“I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I’m supposed to feel a surge of maternal instinct, right? I’m supposed to love my baby. Why am I so overwhelmed and uninterested?”
I’m just getting to know Michelle. She had her first baby 3 weeks ago and has been sad and irritable ever since. Her pediatrician was worried about her at the well-baby visit this week and sent her to me. She’d had a tough pregnancy (morning sickness that wouldn’t quit for what felt to her like forever), made tougher by the financial stress that came from her husband being out of work for several months. The doctor is worried that she and her baby aren’t getting off to a good start.
Sadly, moms like Michelle often feel alone and guilty. Not feeling what they think they are supposed to feel, they are embarrassed to admit to themselves and others that things aren’t going well. Just when they need help the most, many don’t reach out. Some start to resent their babies and begrudge them time and attention. They force themselves to do what needs to be done but don’t provide their newborns with the nurturing they need.
Still others give up on nursing, or holding their babies when bottle feeding, depriving themselves and their babies with the closeness that comes with the quiet feeding times. Propping a bottle is the best they can do. Overtired, irritable, and sinking into depression, life after birth isn’t at all what they expected.
As hormones shift and settle, it’s absolutely normal to feel what is commonly known as the baby blues in the weeks following birth. One of my clients described the first couple of weeks after her first child was born as PMS times ten. Others feel more emotionally fragile than usual and maybe a little weepy. Still others are surprised that they are on an emotional roller coaster, feeling great one minute and set off into tears by something that normally wouldn’t bother them the next. It’s all because the endorphins from delivery are leaving the new mother’s system and the body is resetting itself.
Different women react differently but normal baby blues are usually accompanied by moments of joy and wonder and happiness about the baby and motherhood. The emotions settle down after a couple of weeks and the routines and rhythms of new parenting get established.
But when those up and downs last more than a few weeks, and especially if they get worse, it may indicate that the new mom is developing postpartum depression (PPD). This happens to between 11 and 18 percent of new mothers, according to a 2010 survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Surprisingly, it can last anywhere from a couple of months to a couple of years.
Symptoms of Postpartum Depression
Postpartum depression looks like any major depression. Things that once gave the mother pleasure are no longer fun or interesting. She has trouble concentrating and making decisions. There are disturbances in sleep, appetite, and sexual interest. In some cases, there are thoughts of suicide. Many report feeling disconnected from their baby and some worry that they will hurt their baby. Feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and worthlessness immobilize them. Many feel guilty that they can’t love their child, which makes them feel even more inadequate.