By Danni Moss
There are a lot of surprises in store when a couple finds out they are expecting their first child. As you go through pregnancy you experience all kinds of things you never realized would happen. Then the big day arrives and your baby is born — another day of surprises, but they’re all worth it when you see your new bundle for the first time!
For most of us, pregnancy is not an easy time. At the very least, it is uncomfortable. And giving birth is definitely not easy. You go into labor tired and generally miserable from the discomfort of being nine months (or more) pregnant. Labor may be long or short, but in any case it will be incredibly intense. Giving birth is probably the hardest work most of us will ever do at one time. Then when your baby is born there is just nothing like the incredible emotional high of meeting your child. Every time you look at him you can hardly believe this new little person is yours to love and care for.
Especially with a first child, we often expect things to get back to normal once we get home from the hospital. But there are a whole host of additional surprises in store. Until you’ve experienced it, there’s just no way to imagine how tired you can get when you need to feed this little person every couple of hours around the clock. If you’re nursing, your milk comes in after a few days and that is usually another shock. Breast-feeding is applauded as such a wonderful experience, but maybe no one warned you that the first few weeks will probably be uncomfortable and challenging — to put it mildly.
Adding to the mix, silently in the background, our hormones are making huge and rapid adjustments. From pregnancy, through child-birth, into breast-feeding, and ultimately back to normal, our hormones are on a wild roller-coaster ride.
As a result of all this, post-partum depression enters the picture — another unexpected surprise. There are some common misunderstandings about post-partum depression.
First, post-partum depression is not a sin. It is a completely natural result of the combination of hormonal change, extremes of emotions, and physical fatigue. Post-partum depression isn’t something that may happen to you. It is something that will happen to you.
Second, post-partum depression is not always characterized by a woman losing complete touch with reality and attempting to kill herself or her child. These are the most severe cases we hear about on the news and are not the norm.
Third, post-partum depression is not something you need to fear. It doesn’t have to cripple you. If you are aware of the reality of post-partum depression you can prepare yourself for it and walk through it successfully.
Post-partum depression is quite simply a physiological phenomenon resulting from the combination of exertion and hormonal change surrounding childbirth. For most women it is of fairly brief duration. For some women it can last as long as a year or more. For a few women it can become severe enough that medical intervention is necessary. If it causes inability to function, inability to care for your baby, thoughts of suicide or compulsion to hurt your child you need to seek medical help. No one should condemn you for this! It is just hormones gone crazy. Usually, temporary medication will correct the problem.
Normal post-partum depression may include such symptoms as crying for any reason or none at all, irritability, insomnia and generally “dark” emotions. You may feel like you’re under a dark cloud. You may have vague feelings of hopelessness, helplessness, sadness, or impending doom. These are all feelings that are not based on reality.
When my daughter was born almost 13 years after my second son, I had the dubious pleasure of experiencing post-partum depression first-hand again and was reminded of how challenging it can be. In a very real way, it was a pleasure because the blessing of our surprise miracle baby was awesome. But post-partum depression itself was anything but pleasant. Even though I knew to expect it, it wasn’t easy. Here are some things that can help:
1. Having a supportive spouse is a huge help. It makes a big difference when your spouse is aware of what is happening to you and is not pointing condemning or impatient fingers. If your husband can walk through your emotional mine-field with grace you are a blessed woman indeed. It helped for me to remind my husband when I knew my hormones were talking so he knew that I knew that he didn’t need to “fix” it.
2. Plan a window of 6-8 weeks (longer if you had a c-section or complications) for physical recovery. You probably won’t feel like you need that long but you do. Your body will seem to heal faster than that but there’s more going on than what you can see. It’s not uncommon to feel like a million bucks a couple days after birth but your body really isn’t ready for grocery shopping trips, laundry and house cleaning yet. Resist the urge. Limit yourself to the absolute minimum. If you do too much too soon you can make yourself very sick and make post-partum depression even worse. During those first several days you are still running on the emotional high of giving birth and it’s not real energy.
3. Take a nap whenever baby does, as often as you can. You need as much sleep as you can get until baby starts sleeping through the night.
4. Plan ahead of time not to take your emotions seriously. Your emotions will be over-reacting. Don’t feel ridiculous if you just need to have a good cry now and then. You’ll feel better for it.
5. Keep your mind focused on the truth. In those wee hours of the night when you’re exhausted from lack of sleep it’s easy to feel like God has forgotten you. But you know this isn’t true. CHOOSE to rejoice in what you know is true in spite of your feelings.
6. Reach out for support whenever you need it. Other moms have walked in the same shoes. If you have specific challenges, such as with breast feeding, don’t hesitate to contact “experts” for help with that. Trying to endure some of these frustrations alone can contribute to making your post-partum depression harder.
7. Accept offers of help. This is no time to stand on pride. Remember if you refuse help, you are depriving others of a blessing. Also, it may be that God will enable you to encourage one of these people even while they are there to help you.
8. If you have a baby who has a lot of awake time during the night, consider listening to the Bible or worship music on CD during that time.
One of the most significant things to watch out for is the seductiveness of post-partum depression. Just like any other depression it has an allure that appeals to your flesh to draw you into a downward spiral and away from the truth. In my recent experience I went along for several weeks doing very well handling in correctly. When our baby was three weeks old I had a serious injury that made everything much more difficult and turned my physical recovery into a 3-month process rather than 6-8 weeks. Still I tried to remain focused on the truth and follow all those steps above. But there came a day when I realized I had allowed myself to slip into that depression hole and I was wallowing in it, almost relishing it and not wanting to get out. I was embracing my misery and the seduction of depression.
At that point I made the choice to turn to God and ask Him to show me the way out. What He taught me in that place was that I had to make a choice to let go of the depression before He could show me the encouragement of His truth. While you’re in it, it’s easy to think you need God’s encouragement in order to get out of the depression. But I had to turn away from holding onto that depression and turn to the truth. Then I experienced God’s comfort that lifted my spirits immediately. This encouragement was the turning point for me.
Above all, just remember that the Word says Jesus understands all these things, even though He never gave birth, and He has grace for us in our times of need. (Heb. 4:15,16)