Do you ever wonder what your therapist is thinking?
I have been a therapist for over ten years and a mother for almost as long. It might seem as if I would be the last person to experience postpartum depression. I had an enthusiastic and supportive partner, tons of support from family, and a career in mental health. But just like 1 in 7 women, I too fell into the darkness of depression following the birth of both my children. No one is immune.
Depression remains the most common mental health symptom in the perinatal period, with anxiety coming in a close second. Anger is another common, yet less discussed symptom that causes significant distress. Professionals now use the term PMADs (Perinatal Mood and Anxiety Disorders) as an alternative to postpartum depression to describe the wide range of symptoms women experience during this period.
I have specialized in treating women with PMADs for most of my career. As a therapist I look for certain signs. Here are a few key phrases that catch my attention whenever I hear them.
I feel so overwhelmed.
It is normal to feel overwhelmed as a new parent, but this feeling usually subsides after a few weeks. It becomes a problem when this feeling persists for a long time, or causes impairment in functioning. As a new mother, coming home from work was the worst part of my day. I delayed as long as possible knowing all that awaited me at home. My car was my sanctuary. Chronic overwhelming feelings can lead to anxiety, irritability, and withdrawal. Even the smallest task feels like climbing a mountain.
I have scary thoughts that I can’t get out of my head.
Women are often afraid to discuss their scary thoughts. Postpartum anxiety is real and can be very distressing. A mother might have images of frightening things happening to her baby. The scary thoughts may be so disturbing that she can’t shake them.
I cry all the time.
Mothers with depression may find themselves crying frequently, and for unexpected reasons. The sadness usually comes from an overwhelming sense of guilt. A mother may doubt her abilities as a parent. Every small misstep seems like a catastrophic failure. Guilt is depression’s favorite weapon.
My anger is so extreme that I don’t know who I am anymore.
Rage is the least discussed topic when it comes to PMADs. Unfortunately, shame keeps women from talking about experiences with anger, but anger is very common. I remember once shutting myself in my room, throwing every single one of my shoes at the wall just to get the rage out of my system. Hormone changes… sleepless nights… never ending laundry… crying babies…Of course mothers get angry!
Sometimes I look at my baby, and I don’t feel anything.
One of the more distressing symptoms of depression occurs when a mother lacks interest or joy in her infant. I remember staring at the wall for hours, rocking my son, emotionless, wondering if this is all there is to life. Depression saps the color from the world during what is supposed to be one of the most joyful times of a mother’s life.
My family would be better off without me.
Suicidal thoughts are a reality and we need to talk about them. The guilt and worthlessness that depression places on mothers can be unbearable. A mother may have thoughts of running away, and in more severe circumstances she may think about killing herself. Suicidal thoughts are a sign that a mother has fought depression for too long and it’s time for help.
The journey into motherhood is a journey into the wilderness. No matter how much she plans she can never prepare herself for the challenges ahead. There are moments of joy, bliss, connection, and love. There are also moments of terror, sadness, grief, and anger. Every mother will experience all of these emotions at some point along her journey. For some, the darker emotions persist, grow, and cause significant impairment in her quality of life. When these symptoms persist for weeks or months without relief it may be time to seek help. PMADs is very treatable and has a good prognosis with early intervention. I am speaking as both a professional and as a mother who experienced depression myself.
Organizations like The Village Perinatal Support Network are available to help women and families get the help they need.
If you or someone you love is struggling with any of these symptoms please call (316)272-0072 to speak with a perinatal specialist.
Sarah Post, LSCSW is the President and Co-founder of The Village Perinatal Support Network.
She also runs her own private practice where she specializes in perinatal mental health, with emphasis on perinatal loss and trauma.
Sarah lives in Wichita with her wonderful husband, two energetic children, and spirited Aussie named Luna.