This past Mother’s Day weekend was a turning point for me. I realized that I was happy again.
It was already my third Mother’s Day. Two and a half years after having my son. A little over one year after having my daughter. The baby blues just seemed to linger on and on. Despite how blessed I felt. Despite how much I treasured my children. Despite how much my husband worked hard to be involved and care for me.
But that’s how long it took for me to finally let go of who I once was, or at least who I had envisioned myself to be. In many ways, it was a mourning period. I wouldn’t want to go back to the life I had before my kids, but it was incredibly hard to say goodbye to it.
It’s embarrassing. I can’t help but feel ungrateful. Two beautiful healthy children, the option to work part-time, the support of wonderful friends and family. But that’s the rub. Despite all I knew in my head, my heart seemed to have a mind of its own. The heart tends to be tricky like that.
But now… I feel like myself again! I don’t know exactly what defines “myself”, but I sense the difference. There is probably no obvious outward change, but I feel liberated. It’s like taking a gulp of air after holding my breath, except I didn’t know I was holding my breath in the first place. The sadness that lingered like a cool morning fog has given way to warmth and light. It doesn’t make parenting any easier. But I can see the horizon again.
80% of mothers experience the “baby blues” during that first month after baby is born. About 1 in 5 mothers develop postpartum depression. Think about all the moms we know! 1 in 5 mothers have struggled or are currently struggling with some degree of depression. And yet, how often does it actually come up in conversations?
Although there is increasing awareness about postpartum depression, nobody likes to admit they are one of the statistics. People don’t talk openly about it and the focus is usually directed at the children. Well-meaning comments from both friends and strangers alike may also feed the guilt that burden so many mothers. The underlying assumption remains that a loving mother should feel nothing but pure adoration for her baby. Some days that may be the case. But more often than not, there are multiple factors that lend to an avalanche of conflicting emotions.
I used to frequently ask myself the same screening questions I would often ask mothers at my clinic:
Do you feel worthless?
These are hard questions to face. And to ask of another person. I have met a good number of wonderful mothers who answered yes to many of the above questions.
In retrospect, I don’t think I had postpartum depression. I was still enjoying moments in life. I still smiled and laughed. I still saw the goodness in life.
But I didn’t feel like myself, at least what I thought I knew of myself. I felt suffocated. I yearned for the freedom that my husband and I once had. I was frustrated by the trips he had to take for work. I was tired of all the well-meaning advice and opinions that people had about how I raised my kids. I felt confused about how much I wanted to stay at home versus work. And when we had our second baby not too long after our first, I was frustrated by the dynamics of juggling more than one child.
All this makes me wonder if the baby blues linger much longer than we assume. Usually the baby blues is defined as an emotional reaction that begins several days after delivery and lasting no more than two weeks. Typical symptoms are similar to depression, but milder and generally transient. The mood swings, irritability, anxiety, and tearfulness is attributed to the hormonal changes that occur after pregnancy, although the challenges of caring for a newborn certainly don’t help as well. The key difference between baby blues and postpartum depression is that baby blues are usually a brief period of time.
However, the more I talk with other mothers about their emotional well-being and health, the more I realize that I am not alone in this experience of the lingering baby blues. All the more so when there are multiple children. The daily battles and ongoing grind of caring for children wears down the soul. As parenting consumes the majority of time and energy, there is so little left at the end of the day to invest in marriage and other important relationships that the soul desperately needs. Throw in financial stress, medical issues or children with special needs, career challenges, or the demands of being a single parent or military family, and it’s no wonder that baby blues might linger or recur. Let’s just call it parenting blues.
There are no easy answers to this. I could list all the typical common sense advice given to parents. Get rest whenever possible, ask for help, plan date nights to get away from the kids, eat well and take care of your body… yadda yadda yadda. It’s all absolutely true, but it just doesn’t happen sometimes. Your heart is tugged in different directions. You want to rest, but you can’t when your kids want you. You want to hire a babysitter, but maybe it’s just too costly. You want to exercise, but you honestly would rather get some chores out of the way. Or you’re just too tired.
So if you’re like me and have a hard time following common sense advice, here are a few tips that helped me along the way:
Focus on one thing you enjoy and incorporate it into your daily life. It can be a hobby, or a type of music, or even something simple like the perfect cup of coffee. Whatever it is, try to find quick and creative ways to keep it in your life. For me, I found that my love for photography helped me take a step back and enjoy the kids from a different perspective behind the lens.
Find an honest and trustworthy person to pour out your emotions. Ask that person to check up on you regularly. Although blogging is an excellent outlet, it never takes the place of friendships grounded in openness and vulnerability. Play groups may not fit the need either. Although parents can relate with each other, I have found that it’s hard to share openly in these settings. Conversations tend to be about the latest parenting issue and stories about the kids.
Let go… This was the hardest part for me. With the transition to parenthood, letting go needs to happen on so many levels; Just fill in the blank. Let go of your preassumptions of what you thought parenthood would look like. Let go of your pride. Let go of the mommy guilt. Let go of the idea that you’re in control. Let go of the desire to blame. Let go of your to-do list and need for productivity, because it’s a reincarnating list anyways. Most of all, let go of how things once were. You have today, and that’s all you have. Treasure your past but move on and embrace today for whatever it’s worth.
Remember that you are still you. I don’t recall who told me this. But somehow it was reassuring. Motherhood does not define you. Nor do your career, hobbies, successes, or even failures. You are simply you and there is nobody in the world like you. Although life right now may have little semblance to what you thought you knew of yourself, it doesn’t change who you are and your worth for those who truly matter in your life.
Lastly, remember that this is no reflection on whether or not you are a good and loving parent. I use the word parent to include fathers as well. Fathers are also susceptible to depression and mood disorders after the birth of a child. If these changes in mood and behavior are impacting your relationships and ability to function, take the time to seek help now before things get worse. It is a not a sign of weakness or failure. In fact, it is a testimony to how much you do love and care for your family as you try to take care of yourself. A healthy and happy you is the best thing you can offer your child.
I have written this solely from my own personal experiences. I hope it can be encouraging for those who are still struggling with a lingering case of baby blues as I did.
However, please keep in mind that screening and evaluation for postpartum depression and other mood disorders is critical whenever there is a persistent change in behavior and mood. Only you know how much you are struggling. Professional evaluation can help determine if treatment is needed. If you answered yes to some of the questions posed above, and you find that your mood and emotions continue to feel out of control, please contact your physician as soon as possible to seek help and be evaluated. Don’t put it off, for the sake of yourself as well as your family. You should not struggle through this alone.
If you feel you are a danger to yourself or a loved one, please call 911 or the National Crisis Hotline 1-800-273-TALK (8255).