Becoming a mother is one of the best things that has happened to me, but I’ve also had no harder job or been in a scarier position than as a mom. While joyous, motherhood can also be filled with uncertainty, anxiety, and fear.
I am thankful World Maternal Mental Health Day is in May, as it draws attention to these conflicting feelings that can exist for many women.
It is normal to feel different things during pregnancy and after the baby arrives. You could feel anxiety, joy, depression, excitement, fear, and exhaustion all at the same time. You may also suffer from postpartum depression (PPD), which is a more serious mental health challenge for a woman after her child is born.
The keys to promoting maternal mental health are self-care, having a support system, and the ability to identify when to seek professional help.
What Is Postpartum Depression?
PPD is not the same as the “baby blues” many women experience after childbirth or bringing a child home through adoption. The Cleveland Clinic reports between 50 percent and 75 percent of moms experience the baby blues. These symptoms typically last for a few days to two weeks after the baby is born and are usually not as intense as PPD. Common symptoms of the baby blues include mood swings, anxiety, sadness, irritability, feeling overwhelmed, crying, reduced concentration, appetite problems, and trouble sleeping.
As a clinician, I become more concerned when these symptoms are persistent, increase in intensity, and last longer than two weeks. According to the American Psychological Association, one in seven women may go on to develop significant enough symptoms to meet the criteria for postpartum depression. For women living with PPD, these graver symptoms affect their ability to care for their children and severely impact their ability to cope with everyday life.
Symptoms of PPD include a depressed mood or severe mood swings; excessive crying; difficulty bonding with the baby; withdrawing from family and friends; loss of appetite or eating much more than usual; inability to sleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much; overwhelming fatigue or loss of energy; reduced interest and pleasure in previously enjoyed activities; intense irritability and anger; fear of not being a good mother; feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, shame, guilt, or inadequacy; diminished ability to think clearly, concentrate, or make decisions; restlessness; severe anxiety and panic attacks; thoughts of self-harm or harming the baby; and recurrent thoughts of death or suicide.
While these symptoms can be overwhelming, there is hope. First, reach out for help. Whether you are struggling with the baby blues or PPD, tell those around you. There is no shame in sharing your struggles. Try talking to your spouse or a trusted friend, or look for a support group for moms in a church. Talk to your doctor at a postpartum visit. He or she can offer suggestions and assess whether you might benefit from medication.
Second, self-care is vital when struggling with postpartum depression. If you birthed your child, your body has been through a rapid change and needs to be cared for well. Sufficient sleep and healthy eating are paramount, and, when you are cleared by a physician, going for walks is important. Self-care also includes finding time to do things that bring you joy. This could include calling a friend, going out to dinner, reading, or spending time on a hobby of some kind. You need to see life outside the stress of having an infant in your home, and by engaging in activities that bring joy, you do just that.
If these steps do not lead to major symptom reduction, reach out to a professional for counseling. A therapist will help you develop a self-care plan and begin the work of stabilizing your mood through coping skills. With a treatment plan that manages your PPD, you will feel more in control.
How to Help
If you know someone who is experiencing PPD, be willing to come alongside her. PPD can be isolating and feel shameful. Do not judge her or tell her she should be feeling differently. Rather, let the mom know you are there for her. You can look for tangible ways to help reduce stress: set up meal calendars, offer to help with household chores, or watch the baby while the mom gets much-needed rest. Often, when women feel supported and not alone, symptoms are greatly reduced.
The more you know about PPD, the more helpful you can be. Check out the resources from the US Department of Health at womenshealth.gov/mental-health/mental-health-conditions/postpartum-depression to learn more.
Lisa Keane, MAMFC, LPC-S, is a licensed professional counselor supervisor in Birmingham, Alabama, and a national board-certified counselor. For more than 15 years, Lisa has helped individuals and families find hope and healing through counseling.
“Postpartum depression: Causes, symptoms, risk factors, and treatment options.” American Psychological Association. Accessed December 6, 2022. https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-depression.
“Postpartum Depression.” Cleveland Clinic. Updated April 12, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/9312-postpartum-depression.
“Postpartum depression.” Mayo Clinic. Updated November 24, 2022. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/postpartum-depression/symptoms-causes/syc-20376617.
Disclaimer: The information shared on wmu.com is not meant to diagnose or treat a mental health condition. We encourage you to follow up with your health-care provider and seek a mental health professional for individual consultation and care.