PPPSS News & Events

Postpartum Depression: A Grandmother’s Retrospective

Zoey reflects on her experience with postpartum depression and anxiety from the perspective of becoming a grandmother for the first time. Her words truly show how PPD/A, while it loses its intense power over us, remains a part of our continuing motherhood journeys. Some research shows that PPD/A can occur in caretakers other than the baby’s parents. An case report by Valerie Raskin called Postpartum Depression in a Caretaking Grandmother  provides one example of this. The case outlined is quite extreme in terms of difficult and exacerbating circumstances that place the grandmother in the role of a primary caregiver. But even for grandparents who are mainly on the sidelines, a new baby in the family can certainly be triggering. As Zoey explains below, for someone who suffered from PPD/A with her own child the arrival of a grandchild brings mixed feelings and even some relapse into the anxiety that accompanied the birth of her own child so many years ago.

Article by Zoey Ryan

As I work to plan a mother and baby blessing celebration for my eldest daughter upon the birth of her first child I have had plenty of time for reflection. Thinking back 27 years to just before her birth I recall feeling invincible and excited. I had so much planned for my maternity leave and while I was thrilled to be a mom, I wasn’t going to let having a baby really change my life. How naive I was! Having a baby cracked my heart wide open and allowed depth of feelings I didn’t know I had to be felt and heard. I have never been the same, in a good way! Becoming a mom changed me at a cellular level.

I sort of cruised through two pregnancies and two babyhoods, then became smug. With baby number three, I crashed. I physically, mentally, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually crashed. I couldn’t get out of bed, I couldn’t shower, I needed help caring for my girls, I stopped eating. I almost stopped living. I remember getting a lovely message every week on the answering machine asking how I was doing. It was from Pacific Post Partum Support Society. I treasured those messages and somehow I made it through. The good moments became good hours, then days, then weeks, then months. Eventually my PPD/A became a part of my past, a wisp, a remembrance from my daughter’s childhood years.

Due to an on going interest in mental health challenges I was prepared, yet still surprised, at the force with which all the feelings slammed back with news of my daughter’s pregnancy.  My high hopes and fears, irrational thinking, the anxiety, heart palpitations, the bone numbing fatigue–it all came back so fast. I feel the shame of having had PPD/A all over again. I have the irrational fear that the “defective genes” that allowed me to become depressed will be passed to my daughter. I worry over every anxiety she has. I worry that if she does develop PPD/A  I won’t have the energy to help. I worry that I will develop grandma’s PPD/A (maybe I already have)! It does happen that care giving grandmothers may develop a form of PPD/A. I worry about how protective I am of her and her unborn baby and how I am already struggling with maintaining appropriate and healthy boundaries with the in-laws. I worry about maintaining appropriate and healthy boundaries with my daughter and her partner and playing a supportive role from the sidelines.

As a grandma I wonder if all the great things I’ve heard about being a grandma are really true. And then, I remember that in my wisdom I have learned:

– it always gets easier

– the love is always there alongside the worry

– as my family expands, my love expands

– there are always people to help

– there are always people who care, like those at PPPSS

So, I return to my planning of the Mothers Blessing ceremony for my cherished first born and I am grateful to be someone who feels so deeply, as through our feelings we reach outside of ourselves to weave a web of community that supports.

The Anger Chime

Anger is a legitimate and common aspect of postpartum depression and anxiety. Many new mothers experience troubling and persistent anger after the birth of a child. This previous blog post discusses anger and PPD/A in more depth. What I’m concerned with here is approaching that anger. In my own experience rage can rise in an overwhelming torrent. It can be unexpected and uncontrollable. I have felt anger at my child for causing extreme sleep deprivation; I’ve felt anger at my partner for not being supportive in exactly the way I might have liked; and I’ve felt anger at myself for not being a perfect mother and for all of my perceived failures. Anger is a part of me that I have been forced to become more familiar with and I still have a lot to learn.

