Is it Postpartum Depression…or Postpartum Drowning? (How to Know, and What to Do)

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New babies can bring the biggest thrills and blessings of our lives…as well as the most stressful periods we’ve ever faced. Here are my biggest blessings: Sam (2 1/2) and Seth (6 months)

Last February I gave birth twice: I delivered my second son, Seth, and I published a memoir on “overcoming depression.” This double blessing felt awesome…until four months later when I found myself drowning—in babies, book messages, babysitting jobs, and ministry engagements—hiding from the kids in my bedroom and texting my husband, “I can’t do it anymore! It’s just too much! I need to escape from life!”

Do I have postpartum depression? I wondered, aghast at the thought. What would my readers say? I didn’t really think it was depression, because unlike in my former, suicidal state, I didn’t want to escape life itself as much as I just wanted to escape my messy house. But if it wasn’t PPD, what was I to make of my regular exhaustion, tears, and adult tantrums? For the sake of myself, my family, and my readers (who wanted to know overcoming depression was possible), I knew I had better figure out what was going on, and fast.

When We Can’t See What’s in Front of Us…We Might Be Drowning

I didn’t figure it out right away.

My good intentions to pray into my problems got buried in a busy summer of business trips with the hubby and daycare for four kids—my baby and toddler, plus a 7- and 11-year-old from our church. Added to these disruptions in sleep schedules and household routines, I was fielding new questions and calls from sincere book readers who deserved sincere responses, as well as returning to the time-intensive prayer ministry I’d facilitated pre babies.

I didn’t realize it, but little by little, the demands of my beautiful life, lively kids (plus two), and lovely readers had been drowning me. To the point where I was tired all the time. Drinking too much coffee. Unable to get literal rest, or the spiritual rest of prayer and Bible study that had once brought healing from my decade of pre-partum depression.

After a few too many blowups at my husband, one July night I took said hubby’s advice and made a thorough inventory of my bursting life—and I finally realized my problem. It wasn’t postpartum depression. It was postpartum drowning. (“I could’ve told you that,” Hubby said. “I did tell you that.” Oops.)

So now I knew what my problem was. And I was on the road to fixing it. But if you’re not sure, maybe you can do what I did to figure out if you’re depressed…or drowning.

 Do You Have Postpartum Depression…or Postpartum Drowning?

First, I took a hard look at what was going on in my life, and what moods or emotions I was experiencing. Next, I did some research on the symptoms of PPD. Finally, I asked myself: Is what I’m experiencing in the realm of normal for a new mom, or is it in the extreme? Once I’d asked and answered these questions, I knew how to proceed, and you can too.

According to mayoclinic.com, if you have PPD, you have a depressed mood or severe mood swings, excessive crying, fatigue, energy loss, intense irritability, and anger. You also find it difficult to bond with your baby, you withdraw from family and friends, and you eat too little (or too much). You aren’t interested in, or don’t enjoy, activities you used to enjoy; you have severe anxiety or panic attacks; and you have recurring thoughts of harming your baby or yourself.

If I had looked at these symptoms in isolation, I might have falsely concluded I had PPD, because some of them described what I was going through. But because I looked at these symptoms along with my situation, it seemed pretty clear that my problems were tied to normal mom stuff, not necessarily PPD.

While my fatigue, irritability, and anger were common to PPD, they were also natural results of being a mom of littles: namely, I had choppy sleep due to baby wakings, and I had poor nutrition because I didn’t have time to cook very good meals, or helping hands to allow me to eat what I cooked.

In contrast to the various “losses” the medical description gave (loss of appetite, loss of interest, loss of friends), I realized I just wanted to be able to enjoy those things I already enjoyed even more. Instead of losing my appetite, I wanted to find time to eat. Instead of inability to sleep or sleeping too much, I just wanted to sleep a normal 8 hours, for crying out loud. Instead of difficulty bonding with my baby, I wished I had some extra hands around so that I could bond (instead of hurtling like a crazy woman between my toddler and my baby). Instead of reduced interest in activities I used to enjoy, I just wished—for the love of God—that I could get away and do my pleasurable activities (visit a coffee shop, write, exercise).

