Look to family, friends, and the community for support, says recovering new mom.
Sitting serenely in her living room, Michelle Spagnolo talks about a time in her life that was anything but serene.
Michelle chooses her words carefully, trying to describe the roller coaster of emotions that she and husband Kris went through when they became new parents. She talks about the highs – the joys, the celebrations, the moments to cherish – and the lows – in the form of postpartum depression (PPD), which struck unexpectedly not once, but twice.
As Michelle speaks, her three-year-old daughter Skylar sits quietly on the floor watching an episode of The Incredibles. Son Ryan – now eight months old – rests in his mother’s arms. “I had heard about postpartum depression, but never thought it would affect me,” says Michelle. “After all, I had a nice house, a good husband and supportive family and friends.”
But postpartum depression isn’t choosy. It can strike any new mom without warning, regardless of her health, family situation or income. A medical condition that can cause mild to extreme symptoms of anxiety, guilt and depression, PPD is very common, affecting 20 per cent or more of new mothers immediately after birth or in the following months.
The good news is that postpartum depression can be treated successfully. Michelle and Kris are testament to that. “Postpartum depression doesn’t disappear overnight,” says Michelle. “There is a process to feeling better. In our case, I feel we have turned the corner.”
By talking openly and honestly about her postpartum depression, Michelle hopes other women will benefit. She wants them to realize, as she now does, that “PPD is nothing to be ashamed about.”
Michelle’s story began more than three years ago when she and Kris learned they were expecting Skylar. During her pregnancy, Michelle read as much as she could to prepare for motherhood. But she admits that she only took a quick glance through the PPD sections of her baby books.
After the birth, Michelle felt good for quite a while. But six months later, while sitting in a Burger King parking lot with Skylar, she began to feel PPD’s effects. “I just burst out crying and couldn’t drive because I was worried that something bad might happen to me and my baby,” Michelle recalls. “It never crossed my mind that this would be the start of postpartum depression.”
Skylar had suddenly stopped breastfeeding a few days earlier and Michelle now believes that abrupt change, along with hormonal changes and adjusting to parenting, triggered the PPD. The postpartum depression left her constantly in tears, suffering from insomnia, and feeling caged in at home.
There is no magic wand to make PPD disappear. For Michelle, it was a convergence of care that put her on the road to recovery.
Support from home was critical. Kris offered help where he could. And Michelle’s mom was also on hand. Together, the two women discussed the need for counseling. Michelle remembers clearly her mother’s words of advice – “a happy mother makes for a happy baby.”
Michelle not only sought counseling to discuss her feelings and find coping strategies, she also contacted the Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge District Health Unit where she received more resources and advice on coping with PPD. In addition, Michelle attended a support group offered by the health unit for parents with young children.
Another step to Michelle’s recovery was the use of anti-depressant medication, a step recommended by her family physician. While medication is not for everyone, Michelle says it helped her to keep her emotions in check.
“All of these things were important to my recovery,” Michelle says.
Michelle especially credits Kris, her family and her friends for being there when she needed them. “A big part of coming to terms with postpartum depression was not shutting out my family and friends who were trying to help,” Michelle says. “That made a huge difference.”
Seeking support in the community also helped Michelle develop a new attitude of “not sweating the small stuff.” For example, “if housework did not get done, it could wait,” says Michelle. She also realized the need for self-care, or making time for herself by being active, getting rest, eating right and going out with friends. Part of this process involved rediscovering her identity outside of being a mother and wife. “I needed to find me, Michelle again, because you do lose touch,” she says.
With her PPD more or less under control, Michelle became pregnant again. But postpartum depression was to reappear with the birth of her son Ryan. Unlike the sudden onset of PPD with Skylar, the return of postpartum depression after Ryan’s birth was more gradual and obvious to her, says Michelle.
Guilt was a major symptom of her second bout with PPD. Michelle worried that the time she spent looking after Ryan would impact on the time and attention she gave Skylar. A busy schedule didn’t help matters. Says Michelle of that stressful time, “I burned the candle at both ends, then down the middle.”