I took my son to see Pixar’s new animated movie Inside Out this morning. It was an unexpectedly profound story that depicted a slide from joy to depression in a young girl from the perspective of her anthropomorphic emotions. I’ve never seen a children’s movie that so eloquently delved into the complex realm of the emotional landscape, and I’m impressed that Pixar took on the topic of depression, sadness, and anxiety in such a direct way. If there’s any evidence that mental health issues are moving into the mainstream this is it! It was a movie that hit close to home for me, and I suspect that anyone who has suffered through PPD/A or other forms of depression will shed a few tears if they go to see it.

Of particular relevance to this post is the character of Anger–a volatile and reactive creature who lives in a state of perpetual aggression and is likely to shoot fire out of the top of his head if overstimulated. It’s a character that many of us can recognize in our PPD/A journeys. But Anger is not just a hot head. He’s also necessary. In Riley, the movie’s protagonist, Anger helps her to be a better hockey player, serving as motivation for energetic and focused play. In our daily lives a burst of anger can alert us to aspects of our environments that are troubled and need attention or give us the burst of energy required to complete an important task. So when anger arises in the context of new motherhood we should be careful that we don’t dismiss it as a purely negative emotion and then stuff it back down where it can fester and cause pain.

If you’re anything like me you may have trouble identifying building anger until it’s too late and you’ve already lost it. Anger seems to come out of nowhere to control our minds and actions before we have a chance to react in a measured way. We would like to remain serene, but it doesn’t always work out that way. We yell at the people we love the most, and we resent ourselves for it later. While we can’t always prevent angry outbursts from happening, sometimes they can be derailed. Having a physical object to  help you redirect your anger can be a great place to start, and it’s an excellent way to help kids deal with their big emotions as well. A chime or small bell can work well for this. When an anger event is beginning it can be helpful to have a strategy for naming and recognizing the overwhelming emotions. Ringing a chime can be an auditory signal to take a step back. In Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids she recommends repeating to yourself that “this isn’t an emergency.” This is powerful advice. As much as you may be triggered by your screaming baby, your sleep deprivation, or your toddler who won’t put his shoes on, these things are not emergencies. They don’t require the fight or flight response that anger elicits in our bodies. Having an Anger Chime can help to remind you to take a few breaths and approach your problem again when you’re more calm.

Mastering anger in ourselves also helps our kids to learn that anger is a completely acceptable emotion that needs to be approached with care and mindfulness. I’ve read Steve Smallman’s book Scowl to my son and he absolutely loves it. The very grumpy owl in the book has a Grumpy Branch that he sits on whenever he’s feeling angry. It’s a way for him to take a time out to regroup and identify his angry feelings. My son and I built a Grumpy Branch for our own house that we hung from our mantel. Now if anyone is starting to succumb to throes of anger they can go sit on a comfortable cushion underneath the grumpy branch until they’re in control enough to productively confront their emotions. It’s also kind of silly, which is helpful for diffusing anger.

There are a million ways that you could approach the idea of the Anger Chime or the Grumpy Branch. The fundamental thing is to acknowledge that your anger is telling you something and it’s important to treat it as the legitimate messenger that it is. Also remember that anger is a very normal part of PPD/A.  I promise that you are not the only parent who has screamed at their child in a fit of rage or thrown a plate at the wall. When you’re confronted with extreme stress and have no way to decrease the pressure anger can function as that pressure release valve. You feel temporarily better when you throw the plate, but it doesn’t solve the underlying problem or make the anger go away entirely. Having a safe retreat space to go to when you’re angry can help. Respecting your anger is truly a form of self-care, and one that is too often overlooked.

