath? Ask yourself what makes you feel renewed and make time to do just that. It doesn’t have to be often (we all know moms of little children don’t have a lot of spare time) but try to invest in these renewing activities when you can.

8) Most of all, please love yourself. Be patient with yourself. If you are having a hard time hearing your “true voice” then call someone who has known you for a long time. Be honest with them about how you are feeling about yourself. And then let yourself believe the positive things that they see in you and will surely share with you. This period in your life does not define you. And it will not always be this way.

Every woman’s experience with a postpartum mood disorder will be different. Some women’s may last days. Some weeks or months. Some years. Many will find counseling beneficial and some will choose medication. The important thing is to know that you can do this. You can take care of your family and be the mom you need to be, even if you don’t feel like yourself. Your family will be ok and you will make it out. Just make sure you are taking care of “you” in the ways that you need to. And please don’t be afraid to ask for help, to confide in a friend, or seek counseling. No one has to go through this alone, and nobody should.

From a woman who made it to the other side, and is safely there (for now at least)—I salute you. You are doing a magnificent and brave work. Pressing on in your life when it feels like it is falling in on you is an enormous and noble task. But you can do it. You must and you will. And whoever you are, I love you for it. We moms are in this together.

*Hanley, Ruth. “More than the Baby Blues: When A Friend Has PMD.” Michiana Mom, Winter 2016.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

Coming Home

We returned home tonight from a week-long visit to my parents’ home where I grew up. We enjoyed a wonderful holiday with family and friends and basked in the warmth of that place and the people in it. I had very much been looking forward to the trip, for many reasons. I had been feeling under the weather and there had been some other stressors that had exhausted me thoroughly. Having recently moved to a new place, I also had felt somewhat adrift as far as community goes and I was hungry for connection with people who loved me and knew me. I felt excited for some mommy support—others to play with my kids and read to them and patiently answer their questions. All of my eager anticipation was met with an abundance of family support and love. The week we spent together was soul-filling and strengthening.

By the week’s end, I felt more whole and I was ready to return to “real life.” I knew what would be waiting for me when we returned home. Three loads of laundry that were still covering the couch and waiting to be put away. An empty fridge. Toys still strewn across the house. Interrupted sleep and early mornings. And an endless vista ahead of me of caring for my small family. What I did not expect to be waiting for me was the aura that hit me in the face when I walked in the door. And no, thankfully, it was not a strange smell (at least not this time.) As I entered our home tonight, I was completely overcome by a sense of peace–deep, profound peace. And I was completely saturated with light. Upon my return to our home I was met by the same things I had left here seeking one week ago. Love, warmth, acceptance, refuge, peace, relief. I had returned to my very own haven.

The experience struck me in some profound ways and caused me to reflect on why I don’t always perceive these things in the environment that surrounds me. It seems that often I get so caught up in the minute details and stressors of my work in building and creating this family that I sometimes fail to see the stunning picture of what is really happening here. But I am staring it face to face tonight, and I recognize that I live on sacred ground. This place is hallowed. In this home souls are nurtured, bodies nourished, wounds bound up, and fertile minds encouraged. The work of creation is ongoing in this place. Life is created here. Family bonds that will strengthen us for years to come. Memories that will sustain in dark times. A haven that will remain vibrant inside of us even after we have each moved on to new experiences, and my children have become parents of their own children. What we are in the process of creating in this home, minute by humble minute, is sacred and life sustaining. And this is hallowed ground.

I know that this week will start at a running pace first thing tomorrow. That my toddler will wake me before 6 am with the words “I’m hungry. I want some food.” That I will spend the rest of the day getting us back into our routine and answering the question of “why??” 1,526 times before bed. And I know that this blessed and exhausting routine will not let up, even for a second. But I hope that I can maintain the sense of stillness that I felt tonight and an awareness of the anointing that I am under. For the work of a mother is truly sacred. And her workplace is hallowed ground.