One of the little-known facts about postpartum depression is just how common it is. Lots of women experience depression during pregnancy, and many more women have high levels of anxiety. Given the number of product safety warnings and public health announcements encouraging extreme vigilance regarding every parenting decision you make, I think it’d be hard to find a parent in the U.S. who isn’t at least a little anxious. It's important to keep in mind that depression is not simply driven by hormones and it is not purely isolated to brain chemistry.
There are a few things you can do to help manage your emotions during the first year.
I know you’ve heard that you need to 'sleep when the baby sleeps' a million times during your pregnancy. I imagine that it sounded obvious and maybe easy or even condescending. The part you don’t hear about is how this choice might mean forsaking other things you used to do that brought you pleasure. Taking showers, eating a sandwich at a table with both hands, watching TV, sex, all might take a back seat or compete with one another for that precious time when the baby is finally down. The thing is, sleep affects everything else. It takes and making it happen will take new levels of commitment. Letting it creep into daylight hours will mean displacing other sources of joy. Remember that this is temporary and try to occasionally choose one of those other things over sleep because they’re important too – just not as important as they were when you could reliably get all of your REM when the rest of your time zone was also asleep.
Find other new parents
It’s hard. There are lots of things standing in your way (including the above need to focus on rest and meeting basic needs. On the other hand, building your village can provide much-needed support so that meeting those basic needs gets a little bit easier. At the very least, you’ll have other people to commiserate with who can give you a reality check on your latest source of anxiety.
Develop a routine
Chances are, all your routines blew up on Day One with a new baby. Sleep is different, food preparation and eating have changed, showers may have become rare and precious. Lots of new mothers have a tough transition from a life where work schedules provided structure and other people’s expectations provided opportunities for success and encouragement. No matter what life was like before, it definitely changed A.B. (After Baby). After the first couple of weeks, when physical recovery dominates and the focus is largely on establishing feeding and sleeping habits, it can be helpful to add a little structure to your day. Without getting stuck on a timetable, people tend to fare better when there is a loose guideline for the day. Having a sense of when naps typically happen, which ones include you, and what else you want to do during your day (spend time outside, call a friend, do a load of laundry – boring but so crucial to have absorbent materials on hand) gives a little bit of shape to the chaos. As someone who really struggles to create her own structure, I really could have benefitted from asking a Type A friend to give me a schedule during my maternity leave.
Eat food your body needs
A lot of good food takes time and time, as already discussed, is hard to come by. On the other hand, figuring out which healthy foods fit in the middle of the Venn diagram of healthy, fast and tasty will put you on track to feel better throughout maternity leave – and the rest of Baby Year.
Strive for flexibility
Physical flexibility is great and, if you can manage that, go for it. What I’m talking about, though, is emotional elasticity. The sheer number of changes that happen as soon as a baby shows up can be overwhelming. Sometimes there are so many trees that it’s really, really hard to see the forest. There are days when it feels like you will always be changing diapers, that you will never sleep again. The giant emotional paradox of parenthood is that change is built into the system and we often (eventually) feel nostalgia for the phase that feels like hell while we’re in it. Keep one eye on the built-in changes and remember that the hard parts are temporary. Sure, the good parts are too, but that’s what pictures are for, right?
There are situations where all the helpful tips in the world aren’t getting you through. You’ve read the books, listened to your doctor, you’re a well-informed person; you’re doing everything you can and you still feel like you’re in over your head. If that describes you, tell someone close to you. Contact Postpartum Support International, find a local support group, talk to your OB/GYN or pediatrician, make an appointment for counseling. You don’t need to suffer alone.