It was not unusual for Michelle to experience postpartum depression a second time. Research shows that women who have gone through postpartum depression with one child have an increased risk of getting PPD again with subsequent children.
While the second depression was a setback, Michelle rediscovered the coping strategies and community supports that had helped her deal with postpartum depression before. There have been trying moments, though. Like when Skylar told her a few months ago. “Mommy, you are always sad, always crying.”
But today Michelle is making headway in dealing with postpartum depression. And sharing her experience is helping her on the road to recovery.
“I hope my story opens some eyes and destigmatizes postpartum depression for people,” she says. “Becoming a mother is a happy occasion, but there is a part that can be unexpected.”
Michelle is not alone in her struggle with PPD. As family health nurses with the health unit, we see many mothers in our community coping with the effects of postpartum depression. PPD can leave a woman feeling isolated and alone because no one seems to understand. But contrary to what many may think, it does not make her a bad parent.
Women who are suffering from PPD should see their family physician or health care provider to get help. Anti-depressant medications, which are compatible with breastfeeding and not addictive, may be a good fit for some women. However, it is best to discuss this with your family physician.
There are also a wealth of community resources. Family health nurses are part of the support network. It’s our job to help expectant and new mothers prepare and adjust to life with a new baby. We can provide advice, referrals and resources on coping with PPD, either by phone or through a home visit. We can also put you in touch with support groups for parents raising young children.
One in particular that is beneficial is the Northumberland Postpartum Depression Support Group, which helps women and their families learn coping strategies. Women get to share their experiences with other moms who are grappling with postpartum depression.
In terms of personal coping strategies, women with PPD need to take care of themselves. This means trying to rest, eating healthy foods, being physically active and getting some fresh air. They also need to take time for themselves – that means accepting offers of help with household chores and childcare so they can take a break.
Michelle Spagnolo offers another suggestion: keep postpartum depression in perspective.“No matter what you go through with PPD,” she says, “your children still say, ‘I love you,’ and they still have a smile for you at the end of the day.”
Support From the Partner/Family
Support is vital for new mothers experiencing postpartum depression. As a partner or family member, you can play an important role in helping the mother work through her anxiety or frustration. Here’s how:
- Be understanding. Listen to her feelings, and reassure her that she is a good mother. Comments such as, “just snap out of it,” are not helpful.
- Seek professional help together. Encourage and assist your partner in finding a compassionate health care provider. Be informed about the treatment and offer to go with her to appointments for added support.
- Provide ‘me’ time for mom. Develop a bond with your baby. This will make it easier for you to care for your newborn while giving mom a much-needed break. By helping out with meals and other day-to-day household chores, you can also help her feel less overwhelmed.
- Be an advocate for her. Educating family and friends about postpartum depression can help them be more understanding of the situation.
- Make sure you have support as well. Postpartum depression is hard on everyone. Ensure you have a friend, family member or health care provider who can provide you with support as well.
- Be patient. Postpartum depression can be treated successfully, but it takes time. By being supportive, you can make the recovery process easier on everyone.
- Strike a pact…before the baby is born. The Postpartum Depression Center has developed an excellent resource for expectant parents. The Postpartum Pact is an agreement between couples, in which the spouse and expectant mother spell out their support for each other in the event of postpartum depression. Check out the resource at www.postpartumstress.com/postpartumpact.pdf.
On the web:
- Postpartum Depression: A New Parent’s Guide: www.beststart.org/resources/rep_health/pdf/ppd_brochure_en.pdf
- Best Start Resource Centre: www.lifewithnewbaby.ca
- Depression After Delivery: www.depressionafterdelivery.com
- MotherRisk: www.motherisk.ca
- Our Sisters’ Place: www.oursistersplace.ca
- Pacific Postpartum Support Society: www.postpartum.org
- Postpartum Stress Center: www.postpartumstress.com
- Postpartum Support International: www.postpartum.net
- Peterborough Postpartum Mood Disorders Collaboration: www.people.trentu.ca/escharfe/ppmdc.htm.
To easily access links, go to www.northumberlandkids.com
and click on resources.