Dads, You’re Not Alone

Copyright Andrea Paterson www.andreapaterson.com

Copyright Andrea Paterson www.andreapaterson.com

I think fathers are often the silent bystanders when it comes to postpartum depression and anxiety. New dads may not know how to support their struggling partners, or may be dealing with their own intense challenges following childbirth. With the expectation that dads will support their partners and new babies above all else there is often no time or space left over to address paternal issues. Paternal depression is real and is thought to occur in about 5% of new fathers. This is about half the rate of maternal depression but still amounts to a significant segment of the population. Fathers who have supported a partner with PPD/A are at higher risk for developing paternal depression. Depression in dads frequently develops just as the mother is resolving her own mental illness. This makes a lot of sense. After pouring all of their resources into caring for a partner and new baby, fathers eventually crumble under the pressure. When they do fall apart there is often no one there to catch them. Societal pressure to keep a strong facade and partners who are in no emotional condition to provide support after the birth of a child leave new fathers high and dry and afraid to voice their experiences. And while there are at least some resources out there for women suffering from PPD/A, there are far fewer formal resources for men.

This needs to change and Fathers Day is an ideal time to draw attention to the men who are too often overlooked when it comes to the transition to parenthood.  So today this blog is dedicated to you: to the father who puts his own struggles aside to support his new family, to the father who is learning to give voice to his own insecurity, to the father who feels lost and unsure how to help a partner with PPD/A, to the father who can’t find the path back to his own mental wellness. To all the fathers–you’re not alone. Other new dads are struggling along in silence. Some are courageously breaking that silence and sharing their perspectives. Here Allen Lam shares his story of paternal depression and the lessons he learned to help him recover.

Pacific Post Partum Support Society phone lines are always open to men who need support and it’s our hope that support groups can be developed in the future. We can’t afford to ignore mental health issues in fathers. Untreated paternal depression leads to many of the same long term repercussions as PPD/A in women.

So what can we tell the fathers on Fathers Day, those of us who have been visited by intense difficulty after the birth of a child? We might say: your pain is real. It is borne out of an overwhelming love and it cannot be ignored. Silence only incubates your grief and makes it more powerful. You did not birth your child but you can birth your soul anew when your child calls you “daddy” for the first time. You can bring your words and experience to light so that other men feel less alone. Once the words start they become easier and, I promise, they are healing. We might say: your partner loves you and  your children love you even though it doesn’t always feel that way. The mother-baby dyad can feel exclusive and you may think that you exist outside of that elemental love. But the truth is that you are fundamental to it. A father has the power to hold space for his new family. It’s an essential role, and one that is not given its due. The non birthing partner holds space for the ceremony of becoming a family, and if that role feels heavy and if you find yourself falling to pieces know that its a very normal thing and you are not the only one bowing under the stress. Finally we might say: there is hope if only you have the courage to admit to needing help. Parenthood is not designed to be carried out in isolation and many broken places can be healed by immersion in a supportive community. It’s a sad reality that there aren’t many formal support communities out there for dads which means that, for now, you need to create your own. Sharing experience is the first step towards developing such communities.

For further reading and resources you can explore these articles:

Ally Fogg’s article on paternal depression in The Guardian

Beyond Blue’s information page on depression in non-birthing partners

Video interview with Allen Lam about his postpartum depression journey

 

Wishing you a fulfilling Fathers Day from Pacific Post Partum Support Society.

 

Beyond “Post”Partum Depression

©2009 Thomas van Ardenne https://www.flickr.com/photos/tvanardenne/

©2009 Thomas van Ardenne https://www.flickr.com/photos/tvanardenne/

 

Article by Andrea Paterson

It’s good to see that there is a lot of focus on the serious nature of postpartum depression and anxiety these days. While there is still work to be done in terms of spreading awareness of signs, symptoms, and scope of perinatal mood disorders there is certainly more information available to women and their families than there used to be. All of this means earlier intervention and better outcomes for new moms and their partners. But some psychological complications of pregnancy and new parenthood are regularly overlooked. Prenatal depression is one of those complications. A ton of focus is placed on the postpartum period and it’s common to forget that depression can start even before a baby is born. The Guardian provides a good article on prenatal depression and states that about 10% of women will experience prenatal depression. It’s frequently overlooked because mood changes can be attributed to normal hormonal changes. Doctors might dismiss complaints about unstable mood as run of the mill emotional shifts that most women experience when pregnant. But missing key symptoms of a more serious depression can be extremely damaging, leading to intense postpartum depression and sometimes cases of self harm.

