You know the scene, new mother holding her new baby, sunlight floods the room. Tiny birds flutter around like in a fairy tale, and everything is beautiful and serene. Maybe not the most realistic postpartum picture, but one that is pushed hard anyway. Women are under an extreme amount of pressure in their day-to-day lives and it only gets worse right after a baby. While passing feelings of ambivalence are the norm, nobody talks about it. Anxiety at bringing home a new baby? Perfectly normal. A little bit more tired than usual? That’s a given. So what do you do when the “perfect picture” isn’t quite so perfect? Where’s the line between normal adjustment and a problem?
The postpartum period can be intimidating and emotional for everyone, with the hormone fluctuations, new roles, sleep deprivation, and changing body things can get hectic. While it’s normal to have baby blues or to feel stressed during the adjustment sometimes the symptoms your spouse is experiencing may need some extra attention.
Baby blues or postpartum depression?
Baby blues are normal and due to hormonal fluctuation, they usually last about 2 weeks. If symptoms become extreme or last longer than 2 weeks. Signs of postpartum depression are extreme sadness, anxiety, and/or fatigue that make it very difficult or impossible to take care of the baby or other life tasks.
Is your spouse at risk?
Everyone who has had a baby is at risk for postpartum depression, but your spouse may be at a higher risk if they have a history of mental health issues, have had a recent change in job or financial status, have had a falling out with friends or family, or had a difficult pregnancy or delivery.
What causes postpartum depression?
Despite years of research doctors haven’t found a simple explanation, but believe it may be due to hormonal changes, lack of sleep, physical exhaustion from childbirth, and other cultural pressures and issues that women have to deal with.
What we do know is it’s not due to anything a mother did or did not do. There isn’t any good way to prevent it and treatment plans can be as varied as the mothers that experience it. For some therapy works, for others medication is required and then for some, it is just a waiting game.
Women may be so tired that they are unable to assess the situation, especially if it’s their first child, so you may need to keep an eye on things.
What specific signs to watch for?
- Depression that lasts for several weeks
- Panic attacks or severe anxiety, especially related to caring for the baby
- A loss of interest in friends or hobbies
- Feeling out of control or like a failure
- Changes in sleeping or eating habits
- Excessive crying
- Intrusive thoughts about harming herself or the baby
- Thoughts that she is not a good mother or isn’t doing motherhood “right”
- Detachment from the baby or others
- Feelings of inadequacy
If your spouse is experiencing postpartum depression it is important to keep her doctor updated in case she needs medication or therapy. Going with her to the appointment may make things easier on her. Many women are afraid that the government will take their baby away if they admit to having depression. It is important to let your spouse know that you are there to support her through this and that you will be a source of stability in the family.
If you can help your wife keep track of her moods, sleeping and other habits to show the doctor her progression and to log if things are getting better. Your doctor may ask you to help make sure your spouse is getting enough rest, exercise and nutritious foods as these practices can make coping with the hormonal changes of postpartum easier.
What can you do directly?
- Research shows that support from a partner is a major factor in the improvement of depression symptoms
- Make sure to be available if she needs a break or a day off
- Be patient and kind, it’s not her fault she has depression and getting frustrated can only make it worse
- Validate her feelings, tell her that you understand she’s depressed and reassure her that she can be a great mother even when depressed
- Your ability to provide calmness and acceptance is key.
- Remember that this too shall pass, postpartum depression will eventually go away and your spouse will feel better.
- Set reasonable expectations, know that no parent is perfect and that babies can survive a few mistakes
- Have back-up ready to swoop in if your wife is having a particularly bad day, keep that babysitter on speed dial.
- Take on some extra chores to let her have more time to rest
- Keep the lines of communication open, be a great listener
When things get worse instead of better:
Postpartum psychosis is a severe mood disorder that some women experience, it can cause suicidal thoughts, thoughts of harming the baby, confusion, obsessive thoughts about harming or attempts to harm the baby, paranoia, hallucinations, and disorientation.
If your partner is at risk of hurting herself or others it’s time to call 911. Sometimes a short hospitalization can jumpstart a treatment plan, and it’s important that your partner is under the care of doctors if they are suicidal or attempting to harm the baby.
Just as you would take her to the hospital if she were severely injured physically, you should take her in if she is at risk for suicide. Calling the suicide hotline together can help you figure out a plan.
Don’t forget to keep tabs on yourself too, while your hormones probably aren’t a problem postpartum sadness can affect fathers too and may travel into the realm of depression if you’re not careful. Never be afraid to reach out for help, to ask advice from other fathers, or to visit your doctor. Taking care of someone with depression can be hard, but it is worth the struggle. Eventually, everything will calm down and life won’t be so stressful, but you’ll both have to work together to get to that point.