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How to Spot Postpartum Depression in Your Friend Entering Motherhood

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I think it’s important for me to preface this by admitting I have exactly zero children of my own. I do, however, spend a good majority of my time explaining to family and friends I’m not even sure I want children. Naturally, they are often horrified by this fact and cannot wrap their heads around the idea I don’t find motherhood appealing. The conversations around women having kids and raising them is often about what a “fulfilling” and “wonderful” experience it is, and we are told this over and over again by the people closest to us.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I think babies are cute and I’m a sucker for a little chubby-cheeked smile; I’m just not sold on the whole “happiest days of your life” schtick all my relatives keep pedaling. Newsflash: growing and raising an entire human being is hard work. It’s draining emotionally and physically. I don’t have kids and I know that for a fact.

I do have friends who have kids though and none of them have had the exact same experience raising their baby. Sure, they have things in common like the sleepless nights, the never-ending diaper changes and of course the gorgeous little munchkins themselves, but it is definitely not picture perfect.

My main concern with the whole “beauty of motherhood” concept is everyone focuses on all the good and leaves very little space to talk about the bad. What happens when mums struggle? What happens when all their friends keep talking about how happy they should be and they’re not?

Less than fun fact 1: Approximately 60-80% of women will experience “baby blues.” This occurs in the first few days post-birth and normally mums can experience being anxious, irritable or teary, but this generally settles after an initial transition period.

Less than fun fact 2: Many of the mums who experience “baby blues” will go on to experience postpartum depression. In fact, anywhere between 10-20% of women will experience postpartum depression within a year of having their child. This can account for as many as one in five women.

First things first, I’m willing to bet most, if not all of us, have heard about postpartum depression. From there, we can gleam it’s probably referring to being depressed after having a baby. And for most of us without kids, that’s where the buck stops. If I asked you to list three symptoms of postpartum depression, could you? Probably not. And that’s OK! If anything, that’s the standard. Let’s change that, shall we?

Postpartum or postnatal depression often shares symptoms with “baby blues,” however, it tends to be more severe and longer lasting. Where the “baby blues” symptoms tend to taper off in the first week or two, postpartum depression only gets worse. Like any mental illness, there is no one reason or cause that leads to postpartum depression, but the key three that get talked about the most are hormonal changes, physical changes and stress. Having a baby is no small task and while a mother’s body tries to adjust to the changes, she also has to try and regulate herself emotionally.

To help ease some of the tension I’ve now created, the good news is the success rate of treating postnatal depression is 80%. This tells us treatment is essential to helping mums get better. And with a little more knowledge under our belts, we can be there for our friends and help them get there.

Of course, everyone will experience depression differently; some of your friends may check half a dozen boxes on the symptom list and some may only check two or three. The number of symptoms they show isn’t important and doesn’t make their struggle any less valid. We just need to know enough to keep our eyes open and watch out for them.

Common symptoms of postnatal depression include:

1. Feeling like a failure as a mother or hopeless about the future.

2. Sleeping problems that aren’t related to the baby (sleeping for too long or not at all, experiencing nightmares).

3. Changes in appetite (either not eating enough or overeating).

4. Being unable to remember things or concentrate.

5. Consistently feeling anxious or panicked.

6. Developing obsessive or compulsive behaviors.

7. Loss of interest in or not finding enjoyment in activities they used to love.

8. Constantly feeling sad, miserable, empty or excessive crying.

9. Feeling extremely exhausted and overwhelmed emotionally or physically.

Some of these may not come as a surprise, since exhaustion or stress are understandable responses to having a baby. When mothers feel they aren’t adjusting and these feelings or behaviors don’t go away or get any better, though, that’s when we need to start watching more closely and checking in.

You may be wondering why you need to know all this, but the truth is, a very important part of the equation in helping mums deal with postnatal depression is their support network (here’s to looking at you, kid). It seems the main groups new mothers turn to are their family and friends. Now, that’s all good and well in theory, but in reality, if we have no idea what our friends are actually going through, we won’t be much help.

As with any mental illness, there’s a fine line to tread regarding if we should reach out and bring it up or wait to see if they want to talk about it first. I’m not saying reading one bullet point list is suddenly going to give you skills that would rival a therapist, but it can change the dynamics of any conversation you can have with your friends.

If a mum already feels like her behavior isn’t “normal,” and everyone around her keeps telling her how she should feel (i.e. overjoyed, bursting with happiness, etc.) she isn’t going to feel safe asking for help. But! If we know enough to spot worrisome behavior, we can foster conversations that allow her to feel seen. Having the knowledge to do that is an important first step. Where you go from here is your call.

Getty image by Bigmouse108

Originally published: April 27, 2020
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