By Melissa Buckley
“Have you had any postpartum?” she asked kindly. My husband and I were spending some time with a family friend, juggling our wiggly five-month-old twins while we waited for dinner.
She meant postpartum depression, but, like many, didn’t attach that crucial, and sometimes taboo, word to her question. I appreciated her asking, because so often people don’t ask, or at least don’t really ask, but I felt it wasn’t the right setting to tell her how I was actually doing.
“A little,” I said casually, “but not too bad.”
I was actually not doing very well at all, but I didn’t think standing in her kitchen with her teenage boys was the best place to discuss my mental health.
We enjoyed our meal together, and then my husband and I left to get the kids in bed. I think part of me realized that day how badly I needed to talk to someone. I just wasn’t ready. Asking for help can be so hard.
Several weeks later, my mental state took a turn for the worse. Up until now I had been working through normal baby problems, dealing with teething, starting solids, and lately a lack of sleep for all of us. My son would only fall asleep in my arms and I realized how many things, including caring for myself, were taking a back seat as I desperately tried to soothe him. All of a sudden, it hit me—this is not working, something needs to change! I am running on fumes!
With a recommendation from a friend, I reached out to a professional sleep consultant. (Yes, those exist!) We arranged to talk through a video chat. She was pretty busy, so it would still be a few weeks before our meeting.
I continued to try to maintain the status quo, to stay in the holding pattern, while also subconsciously placing all my hope on the sleep consultant. I may have been in denial at this point, just grasping at straws.
I have dealt with depression before and have become pretty good at working through it. My depression had always been full of lethargy, sadness, disinterest and a general numb feeling. But this time I found myself angry, easily frustrated, unnecessarily resentful and negative. I assumed I was just dealing with the effects of sleep deprivation and adjusting to the realities of motherhood in general, which made me feel even more awful. How could I be so bad at this? How could I be so unhappy when I have healthy, happy babies? Why did I have this urge to scream at them? I just felt so ridiculous! I was embarrassed and so ashamed. So I kept my feelings to myself.
The day came when I was finally able to meet with the sleep consultant. We went over how they were sleeping, my concerns, and she asked me some questions.
“How is your child’s sleep affecting your mental health?” she asked. “How is your child’s sleep affecting your marriage?”
Wow. Well when you put it like that… I realized this lack of sleep really was driving me crazy! I was not myself. But thankfully she would be my ticket back to “happy Melissa,” right?
In a video call fluke, when she detailed her services and pricing, I misheard and thought the package I was hoping for was in the three digit range. When her follow up email came, it was a four digit number. I plotted the perfect way to pitch the idea to my husband, convinced I could sell him on this sleep consultant that would solve all our problems and make me happy again.
I knew we were not in a place to spend that kind of money, but I had hope that the benefit I was in need of would be reward enough. But we just couldn’t justify the cost.
Luckily during the call, she had given me a few “good sleep habits” to help the babies sleep better. So I began to implement them, but the progress was still slow going.
After a particularly difficult day full of short fuses, and a night full of wake-ups, I found myself rehearsing a way to change my husband’s mind about paying for the service. It was in that conversation in my mind that I could hear how desperate my heart was to have things change. I finally realized my true feelings: I can’t do anything to change this. I need help. I have postpartum depression.
Once it clicked, I immediately reached out to my friend Jane (name changed). She had shared more than once in a real and vulnerable way how difficult her experience was. I knew she would be the perfect confidant. She offered comfort, support, and actionable steps. She encouraged me to call my doctor to discuss medication, speak to my husband, meet with a counselor, and seek community help and support. And also to call her again, anytime I needed to talk (which I still continue to do).
The next morning I called my doctor and asked for the earliest appointment available. I knew there was no way I could make it through the weekend without medication.
No longer in denial, I knew I needed medication, especially since postpartum depression has the potential to be more dangerous while caring for two small children. Waiting for therapy to work was not ideal. So we chose a medication and I began taking it that day.
I was very lucky and the medication began working within a few days. I felt the fog lift. I found more joy in my children, I had more zest for life, and my husband could see a change in me. My work was not done, but having medication that made a difference was the catalyst that allowed me the energy to continue the momentum.
I made actionable steps to take better care of myself. I took time to be still, to be quiet, to find more balance as Melissa, and not just as mom. I asked for and accepted help. And I found friends to confide in.
Several months later I began to make friends with a woman who had three children under five, one of which was the same age as my twins. We began to talk more and had casual social interactions. After talking at a social event, we made plans to get together. We met at her home and spent a few hours sitting on her living room floor with our small children. We talked about our kids’ milestones, our adult siblings, homeownership and other motherly things.
Then she asked, “Have you had any postpartum depression?” This time I answered honestly, and actually shared. “Yes I have. It hit me really hard at five months postpartum. But I was able to start medication and it has been working so well!”
“Me too! I have had it before, but for some reason with this baby it has been so much harder!” We continued to talk and found we were taking the same medication. We continued to share our experiences and enjoyed the rest of the playdate.
I am not sure why I shared with this woman versus the first mom, but I am grateful I found someone who cared enough to ask and made me comfortable enough to share and to share authentically. She didn’t make it a big deal with probing, judgmental questions; she just cared. And knowing it was hard for her, she guessed I was struggling too. We helped each other.