The New York Times published an incredible article by Andrew Solomon about depression during pregnancy. I should warn readers that this article contains triggering and upsetting imagery related to prenatal psychosis and suicide, but the message is a deeply important one.  Mood disorders, including psychosis, during pregnancy are real and need to be treated as the serious illnesses that they are. Most women will not become suicidal during pregnancy but symptoms of depression can still be very distressing for women and their families.

There is a lot of social pressure to be a glowing, happy, radiant woman while pregnant. If your experience doesn’t conform to that stereotype it can be frightening and confusing. Let’s be honest though–pregnancy isn’t all rainbows and butterflies and joy at every kick. For pregnant and new moms I highly recommend the podcast The Longest Shortest Time. The podcast airs at the witching hour of 3 am for all those who are up nursing or shushing babies. You can, of course, listen at any other time of day too and I highly recommend that you do because the episodes don’t hold anything back when it comes to investigating the dark, gritty, raw, and very real corners of pregnancy and new motherhood that we prefer to sweep under the rug. Listening to the guests share their experiences as parents is a breath of fresh air. One episode (I’m sorry that I can’t remember which one) features a woman who experiences extreme prenatal anxiety. She spends hours counting her baby’s kicks and becomes agitated when she thinks he’s kicking too much, and also when she thinks he’s not kicking enough. These experiences are more common than we generally admit and if you’re having a stressful pregnancy please know that you’re not alone.

Many people may not know that Pacific Post Partum Support Society will extend aid to women who have not had their babies yet. You can call PPPSS for phone support or even join one of our support groups if you are experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy. Earlier intervention almost always means a quicker resolution and better outcomes. For partners, it’s important to keep an eye on your pregnant partner and not dismiss worries about mood changes and struggles. You can gently encourage your partner to take their struggles seriously and seek professional assessment if they don’t seem to be coping well. PPPSS will always take calls from partners looking for advice related to finding appropriate support too. You don’t have to suffer silently and you don’t have to suffer alone. Help is just a phone call away.

 

What I Wish I Had Done Differently

Article by Erika Mitchell

When my first son was born I spent months planning for his arrival; I obsessed over choosing the right health care provider, I debated hospital birth vs. home birth, I made sure I had all the required baby gear, I took supplements, ate well and exercised. I fantasized about what I would have, what my child’s temperament would be, what they would aspire to when they grew up…in short I spent huge amounts of time focused on my child’s future and very, very little time thinking about my immediate future.

Specifically, I resisted thinking about my mental health – I’m a little bit superstitious and I didn’t want to bring on depression by worrying about getting depression. Also, I had experienced anxiety and depression before and I figured I knew what to expect and that I would be able to sort it out on my own.

In hindsight, I wish I had done some more research on postpartum depression and anxiety prior to my son’s birth and found some resources that I felt comfortable with in case I needed them. I was very lucky in having the support of my husband and mother but I had no one else to reach out to and those long nights were very, very dark and lonely.

What I wish most of all is that I had practiced reaching out for help before I found myself lost in the most vulnerable and lonely place I have ever been. I wish I had learned that being strong and independent sometimes means letting another person offer you a helping hand. I wish I had said ‘thank you, I really could use your help’ more often rather than ‘thank you, but I’m fine’. Maybe if I had practiced and learned those things I would have reached out for help sooner and started recovering faster. Maybe the first year of my son’s life would be filled with happy, joyful memories instead of memories of sadness and crying and barely coping and wishing I was anywhere else but at home with a crying baby. Or maybe the only thing that would’ve changed is how I viewed myself. Maybe I would have reached out for support and discovered I wasn’t alone; that being tired and dirty and frustrated as a new Mom was completely normal. That I didn’t need to feel guilty or horrible for the thoughts I was having because so many other women have them too.

So if I had a chance to travel back in time I would go to my younger self and tell her to practice asking for help. I would ask her to see the strength in reaching out for support and to acknowledge the bravery and courage required to do it. I would tell her that there is no prize for standing alone and that one day she was going to need a community to help her navigate her role as a mother.