By Megan Stonelake of Empathic Parenting
When I ask women what they know about postpartum depression, they usually recall hearing a catastrophic story of a woman in crisis harming herself or her baby. These horrific stories seem to be the only discussion about postpartum depression many of us will encounter. And tragic as they are, they don’t tell the whole tale. Postpartum depression (PPD) still holds a stigma, and it’s woefully misunderstood. PPD isn’t limited by race, class, or ethnicity. It can impact any new parent, and it isn’t indicative of failure or a personal shortcoming. It doesn’t mean a woman doesn’t love her baby, and it doesn’t mean she isn’t a good mom. Here are four myths about PPD I often see in my counseling practice.
Myth: It will get better on its own.
Fact: Without treatment, postpartum depression can become chronic.
Many women experiencing postpartum depression choose to wait it out, hoping that the symptoms will eventually dissipate. Sadly, according to Postpartum Progress, this may not be the case: “If you ignore PPD it could end up turning into chronic major depression for the rest of your life. It also has the potential to affect your child’s cognitive and behavioral development and his or her future mental health. This is why it is not a good idea to try and wait until PPD goes away on its own.” With so many resources available, there’s no reason to wait to seek help.
Myth: I’m struggling, but since I’m not sad, I must not have postpartum depression.
Fact: It’s not that simple.
Technically, this might be true. Without pervasive feelings of sadness, a woman might not be experiencing postpartum depression. However, with many women, depression with postpartum onset is characterized by rage, not sadness. Moms with PPD might find that they feel uncontrollable anger towards their partner, baby, or older children.
Another possibility is that while a mother isn’t experiencing depression, she is exhibiting features of postpartum anxiety. Postpartum anxiety often manifests with symptoms similar to obsessive compulsive disorder: obsessive thoughts, checking the baby or items around the house to an extent that it impacts daily functioning, or intrusive worries that make it difficult to leave the house. Postpartum anxiety is relatively common and is rarely discussed to the same extent as postpartum depression. For this reason, many professionals use the more inclusive term, “perinatal mood and anxiety disorders,” to describe anxiety and depression during pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Myth: I have scary thoughts about hurting my baby, so it must be postpartum psychosis.
Fact: Intrusive thoughts are more indicative of anxiety than psychosis.
Intrusive thoughts are the scary thoughts some women have about harm coming to their baby, and they are a common feature of postpartum anxiety. Some mamas have thoughts of smothering, dropping, or hitting their babies. Mamas even report fearing that they might sexually abuse their babies. However, they also express horror about these thoughts and are so afraid of acting on them that they will go to great lengths to avoid situations in which something unsafe might occur. Thoughts aren’t the same as action, and just because a mother fears she will hurt her baby doesn’t mean she is even mildly capable of doing so. As Karen Klienmen points out in her book Dropping the Baby & Other Scary Thoughts, “your anxiety is an indication that you are aware of the difference between right and wrong.”
Postpartum psychosis is a psychiatric emergency. Mamas with postpartum psychosis may feel as though they don’t need sleep. They might also think someone is trying to hurt them, possibly even their babies. They don’t experience the same horror at the thought of harming their babies because they temporarily lack the capacity to recognize right from wrong and may feel they are being directed to hurt themselves or their families. Women with postpartum psychosis require immediate assistance to avoid harming themselves or someone else, but it is possible to make a full recovery.
Myth: If I ask for help, I’m going to lose my baby.
Fact: If you are experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder, it’s important to ask for help.
A clinician who is familiar with the signs and symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders will not be alarmed by your intrusive thoughts, anger, or sadness. A knowledgeable practitioner will collaborate with you to create a treatment plan to help you recover. If you aren’t clear about the resources in your area, this is a great place to start. You aren’t alone, and with help you will get better.
This post was originally published on Empathic Parenting.
About the Author
Megan Stonelake is a therapist, blogger, and mama. Her fascinations include child development, empathy, and all things parenting. Head over to her blog, Empathic Parenting, where you can sign up for her newsletter to receive tips and musings on peaceful parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.