I had the courage to share my experience, she showed me compassion, and we connected. This is the recipe for what author and researcher Brené Brown calls shame resilience. She defines shame as an “intensely painful feeling or experience believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance or belonging” (Brené Brown, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t), 2007, pg 30). I was suffering from postpartum depression and beating myself up for becoming angry with my children. I felt I was unworthy because of those actions and kept to myself until my feelings became unmanageable enough to call my doctor. When we practice shame resilience, or the ability to recognize shame, move through it, and grow from our experiences, we build more meaningful relationships based on empathy and trust. Having a place to share our feelings, our pain, and our needs is crucial in navigating shame, depression, anxiety and many other complex feelings. Brené also notes that unfortunately shame is a common feeling in motherhood. It can be from society’s pressure, from other people’s words or actions (whether intentional or not) or from the unrealistic expectations we give ourselves. Simply put, “when we speak shame, we learn to speak our pain” (pg 156) and to ask for what we need. Sharing these feelings is a vulnerable step that requires courage, but when we find someone we can trust to show us compassion, that friendship and understanding can ease our burdens.
Postpartum depression is a common postpartum complication. But just because it is common, doesn’t mean it is normal or okay. For me, normal felt distressing. It felt like the end of the world. It is so important to talk about postpartum depression so we can all help and support each other. Here are some actionable items that helped me to ease the burden of depression:
- For me, postpartum depression and the shame surrounding it breeds isolation, which can cause even more damage. Do what you can to get out of the house, to spend time with friends or family and to not feel stuck at home. Even if it is a trip to browse at Target, a trip through your favorite drive-thru, or taking a walk in the park, getting out and reaching out can do great things for your mood.
- If you find yourself overwhelmed or angry while caring for your child, place them in the crib or other safe space and leave the room. It may be counterintuitive to let your child cry, but ultimately the safety of both of you is crucial. Take a minute to calm and center yourself. Do what you need to - take deep breaths, scream into a pillow, have a good cry, or call someone you trust. Do what you can to stay safe.
- Find time and space to be still, to center yourself as a person, and not just as a mother. Find what works for you. Pray or meditate. Find a hobby. Check out episode 2 of our podcast to learn more about meditating, or participate in one of our mom-centered yoga classes.
- Reach out for help. Motherhood can be an instant common ground to help women connect. Motherhood is hard, but it’s a little easier when we are together. “Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity” (pg 45). The Appalachaian Perinatal Mental Health Alliance holds a free peer support group in the Johnson City Library on second and fourth Mondays at 6pm. This is a great place to get help and to engage with other moms in the area.
- Share your story with others. There are likely others close to you who are suffering as well. Find someone who can benefit from your experience. When you talk to another mother, ask her how she is really doing. If you feel inclined, share your story. She may be doing well today, but knowing your story may help her on a future day when she is not doing well. In a study, Brené found that “Women with high levels of shame resilience were both givers and receivers of empathy” (pg 32).
- Visit our Community Resources page to find a group or organization to connect through. I found a Facebook group for moms of twins that continues to be a wonderful resource. Many women reassured me that these feelings even at five months postpartum were still signs of postpartum depression.
- Connect in convenient ways. The Marco Polo app has also been very helpful for me. It allows you to send videos to friends and family. You can view and respond at your convenience, rather than in real time. It was actually created by a mother of young children hoping to better connect to family living far away! I find being able to send video and see faces is helpful for staying more connected while mothering.
Postpartum depression has a wide range of symptoms. You can learn more about these symptoms and treatments from this article from Cherished Mom. Cherished Mom is a nonprofit seeking to educate mothers about postpartum depression and other postpartum mood disorders. When in doubt, if you feel like you aren’t yourself, seek help.
There are many online resources, including PostpartumProgress.com and Postpartum Health Alliance. WomensMentalHealth.org is a great resource for a variety of women’s mental health issues including PMS, infertility, pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding and even menopause.
We learn a great deal about pregnancy, giving birth, breastfeeding, swaddling and childcare, but the symptoms of postpartum depression are not taught nearly enough to expectant mothers. My twins are 15 months old and I still deal with postpartum depression. I mostly have good days, but I still have bad days, too. I also know I am not alone. I have other women I can talk to. Medication gives me hope in myself and joy in my children, while authentic friendships help me remain more balanced in the constantly changing role that is motherhood.
So be real. And share your story. Allow others to see it is okay to struggle. Please know that it really is okay to struggle! Because the more we share, the less stigma postpartum depression will have and the more we can continue to help ourselves and the mom sitting next to us, who is likely feeling the exact same way.
Melissa loves to read and always has a stack of books on her nightstand. She connects particularly with nonfiction, self-help and research-based books. Her favorite authors are Brené Brown and Gretchen Rubin. Her husband of seven years says that learning and improving are two of her best qualities. (His best qualities are encouraging her to be her best self and making her laugh!)
Since welcoming twins to the family in 2018, Melissa has come to understand herself much better. Being a stay-at-home mom to two little ones has been an exciting and challenging transition, but Melissa has really embraced her role and been able to identify and hone her talents, especially writing. Melissa has been writing for several years. She finds this helps her to process life and its challenges. She seeks to share her story and educate women and mothers on ways to find greater fulfillment.
Melissa graduated with a degree in Family Life from Brigham Young University where she discovered her love of research, families and interpersonal relationships. She lives in Las Vegas with her husband and two children.
Follow Melissa on Instagram at @melissarosebuckley22 and read her blog.