I was overcome with emotion as I spilled an entire pot of soup. Clumsiness and a poorly placed matchbox car were the unfortunate combination that robbed me of serving my first meal cooked successfully since the birth of our fourth baby. Bone broth and chopped vegetables settled into the cracks of my kitchen floor. Giggling toddlers splashed wildly in broth puddles. Failing to realize they were smashing my work and effort, they continued to stomp on heaping quantities of kale and carrots. They squealed joyfully. Relieved from eating vegetables for dinner, they rejoiced.
Normally, neither the spill, the mess, nor the chaos would bother me. Normally, my children’s joy would be enough to make me laugh, or at the very least, crack a smile. Normally, I would not cry or experience tremendous sadness over something that is moderately disappointing at most. Normally, I would not face incredible guilt for failing to properly navigate my emotions. Normally, I would happily discuss my struggle with my husband.
But I no longer felt normal.
Even with flagrant symptoms, admitting that I have postpartum depression (PPD) feels more like making a confession than stating the obvious. With a new baby and so much to be grateful for, admitting emotional turmoil can feel unnecessarily dramatic and selfish. Science clearly demonstrates that the illness is both blameless and its treatment is vital, yet my personal feelings work hard to convince me otherwise. Even with professional experience in psychology, properly navigating my own mental illness can feel hopeless.
Sixteen percent of new moms experience postpartum depression. The course and severity of the illness is different for everyone, and the course of treatment will vary accordingly. Now in the thick of mine, the intensity of the feelings is remarkably confusing. I am easily elated by the presence of my new baby. Simultaneously there is a strange, tangled combination of guilt, anxiety, loneliness, dependency, and isolation. They pile up and swirl around each other creating a burden that is as heavy as it is bewildering. They overwhelm and self implode. Emotional reactions are rarely appropriate, and it is difficult to determine why. Allowing them to dictate behavior is incredibly easy. Simple criticism sticks. As it churns, I get stuck. It is a cycle of sadness, anger, rage, and misplaced guilt. It begins and ends and begins again. It explodes.
Facing such a beast requires care, focus, and help from loved ones and professionals. With proper treatment, though, I do believe there is considerable meaning in the mess and invaluable opportunities to love and be loved.
But the courage to finally say it aloud, to reach out to my husband, and do something about it did not come until weeks after I scored high on the doctor’s new mom’s mental health inventory for depression. Even when my husband asked or approached me with gentleness, I stalled the conversation. Once said aloud, I would have to deal with the reality of the situation. I’d need to carve time out of already busy, sleepless days. So I clung to the unspoken.
I spent much of that day finding my self-worth in the completion of small tasks. The demands of being a new mom—laundry, cleaning, spending individual time with each of my children, and countless other things—piled high. My desire to complete my to-do list robbed me from joy and diminished the dignity of what I was doing. Then, one night just before dinner, I spilled the soup and I decided it was time to talk.
To ensure our marriage is not an unintended casualty, my husband and I now focus on communication. If I find it difficult to identify my feelings, I communicate just that. Although the depression is mine, his expression of feelings cannot get lost in the shuffling of my emotions. So we take turns empathizing and expressing until each of us feels understood. In all of this, the dialogue becomes less about managing an illness and more about finding joy in the opportunity to love vulnerabilities, sadness, and pain. Soon, what begins as a therapeutic exercise becomes a rediscovery of the person I married and myself. It is a chance to revitalize the adventure in building a life as companions.
Honest communication with my husband also serves an important practical purpose when dealing with PPD. In the course of a postpartum day, I find myself managing busy schedules and many other new things. By frequently checking in on my internal thoughts and feeling, I can set more realistic expectations. Potential stressors, such as being alone for too long, are more easily identified and avoided together. Stress relievers like exercise, healthy eating, and quality time are more easily prioritized.
Thoroughly cleaning a mess of magnitude requires many things, especially patience. If chicken soup is involved, I also suggest having access to a generous amount of paper towels. Try also to remember that bottoms of small feet covered in smashed carrots threaten the well-being of clean carpets much faster than one may anticipate.
Most importantly though, it is essential to realize that seeking help from those who love you can transform a wearisome task. If approached with the right supplies and a good attitude, what seems overwhelming becomes much more manageable.
At some point in the process, the sadness begins to untangle. The crescendo of madness quiets. Peace somehow blossoms in what once felt nonsensical and haphazard. I’ve been able to see a certain sort of beauty in experiencing a type of suffering that is uniquely female, so intimately feminine. And I can experience gratitude for the particulars of my own biological process that I often take for granted. It is a process that brings forth a new unique human being made from my own body. If there is anything worth sacrificing for, it is that.