As for the more severe symptoms, I didn’t want to kill myself or my kids, I wanted to live my best life and help them lives theirs. Admittedly, I wanted to live life a little more the way I remembered it before babies, but the important thing here is that I had desire for life, a passion for my kids, and a passionate desire to live my life and raise my kids well.

So I concluded I did not suffer from postpartum depression, but rather postpartum drowning. I wasn’t depressed in the giving up sense; I was simply unhappy because taking care of my baby, toddler, and two more kids—plus the handful of women I was mentoring through prayer ministry—left no room or energy on my plate to do those things that had previously saved me and made life enjoyable. (It’s worth noting that I felt the negative feelings dissipate whenever I could get a babysitter for an hour or two to write, bathe, or eat a full meal.)

The crux of my postpartum problem, then, was this: I didn’t have enough hands. I didn’t have enough hands to both carry (care for) my kids and also tread the waters of my own (perfectly normal) postpartum emotions. At this point, it was obvious that I was drowning, and it finally became obvious what I needed to do.

What to Do if You’re Drowning (or Depressed)

Whether you are a depressed or drowning postpartum mom, first and foremost you need to Get Help. And I don’t mean mental help. I mean physical help. You need someone who can hold and feed your babies for a few hours, or clean your house, or cook, or do whatever, so you can do what you need to do to get healthy.

For me, getting healthy entails writing. As I learned during my pre-mom depression recovery, writing not only helped me cope with life, but it also gave me deeper life satisfaction, because I was good at it…and I realized God was calling me to bless others with it. And I bet you have something you do that helps you cope, brings deep satisfaction, and possibly helps others, too. But if we don’t have time to write, or do whatever it is that gets us “healthy” (as we usually don’t during the crazy postpartum period), then it’s no use.

First, we must get help.

So, as my summer babysitting job wound to a close, I searched for a part-time nanny to hold down the fort so I could go write for a few hours a week. And (cringe), while I’m being honest, I also hired a cleaning lady twice a month.

Before you slam down your computer in disgust—because who can afford to hire a cleaning lady? much less a part-time nanny?—hear me out.

First, I know. I know I am extremely lucky to be able to afford this. Many moms can’t. Which is where I say use the resources you have. Some of us have family nearby who can babysit, or friends with whom we can trade services for babysitting. I don’t. My closest family members are 500 odd miles away, and I’m still new to this area and meeting other moms.

What I do have is a husband with a good career, a little mad money from babysitting, and some modest earnings from a book. So I have chosen to use my resources to get the help I need. And I’m trying not to feel bad about it. (Despite that friend on Facebook who pooh-poohed my “need” for help because I am a stay-at-home-mom.)

Second, if you face naysayers who say hiring help as a SAHM is too indulgent, or too much “pampering” of oneself (or if you feel that way, yourself), consider two things:

One: Are you sure you really can’t afford it? As my new nanny, Paula (how I love her), says, “A lot of people who think they can’t afford this actually could afford it…if they made it a priority. The question is: what else are you willing to give up?” A good point.

And two: Is hiring help actually spoiling yourself, or is it just helping you take care of yourself in a necessary way? After deferring my mental and emotional needs in my pre-mom life…to the point of attempted suicide and bulimia, I’m choosing to take myself, and my self-care, pretty seriously. If you have a history of depression, are depression prone, or more sensitive than the average woman, you should too.

If you identify more with the depressed version of myself I just relayed, I can certainly give you the advice that helped me in my pre-partum depression days, and which I wrote about in my memoir:

  • Form new and better habits.
  • Read and memorize Scripture.
  • Pray to Jesus, who understands everything we’ve gone through.
  • Spend quiet time in prayer and ask God to show you his blessings—then ask him what your barriers are.*

But if you are depressed and also a postpartum mom—which I was not when I took all that good advice—then you still need to get help…because no matter whether we have depression or not, all postpartum moms are drowning—drowning in armloads of babies, dishes, and laundry (and other stuff) that we need someone to take care of before we can take care of ourselves.

