(Note: For ease of reading, I’ve chosen to describe this from a married couple’s perspective, but please feel free to substitute the word “partner” if that describes your situation better.)
Congratulations! You have a newborn baby. You’ve been home from the hospital for several weeks. You’re back to work and your wife is home all day with the baby. You’re both tired, which you’d expected. But recently you’ve started to realize that your wife just isn’t herself anymore. She’s really down on herself, she can’t sleep or rest even when the baby’s asleep, and she is always extremely worried.
As a new dad, you knew the adjustment to a newborn would be hard. You had prepared by taking some time off of work, arranging for meals to be dropped off by friends, and having your mother-in-law stay for a week or two to help with the transition. But now it’s been a few weeks or months, and you’d thought you’d have hit some sort of rhythm by now… but it seems to be getting harder and harder. And the person who seems to be struggling the most is the new mom… your previously-fun-loving-easygoing wife. You’re starting to wonder… is this normal?
As a husband, you’re on the front lines to advocate for your wife and newborn. Here are a few myths about maternal mental health for you to be aware of:
MYTH: Postpartum Depression is the same as the Baby Blues.
The “baby blues” period, which is the term for the initial adjustment of mom’s hormones and sleep deprivation, only lasts about 2 weeks. If after 2 weeks, you notice your wife isn’t getting back to being “herself,” she might benefit from some help.
MYTH: My wife doesn’t seem depressed, so she’s probably fine or can’t get help.
Although the term “postpartum depression” is finally becoming more recognized, there are actually a handful of mental health conditions that women can develop. A better term is “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders,” which calls attention to the fact that symptoms can develop any time during pregnancy or the first year after delivery. Some of the lesser-recognized diagnoses that can occur during pregnancy or postpartum are: Anxiety, OCD, PTSD, and (although rare) Psychosis.
MYTH: Moms are the only ones that experience postpartum depression/anxiety.
While we know that about 1 in 5 moms experience mental health problems during pregnancy or postpartum, recent research reveals that 1 in 10 dads can develop the same issues. Increased stress and pressure at home and work, lack of sleep, and relationship changes can contribute to symptoms such as irritability, loss of interest in relationships or hobbies, fatigue, or sadness. If that describes you, find out more about support and treatment available at postpartummen.com.
MYTH: My wife is going to have to start medication… and if she’s taking medications, she can’t breastfeed.
Medication is one treatment option for perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. Other options include: individual therapy, couples counseling, group therapy, and support groups. Also, many medications are considered low-risk during pregnancy or breastfeeding. The website http://www.motherisk.org/ is a wonderful online resource, as well as a phone helpline, to help you research pros and cons of different medications put your mind at ease regarding the baby’s exposure to the medication.
MYTH: My wife is having scary (anxious) thoughts that she might hurt the baby… this means she’s not safe to be around the baby.
One of the most frightening symptoms of postpartum anxiety and OCD is having scary thoughts… “What if I drop the baby while I’m walking down the stairs? What if the car veers off the road and we crash with the baby in the backseat?” These intrusive thoughts feel like they are coming out of nowhere, and many moms are afraid to share this experience because they worry their baby will be taken away from them. The way to tell the difference between intrusive thoughts and psychotic thoughts is to determine how she feels about having these thoughts. Women who are experiencing true psychosis will feel these thoughts are really true and don’t see a problem with them—this is a very serious issue that likely requires hospitalization. Women who are horrified by these thoughts (in other words, the thoughts are incongruent with their feelings) are experiencing intrusive thoughts. These types of thoughts are treatable with cognitive-behavioral therapy and/or medication.
MYTH: Women only get postpartum depression with their first baby.
Women can develop symptoms with any number of pregnancies/children. Having multiple children under age 5, especially if there is lack of support and childcare stress, can increase the risk.
If you think your wife could use some support and help, your first stop should be www.postpartum.net. This site has a lot of information, as well as links to local and online support groups.
Many moms also benefit from some individual support. As a maternal mental health therapist in Fishers, I love helping moms during their adjustment to parenthood…whether it’s your first baby or sixth! Helping your wife carve out time to get this support is a wonderful gift to show your support.