Parents of new babies often have a lot of questions. Am I doing this right? What have I gotten myself into? How many diapers can one baby really use in a day?
For up to 80 percent of moms, these questions are part of the “baby blues” – mild sadness, crying, or anxiety that usually wears off a week or two after delivery. But for up to 15 percent of new moms, these emotions spiral into postpartum depression, a persistent, serious condition characterized by feelings of sadness, worthlessness, and anxiety. In severe cases, moms have violent thoughts toward their babies or themselves.
One of my patients in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Elaine Jacobson, went through postpartum depression twice. She offered to share her story to empower women to seek help for postpartum depression symptoms. Here is her story in her own words.
I needed help
I was 18 when I had my son, Colin. Being a young mother is difficult, but my life was already in shambles. I had recently learned I was losing my hearing, and all my friends were headed off to college without me.
These frustrations piled on top of me having a new, unplanned baby, and made managing my stress difficult. I wasn’t able to breastfeed, which made me feel even more inadequate. My parents both worked, so I was left alone with Colin. I felt sad, scared, and overwhelmed.
At the time, I never considered that I had postpartum depression symptoms. I figured I was just angry about my circumstances, and my sadness was linked to my hearing loss, not my new baby. Somehow, I managed to struggle through depression after pregnancy. Looking back, I clearly needed help and was lucky to make it through without intervention.
What made us think we should have this baby?
Flash forward 11 years. I had accepted and overcome my hearing loss, married my husband, Adam, and we had a brand new baby girl, Vivian. It was an easy pregnancy and delivery. There were no complications whatsoever.
Then everything changed.
The day after Vivian was born, I developed severe anxiety. I started to worry that I wouldn’t hear her if she needed me. I tried to sleep with my hearing aids in, but I woke to every sound and got very little rest. The lack of sleep only magnified my anxiety.
I became very sad at the hospital. Again, I had difficulty breastfeeding, which made me feel like less of a woman and an unworthy mother. I was unable to feed my child. I felt overwhelmed and helpless.
Adam was there for me, but it was a very busy time at his job, so he couldn’t stay at the hospital much. Though I knew the nurses were there to help take care of Vivian, I couldn’t shake my increasing anxiety.
When we brought Vivian home, the stress got worse. I quit taking care of myself. I didn’t feel worthy – in my mind, taking care of myself meant taking time away from Vivian. I wasn’t eating or drinking enough water, which meant my body wasn’t making breastmilk. I fretted about Vivian’s nutrition. I was crying more than I wasn’t.
I read obsessively about “the right way to do things.” I worried about every scary thing that could happen if I made a mistake. That’s my personality anyway, to worry, but it got out of control during our first week at home. Then I found an article about postpartum depression. To my surprise, my symptoms matched those in the article. Still, I was hesitant to call my doctor. My regular checkup was in three weeks, and I felt like I could hold out until then.
I was wrong. My depression took a turn for the worse at the end of that week. I mourned every second with Vivian: “She’ll never be one week old again. She’s growing too fast. She’ll never be this little again.”
I started feeling like having Vivian was a mistake. I asked Adam, “What made us think we should have this baby?” I was exhausted because I wouldn’t let Adam help me. I had frequent visions of him dying in a car accident because he’d fallen asleep at the wheel, too tired to drive to work because he’d stayed up late helping me.
I was terrified that I would feel like this forever. Adam was scared, too. At the end of our second week home, Adam called my obstetrician, Dr. Santiago-Munoz, and described my symptoms. She wrote me a prescription for an antidepressant and directed me to start taking it that day.
As soon as I started taking the medicine, I began to feel better. Dr. Santiago-Munoz confirmed that I had postpartum depression during my next appointment. She also assured me that I would be fine.
I took the medication for a year. Dr. Santiago-Munoz kept in contact with me throughout the year to make sure I was OK, but I felt great! I was able to find joy in life and take care of myself and my kids again. I felt so out of control with the postpartum depression, but the medication really helped me feel like myself again. At the end of the year, Dr. Santiago-Munoz helped me wean off of the medication by slowly stepping down my dosage. The depression did not come back.
My experience with postpartum depression actually enhanced my life. I learned how to remain calm and look at the big picture instead of obsessing over the details. I rediscovered joy. My kids are 14 and 3 now, and I enjoy them instead of feeling anxious all the time.
As children, we can't wait to grow up so we can do whatever we want, whenever we want. We can lose that sense of excitement as we age. When I got through my postpartum depression, I decided to find that joy again. When I feel sad or overwhelmed, I try to channel that calm feeling I had when I was on the medication. I'll stop and watch my favorite movie or even eat a piece of cake for dinner once in a while. Why not? It brings me joy to do these things now and then, and that's important. I need to love and take care of myself so I can be a better mother to my children. I want them to be happy, and I know they want me to be happy, too.
If you’re struggling with postpartum depression symptoms, don’t ignore them. I’ll never forget one time when I was really down; I talked to another mom who told me, “In my day, we didn’t have postpartum depression. We just had to snap out of it.” She made me feel guilty and embarrassed, like I was cheating by seeking help.
Postpartum depression is not something you just “snap out of” or deal with. It is a real problem with serious consequences if you don’t get the help you need. You are not a failure, you are not unworthy. Get the help you need – it’s the best way to care for your baby, your partner, and yourself.
If you have postpartum depression symptoms, take this postpartum depression quiz called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. A score of 12 or greater or a “yes” answer to the last question indicates that you need a thorough evaluation from your physician.
If your partner shows signs of postpartum depression, please call her physician. She may not realize the severity of her symptoms, or may be afraid or ashamed to ask for help.