Which brings me to my final point…

If You Only Read One Section in this Article, Read This:

If hiring help is what it takes to get you the relief you need—to keep you sane and functional—It’s not indulgent. It’s necessary.

So, go forth, Gentle Mom…

(Drowning Mom),

(Depressed Mom),

(Angry…Weepy…Raging Mom):

Be kind to yourself.

Take my advice.

And Get Help!!!

 

*Read my memoir Ending the Pain: A True Story of Overcoming Depression for more details.

 

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The Second Baby Difference

First family pic out of the hospital–taken February 13th, the day Seth and I came home.

I held two-week-old Sam in my arms, and he wailed and wailed.

“What is it, baby boy?” I wailed too, rocking him, bouncing him, doing anything I could think of to quiet him.

It was 9 a.m. on Buc’s first day back to work, and I was already at my wit’s end. Sam would not stop crying.

“Are you hungry? Tired? Cold? Mad?” I swooshed Sam in big circles in the air, dipped down low, stood on one leg. I rocked and walked from one end of the living room to the other and back again. Sam was now screaming in short, staccato shrieks, his face candy-apple red, his mouth wide open and his tongue trembling like screaming babies’ tongues do.

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Fussy Sam

Suddenly, I saw a CD my mom had sent: Baby Lullabies.

“Maybe you want to listen to some music?” I grabbed at the CD desperately and jammed it into my CD player.

“Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” I bounced Sam in time with the music, trying bravely to sing through my tears (but inevitably failing). “Little ones to him belong, they are weak but he is strong.”

Little ones are weak? I thought. How about their mothers? Oh Lord, help me! I prayed. But Sam wouldn’t stop crying. I looked at the clock. Barely an hour had passed since Sam’s last feeding. “You shouldn’t be hungry yet, Sam!” I cried. My boobs ached from all the recent feedings. But after several more moments, I took him to his room and I fed him. I knew it was the only way he would quiet.

This is a memory from my early postpartum days with my firstborn, Sam—days I remember like a dark cloud. They were desperate days. Dark days. During those days, I didn’t sleep for more than two-hour increments. I didn’t get regular showers. I didn’t get to finish entire meals. Buc and I wondered if we’d ever eat a meal in peace (and quiet) again. Because all Sam did, it seemed, was nurse…or cry.

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More fussy Sam

Truthfully, I feel bad about how bad those first weeks with Sam felt—and how bad those days still feel in my memory. I think we probably had plenty of delightful moments, moments of oohing and aahing over our new, beautiful baby. But all I remember is the desperation. Which is why I was never too excited for a second baby.In fact, I was preparing myself for the worst. I was expecting my life to be thrown into turmoil—and actually preparing to hate my life for awhile (before the baby/mama attachment and sustained sleep kicked in).

But you know what? That line that every parent of more-than-one-kid says—“Every child is different”—is so true!

At three weeks old, Seth is so much calmer than I remember Sam being; and at three weeks postpartum, my overall experience is so much nicer than it was the first time around. Thank you, Thank you, Jesus!

I think it’s possible that the difference I’m seeing between my two babies is tied to different personalities. Sam seems sanguine, while Seth seems phlegmatic—and that would account for Seth’s more laid-back, content disposition. (Would you believe he doesn’t really cry, except for when he’s hungry or poopy? Thank you, thank you, Jesus!).

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Sam
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Seth

But if there’s more to the difference than differing personalities, it is adequate nutrition. Unlike Sam, whom I breastfed exclusively for the first three weeks–until his pediatrician sounded alarm bells on his weight and told me to start supplementing with formula—Seth has had the benefit of enough food for his entire life.

Thank prior experience for that.

