Dear Partner of the Woman Who Might Not Seem Like The Same Person Since She Had a Baby:
I know how confusing it must be for you at this time — to be navigating the world of new parenthood, deep in sleep deprivation and feelings of both extreme joy and overwhelming exhaustion. I know it must be a bit scary to look at the woman who gave birth to that new baby — a woman you thought you knew really well but suddenly don’t recognize. Not because she looks different than she used to (although she likely has changed in that way too). But more than that, she acts differently. She treats you differently. She might cry a lot. She might rip your head off. She might not act like she wants you around while also letting you know she wants you close by. She might be critical and picky and controlling. She might lose her shit over spilled milk, especially if it is breastmilk. You might say something you find to be quite benign or even kind, and it will set her off. You might think she’s a bitch. You might try to fight her on these things. You might feel it necessary to tell her to “relax” or remind her that the things that seem to upset or overwhelm her “aren’t a big deal” or “aren’t worth getting so upset over.” But before you do that, I want to tell you something. And if you are really open to hearing it and really love that woman, it will change everything. Are you ready?
She can’t help it. No, really. She truly cannot help it. She hates herself for feeling this way. She probably doesn’t even recognize that she’s doing it, not yet, and even once she does she won’t know how to stop. She probably doesn’t recognize herself. She is probably terrified of the person she sees in the mirror and the feelings she feels inside. She probably feels trapped inside a body and mind that aren’t her own, all while trying to figure out how to be a mother. She probably feels unworthy of that new baby and that partner that she is being so unkind to. She is probably very overwhelmed, beyond sleep deprived, and still physically healing from growing a life and giving birth to that life. There are things happening in her body and her mind that she has no control over. I would be pretty confident in saying that as much as you have grown to dislike the person she has become, she feels the same way about herself ten times over. So before you tell her to “relax” or “to get over it” or to “calm down” — before you respond in an unkind way or show her how much you hate her behavior — repeat this in your own head: She can’t help this, this isn’t personal, she is struggling, show empathy and love. And then refrain from saying those things and just ask her if you can help her or if there is anything you can do to make her feel better. That bit of kindness shown to her during a time when she is struggling so hard will go so far in helping her heal. And if you remember that it isn’t personal and she isn’t trying to do anything to you, it won’t feel so hard to just let it go. Because I get it, no one wants to be treated this way. It sucks. But also remember, she doesn’t want to treat you this way and she isn’t intending to. You’ve got to put your ego and personal feelings aside. She carried the baby, she gave birth to the baby, she breastfeeds the baby. This is your turn to take one for the team, as hard and shitty as it is. Remember how much you love her and remember how much she is struggling with hormones and anxiety that she can’t control. Because that is what it is — postpartum anxiety. Panic. Terror at the thought of things that should not cause terror, like leaving the house and having to change a poopy diaper in public. “What if the baby starts screaming while we are out?” “What if I have to nurse him?” Things as simple as taking your baby for a walk or them being woken up from a nap can cause a downward spiral of emotions for someone with postpartum anxiety or depression.
If you are lucky, that is as bad as it gets and it won’t last long. It might be weeks, or maybe a couple of months. But eventually the clouds will part and things will start to get sunny again. She’ll start to be recognizable. She’s start to smile and laugh. She’ll start showing you affection. She’ll start to get dressed, to want to participate in things she did before she had a baby. And then maybe, she’ll be her old self again.
But maybe things get worse than that. Maybe they started out worse than that. Maybe your baby is a difficult one. Maybe he has colic and screams for hours on end, for weeks or months. Maybe he isn’t nursing well and your partner is struggling to nourish the life she just grew and gave birth to. Maybe your baby is easy but your partner is not. Maybe she cries all the time. Maybe she doesn’t want anyone to hold the baby. Maybe she doesn’t want to hold the baby herself. Maybe she doesn’t want to be alone with the baby. Maybe she is scared of the baby. You might think she is acting irrationally. You might think she is ridiculous. But to her, those feelings are very real and hard to shake. Especially when she is dealing with postpartum anxiety and depression.
