By Angela Pirisi
“Congratulations! You must be soooo happy.” It’s the chorus women hear upon initiation into motherhood, but the truth is that having a baby can be overwhelming. It’s hard enough to see the light at the end of the Fallopian tubes when you’ve had zero sleep, the house is upside down, and your baby is shrieking to feed again — all while experiencing the weepiness and mood swings common after childbirth (“baby blues”). But for some moms, the challenges of caring for a baby are compounded by feelings of guilt, fatigue and detachment that may signal a downward turn towards postpartum depression (PPD).
Annie, 30, of Sudbury, Ont., recalls her experience. “It got so bad that every day I’d wake up worrying, “Is this going to be a good day or a bad day?’ My daughter would greet me with a smile, and there I was crying, and I couldn’t stop. And that made me not want to be around her, because I didn’t want her to see me like that.”
She had physical symptoms too, which made it hard to see her condition as psychological. Once home with her baby, Annie suffered unexplained pains, nausea and dizziness. “I had intrusive thoughts that something was wrong with my health, that something was very wrong with me, and that I wouldn’t be able to take care of my baby. But medical tests were always okay,” says Annie.
“Yet I felt a lot of anxiety, I couldn’t eat — everything made me gag — I was losing so much weight and becoming dehydrated, and I was afraid to be alone with my baby. I was afraid to be at home with her on my own and anxious about taking her out anywhere, because all I could think was, “what if I get sick, what if something happens to me, who would take care of my baby?’ When my husband went to work, I’d watch the clock all day — I’d think, okay, six more hours before he gets home, four more hours, two more hours.”
When Annie’s daughter was two months old, she talked it over with her husband and dared to ask herself, could it be psychological, maybe PPD? “I wasn’t coping well at all — once it hit home that’s what I had, I totally broke down and started crying,” she recalls. She rushed off to her doctor the next day and walked out with a prescription for an antidepressant. “The medication helped, and just talking about it made all the difference. I started telling everyone I knew, and they started offering more help. I joined a support group too,” she says.
Many women aren’t sure what to make of their symptoms, or whether to tell anyone about them. “It’s the stigma of having a mental illness, which is what PPD is, but it’s even more about coping with the demands of being a mom, and having to admit that you can’t be a supermom,” suggests Sheri Johnson Purdon, a community mental health worker for PPD at the Canadian Mental Health Association’s Sudbury branch, and coordinator for HOPES (Healthy Options Providing Effective Support), a peer support group.
Help usually comes in three forms, which work best when combined: antidepressant medications, psychotherapy (individual or family), and support groups. Not all of them work equally well for all women, but what is true for everyone is that the earlier a woman seeks help, the better her chances of recovery. “Depending on the severity, PPD can lead to clinical depression, which can last years and years. And the longer you wait to treat PPD, the longer and harder it gets,” says Johnson Purdon.
So how does a woman know if it’s time to seek help? ““Baby blues’ last an average of 10 days. Women should seek help if symptoms worsen or last longer than six weeks,” says Marcia Starkman, a nurse psychotherapist in Richmond Hill, Ont. specializing in women’s mental health issues. “Of course, any woman who is experiencing suicidal or homicidal ideation, or hearing voices or seeing things, or is preoccupied with false beliefs at any time needs professional help immediately.”
Not seeking help can take its toll on both moms and babies. As Annie now knows, “You lose out if you don’t get help, because you get cheated of being healthy and bonding with your child for that first year of life.”
Angela Pirisi is a Hamilton, Ont.-based writer and mom, who has been covering health for nearly two decades with a focus on women’s issues, such as pregnancy and nutrition.
Depression can settle in as early as pregnancy, find out more about antepartum depression.