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I vividly remember this moment with Sam at three weeks old: We had just come from another weight check at the pediatrician’s–the one where she told me to start formula–and this picture captures a finally-calm Sam after having two ounces of Similac. We later settled on Enfamil Soy, six formula tries later.

I tried again—put Seth to breast every few hours in the hospital and again at home. But after hour-long nursing sessions when Seth was still fussy, still wanting to nurse (and this after my milk had “come in”), I knew what to do. Because of prior experience, I knew it wasn’t normal for babies to be fussy after eating…unless they were still hungry. So I gave him formula. By day 11 I stopped nursing to formula feed and “supplement” with what breast milk I could pump. And now I am down to pumping a few times a day. But given the small return I was getting for hours of nursing, I’m okay with this. Unlike the first time around, this was an easy decision to make.

Thank prior experience also for that—for my own more laid-back approach.

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Sam and me

Frankly, it’s just plain great to have prior experience—to not be navigating parenthood for the first time around. Even if I had a tough second baby, I think I’d be doing better, simply because I could see light at the end of the fussy, sleepless tunnel. I look at two-year-old Sam and can’t believe all the milestones he’s leapt through in such a short a time—and the amazing little guy that he has become.

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Sam still is, and always will be, “my baby,” too.

While I don’t remember Sam’s beginnings happily, I am happy to say that today I absolutely delight in his personality, his growing communication skills, his laughter, his life. Thank you, Jesus, for the passage of time, and for difficult babies growing up and maturing and developing. And thank you, Jesus, for the gift of easy babies—and the fact that I HAVE ONE THIS TIME!

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Seth is so easy on us, in fact, that that’s why I started this post with a memory of Sam. I have stronger emotions, memories, reactions, to Sam than I am having with Seth…because Seth doesn’t do much. He likes to be held, but he also likes to be put down; and he likes to sleep! (Right now, in addition to sleeping a ton during the day, he sleeps in three- and four- hour stretches at night, and after feeding, he goes right back to bed.) What I’m saying is that he’s not as interesting to write about as Sam. But his different personality has sure spurred comparisons with Sam! And in this case, even though they say you’re not supposed to compare your kids, I am really gratified to do so! Thank you, Jesus, for different personalities!

As a coda, how is Sanguine Sam handling his new brother? (I didn’t realize that that’s the most frequent question I’d get after baby #2. Kid conversations will always be about comparisons from now on, won’t they?)

So far, he’s doing well. Since I came home from my three-night hospital leave, Sam has been more difficult to put down at night, worried I won’t be there in the morning. But otherwise, he’s been holding his own and maintaining a healthy play life. He keeps his distance from the new baby, but gradually he’s mentioning him more and more, and I think he might even be starting to like him.

Now. One caveat.

The other HUGE blessing in this period is that I’ve had my eighteen-year-old niece, Megan, here with me through it all. She came mainly to care for Sam while we went to the hospital, but she was also here for the last two weeks of my pregnancy, bonding with Sam, and she has been here for the three weeks since Seth’s birth. And Sam really likes Megan. I hope I’m not just fooling myself, thinking life is easier with baby #2, when, really, it’s just been Megan here that’s made the difference. Because, really, when littles are afoot, extra hands make such a difference.

(On that note, Thanks so much, Megan, for sacrificing your social life and your family for these crucial weeks to make our load so much lighter. How would you like to be a full-time nanny? Just kidding. [Not really.])

Megan and Sam

But seriously, Megan has been a huge blessing. Seth has been a huge blessing. And so has Sam. And no matter how life plays out after Megan leaves next week-ish, I hope I will remember how happy I was for these first postpartum weeks—and realize how blessed I’m sure I’ll still be after they’re over—even if I’m a little more frazzled for watching two kids on my own. One thing I’ve learned from prior parenting experience: when the going gets rough, just wait it out…kids change all the time, and if you give them time, they will get easier. (If they don’t, I can still rejoice that one day they’ll graduate and move out, right? [Just kidding…maybe.]) For now, I’m loving the second baby difference, and I will try to enjoy every moment. Stay tuned!

