By Kate Kripke, LCSW
Postpartum depression changes you. There is no doubt about it. It can also change your partners, children, extended family and friends. Thankfully and for the most part, these changes are positive ones; although it is certainly difficult to see this side of things when you are smack in the middle of your recovery. But I can say with complete honesty that when moms have received adequate support during their illness, more times than not, women and families leave behind their postpartum mood and anxiety disorders feeling a greater sense of self, more ability to communicate their needs, and more prepared to keep themselves healthy and teach their little ones to do the same. I know that it is hard to hear when you are amidst the suffering, but postpartum depression can create opportunities for growth that women never saw coming.
And then, unfortunately, there are also the times when this is not the case. There are, without doubt, times when a mom’s diagnosis of postpartum depression can be used against her in ways that can create the feeling of entrapment, disgrace, and continued shame. This is what I am writing about today.
Katherine has heard from these moms who are reading her blog, I have worked with these women in my office, and we have all heard about these moms in the media: these are the moms who can’t seem to shake the label of “postpartum depressed” whatever they do. They are judged by partners, family members, friends, and, at times, society as a whole no matter how distant their diagnosis may be. Courts try to use their diagnoses against them in custody battles. Partners at home assume for years that anytime they react emotionally to something they are doing so because they have or had postpartum depression. And family members and friends suddenly hold lesser expectations for success simply because these moms have at one time been unable to perform at their capacities. These women feel like they are taken less seriously. They feel less trusted. Their postpartum depression suddenly defines these moms in a way that does not allow them to be who they truly are outside of the illness that they suffered from.
This can be unbearably frustrating, especially because you and I both know that PPD is an illness that does not define us. It is an illness that is treatable. It is an illness that does not equate to being a “bad” mother, not loving children, or being less of a woman. You and I both know that PPD does NOT mean that we are flawed and only means that our brains, bodies, and identities have shifted because of the inevitable biological, social, and psychological changes that occur with childbirth and becoming a mother. You and I both know that postpartum mood and anxiety disorders are not our fault.
It is important to realize that sometimes your fear of being judged, misunderstood, and misrepresented may be more real than the ways in which your illness is actually being held against you. This fear is a real thing, and almost every woman who suffers postpartum will hold some of this fear at least initially. What if people think less of me? What if people assume that I am a bad mother because I am suffering? What if I completely lose myself? What if I am flawed? Remember, my friends, simply because we think these things are true doesn’t mean that they are, and often it is us who hold these judgments and not necessarily those around us.
So, what do you do if you feel like you are being shoved in a box because of your illness? How can you begin the process of setting yourself free from the labels and judgments that sometimes tag along for years after you recover?
- Keep going to therapy. Keep. Going. To. Therapy. When feeling alone and misunderstood, it is hugely important to have at least one person who understands you, who can help you to see the bigger picture, and who can assist in the process of understanding what is required in order to live the kind of life that is important to you. It is hugely unfair and unrealistic to assume that you should fight the fight all alone.
- Know the facts: Having a postpartum mood or anxiety disorder like postpartum depression is not a reason to take away custody in a court of law. It just isn’t. When in a custody battle a court will take many things into account, and a willingness to identify struggle, seek help, and make the efforts to get well will be one of these things. Having had postpartum depression does not make someone an unfit mother.
- Educate others. I know that this can feel exhausting, but usually people who are holding judgment are not adequately informed. Your partner, family, friends, and community may need some information around the facts, and sometimes you may be the only one who can provide this.
- Remember that reaching out for help when you are struggling is a big whopping strength and NOT a weakness. It takes guts to be vulnerable, admit to your struggles, and trust someone to help you through. This is a brave thing to do and in no way makes you someone who is weak, incapable, or flawed.
- Do your research… if you are struggling and are reaching out for help, do what you can to work with someone who is educated in the unique specifics of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders or who is willing to learn. It is really important that you are able to trust that your therapist is not going to overreact to your struggles, is going to be able to educate you on all of the appropriate facts and is, when appropriate, willing and able to include your partner or other important people in your recovery process. It is challenging to be vulnerable in therapy and important that when you are willing to do so, that you know that you will be treated with respect and perspective.
- Find ways to trust yourself. Yes… finding ways to trust that you are bigger than your illness is imperative in the recovery process. Women who continue to judge themselves, who continue to feel flawed, and who are unable to connect with the strength that comes with having struggled postpartum (no matter how teeny tiny that feeling of strength may be) are more likely to put that out to others. Unintentionally, of course. But if you want others to believe in your capability and strength, you are going to need to believe in it yourself.