If you don’t recognize your partner since she had a baby — if she has withdrawn or cries a lot, if she bites your head off over little things or loses her cool over stuff you think is irrelevant — the best thing you can do for her and your baby and yourself (in the long run) is to show her as much empathy and kindness as you can. Keep a kind tone in your voice. Ask if she is feeling ok or if you can help. Tell her you are worried about her and ask if she feels like she might need to speak to her doctor. If she says things or acts in a way that seems like she might harm herself or your baby, then insist on visiting the doctor. Make sure she gets time for self-care: a warm bath, a walk without the baby, lunch out with a friend, or whatever else helps her to calm her mind and take a breath. Give and get her support.
Postpartum anxiety and depression are quite common. It can happen with your first baby, or not until your third. It can happen even if you have no history of depression. Your partner can’t snap out of it or decide to be happy. She might need help. You can support her by being kind and not judging her. You can encourage her to seek help from her doctor and support her if she decides to try talk therapy or medication. You can encourage her to take time for herself. You can let her go back to sleep when possible. You can tell her you love her, when she is being her most unlovable. Because whether she recognizes that she is suffering from PPD or anxiety or not, she does see that she is behaving in a way that isn’t ideal (to put it nicely). She can’t control it but afterwards she can usually see and hear herself. And she will be judging herself. She might be hating herself.She will be feeling bad and unlovable. And if she doesn’t get help and support, she may start to feel as though everyone is better off without her and things could get much much worse. She might want it to get better so bad that she starts thinking of ways to make it stop, and not all of those ways are positive.
I know all of this not because I am a doctor, but because I have been through it myself. I have been the partner who has become unrecognizable. I have snapped and barked and yelled over nothing. I have said terrible things. I have cried. A lot. I have had bad thoughts. I have hated myself. I have resented my partner. I have feared my baby. I have been through postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety with two of my three children. Each episode was different and exacerbated by different things (the first time by an underlying undiagnosed thyroid condition and the second time by a baby with colic and severe reflux). I am mostly better but I definitely struggle sometimes and I am still not myself almost 17 months after the birth of my third baby.
I am a good mother — I know that to be true in my heart. I think I am mostly a good person. But sometimes I don’t feel like a great partner. I don’t feel like a great mother. I don’t feel like a person worthy of the love of my family. I don’t feel like I deserve good things. Sometimes I have sudden bouts with a mostly-controlled form of anxiety and I lash out. I might be fine for weeks and then out of nowhere (although it is really never “out of nowhere” but really has been building over time due to a lack of time to myself or a busy period of family obligations or a spell of teething and bad sleep. I can always look back and see how I got there once things get overwhelming for me again) I have what feels like a giant black spider creeping and tingling slowly up my back until it attaches to the back of my neck and starts to strangle me. It is crippling and suffocating. And this is coming from a person who now recognizes what I’m suffering from and am actively treating it with medication and self-care when I can. I can talk about it and vocalize to my husband what I’m starting to feel. I can explain to my kids that “momma is feeling sick and needs some quiet time or a timeout to feel better.” I can mitigate my stressors before it gets worse. So imagine what that creepy spider feeling is like for someone who doesn’t yet understand what is happening to them or why. Imagine how scary that must be to experience — how hard it is to feel like you are drowning or suffocating but you don’t know why. Now look at your partner and know that when they are being the worst to you, they are trying their hardest inside to fight that monster that is sending them into a panic. Tell them that you love them and are there for them however they need you to be and that in time everything is going to be alright. And know in your own mind that it is true — things will get better. And the more supportive you can be the sooner that will happen.
As I mentioned, I am not a medical professional. If you or someone or someone you know might be suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety (or depression or anxiety of any kind) talk to someone. There are lots of resources to help. Look for a support group, a counselor, or a doctor who specializes in postpartum issues. Read books on the topic, or look for Podcasts if you like those. Try meditation, exercise, yoga. Just don’t ignore it.
Here are some books I find helpful to get you started:
- Tokens of Affection: Reclaiming Your Marriage After Postpartum Depression
- Supermom: A Postpartum Survival Story
- Postpartum Depression Demystified
- This Isn’t What I Expected
- The Postpartum Husband
I also recommend following this therapist on Instagram for good recommendations, announcements on San Diego area support groups, and other specialized knowledge. You can also find her website here if you are local and looking for counseling services.
Are you suffering from PPD or anxiety or is your partner? Have you been through it and have any tips to help someone currently struggling? Please share — as I’m sure you already know, every bit of support helps. And hugs to all of you — you aren’t suffering alone.
Photo credit: Jennifer Roper Photography