What I’ve Learned in Six Weeks

IMG_0873My six-week postpartum period is over. According to my doctor, I’m ready to return to all physical activities, and if I had a “real” job, it would be time to get back to work. So what’s so magical about the six week mark?

As I took stock of my postpartum period, I realized I’ve actually learned a lot in this time. Maybe life isn’t completely predictable yet, but it is starting to feel more manageable. I think this is due both to Sam starting to fall into some patterns, as well as growing confidence that I can keep him alive and safe.

IMG_0429The other confidence booster is that, very slowly, a few activities from life pre-Sam are starting to return—shopping trips, sleeping in my own bed, cooking real meals, a bit of exercise, and returning to church and the church choir. Soon I hope to add writing on a regular basis and fitting into my pre-pregnancy wardrobe.

Here is a brief list of the wisdom I’ve gained in six weeks’ time: 

There’s not one right way to do parenthood, but some people and some books will try to tell you there is. Distrust anyone or any book that tells you your child should definitely be doing such and such by such and such time. This is a setup for failure and feelings of guilt.

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Sam with his Aunt Deb!

You can learn a lot by handing your child to someone else and just watching. For instance:

Place a pillow behind the baby’s back when laying him down to sleep.

The football hold works well to calm a fussy baby.

Bicycling the legs pushes out gas. (I mean in the baby.)

Full immersion (minus his head) in a bathtub won’t hurt the baby.

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Sam with my friend Nicole, and her daughter, who loves babies.

He just might sit and/or sleep in that swing if you let someone other than mom try.

That crusty stuff in his eyes goes away by itself within about three weeks.

If your child is always fussy, it doesn’t always mean you have a fussy child, but it could mean that you don’t have enough milk for him.

IMG_0290Sleep deprivation looks deceptively similar to postpartum depression. Only try to judge the difference after a good nap.

If you’re thinking of hosting a prayer meeting at your house and leading out within the first six weeks, don’t (unless a babysitter hosts your baby elsewhere. You’ll get interrupted about a million times).

IMG_0481Even the burliest of guys will discuss the merits of Desitin versus Butt Paste if they have a baby at home. (Learned last week when my toilet overflowed, requiring a steady stream of plumbers, contractors, and insurance guys to flood my house.)

If you’re desperate for sleep, go ahead and lay that baby down next to you. For added sleep, give him a breast if you have one. (Whether or not you have copious milk matters little for coaxing him to sleep.)

IMG_0941There are way too many formulas to choose from!

Six weeks, or even four or five, might be when he starts to stabilize. This seems to be a good time to start laying him down by himself at night.

For baby boys, beware: The incidence of spraying seems to go up with the changing of poopy diapers, as opposed to changing non-poopy ones.

IMG_0920If you can afford to hire a housecleaner, do it.

If your family members or friends offer to watch your little bundle, spread the joy.

Before five or six weeks, just give yourself a break. People don’t expect you to get as much done as you do.

Beat the frustration of breastfeeding taking up your “entire day” by using the time to read those books you’ve been putting off reading. (My favorite so far has been the acclaimed memoir Angela’s Ashes.)

The postpartum pooch, while it might make you cry, is a great place to set your baby.

IMG_0356Have a sense of humor about the house that keeps getting dirtier, the laundry that keeps piling up, that article that’s not getting written but you promised months ago (sorry Ashley), those thank-yous that haven’t made it to the mailbox, the bed you haven’t slept in for weeks, the sex you haven’t had for months, the spouse you hardly know anymore, those devotions you just can’t concentrate on, those telltale cries that come every time you’re about to eat, those hobbies you used to have, and those clothes that still don’t fit. Whatever needs to get done in a day will get done.

Try to enjoy your baby, as frazzled as you are. If you look at pictures of him from just two weeks ago, you’ll notice the moments are already fleeting.

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And last but not least, thank God for your baby, because if there is one thing every book and parent agrees on, it is that It will all be worth it in the end.

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