PPD & Immigrant Life: When Your Village Is Far Away

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from an immigrant Warrior Mom from Pakistan. A practicing Muslim, her family doesn’t discuss mental health, so she struggled to make sense of what was happening after her baby was born. -Jenna]

PPD & Immigrant Life: When Your Village Is Far Away

It does not give you a warning, it does not hold back any punches, and it definitely does not allow for clear thinking. For me postpartum depression was the most excruciating, humiliating, and traumatic experience of my life so far, thankfully. I have nothing else to compare it to, for which I am constantly grateful.

I had a worry free pregnancy. I worked until the day my water broke, albeit a little before my due date. I thought I was fairly prepared and could handle this baby birthing thing. Sure, I had a natural fear of the pain and anguish involved, but I was clear in my head that I would plow through it and all will be well.

I had done my share of extensive research on pregnancy, healthy eating, development milestones, and so on, and my bedside table was piled high with books with titles like working mother’s pregnancy guide and such. When I think back on those days, I realize that all those books didn’t have a lot of information on postpartum depression; they did not seem to red flag it. Even my OBGYN didn’t feel the need to fill me in.

Perhaps I was just unlucky.

I had a painfully long, induced labor, but my son was born after only four pushes, and then, it was done. He was healthy, and I was in a daze of happiness, elation, and perhaps relief. In the recovery room, a lot of information is thrown at you in a short span of time, and you are expected to absorb it, and leave in a day to start the most important journey of your life.

For me it meant I reached home and the panic hit me. I remember looking at my tiny tiny baby and wondering, what now? My husband on the other hand seemed to be happy and excited, not panicky at all.

From that moment on, I lost the ability to sleep and eat and as a result to think straight. I would meticulously feed him, note down the exact minutes and seconds he fed, how much he spit out and how much he slept. I would panic each time he would latch on and off, worrying if he was getting anything.

I would not sleep even when he would sleep because I had to keep an eye on him. I had to wake him up every other hour to feed him just in case he was hungry. I could not leave his side, and on top of it all, I could not eat. Not one bite.

I would keep asking my husband why the baby was sleeping too much and if I should wake him up. His pediatrician recognized on our first well visit that I was definitely not okay even though the baby was thriving perfectly. She told me I needed to relax and seek help.

Of course I did not do those things since in my culture. I am from Pakistan and a Muslim by faith. Women are taught sometimes consciously and mostly unconsciously that mental health issues are trivial pursuits and even taboo topics; you just bear your burden as best you can and carry on. We’re also taught that motherhood is the most natural thing in the world, so you are somehow hardwired to excel at it, with no setbacks.

I come from a fairly liberal background and studied law not only in Pakistan but also in the United Kingdom as well. I worked in a law firm for a few years, so I was not really subject to most of these cultural nuances, but I did grow up in that society and some things just latch on to you.

My husband finally did some research and diagnosed me with postpartum depression and tried to be understanding, most of the time. It was rough for him to see me melt into this puddle of confusion and incoherence. I always had my shit together, always. But now my thoughts and fears were paralyzing me.

However on my husband’s coaxing, I did try calling a helpline once or twice and was told of resources I could turn to (reading materials and maybe therapy if my insurance covered it) once they determined that I was not suicidal. I was not suicidal; I was just not myself.

The thought of navigating the internet for resources or finding a therapist covered by my insurance seemed like insurmountable tasks. I was just so tired, too tired to think. I could not remember how to make my go-to recipes. I could not watch TV. I just just did not know how to navigate through this fog.

I finally went to my OBGYN and asked her for anything to clear my head while in tears. She on the other hand told me I needed to hand the baby to my husband, sip a glass of wine, and just sleep for a few hours (forgetting that I was a practicing Muslim and could not have alcohol). That all made sense, but it felt like she was trivializing a disorder I so clearly had.

By this time my mother in law was with us looking after the baby, so my doctor suggested I should be grateful that I had help which she never had and I should snap out of it. That conversation made me feel even worse since now I was acutely aware of the fact that perhaps I was inviting God’s wrath by not being grateful and pulling myself together. But I had no idea how to get out of the haze that seemed to follow me everywhere.

My mind has always been my strength. I talk myself out of stressful situations. I enjoyed reading. I enjoyed cooking, but now I was incapable of seeing any silver lining, any sunshine, and it was killing me from the inside.

I come from a culture where depression or any sort of mental issues are not discussed or even acknowledged, at least for my mother’s generation. She would call (from Pakistan), and I would cry and she did not understand why, saying time and time again that as long as my baby was well, there was no reason to feel this way. But I had no choice in the matter. I tried to make her see that I was trying to find a way out, that I could not help how I was feeling, but to her it just seemed I was over reacting and just thinking too much and perhaps this state of mind was somehow a western phenomenon.

She even suggested that people had babies all the time and they all turn out okay and it should all come naturally to me. At some point the people around me, mostly family, started to blame breastfeeding for my state of being, thinking and suggesting out loud that formula feeding would solve the issue. I knew it would not.

In our culture, a woman is expected to receive 40 days of absolute rest and pampering after child birth. During this time, she is fed certain foods known to heal the body (and perhaps the mind, unknowingly) and is surrounded by family members who offer all kinds of advice and practical tips for taking care of the new baby.

I did have my mother-in-law living with us who tried to help in every way she could despite the fact that she had never heard of postpartum depression, so her help tended to constitute of constantly suggesting formula as opposed to nursing so I could get some rest and sleep. I know it must have been very hard for her seeing me in such a state and not having a clue as to how she could help.

It truly does take a village and being an immigrant in a foreign country meant my village was very very far.

I want to mention here that the constant portrayal of a “perfect” new mother with a sparkling house, a smiling baby and manicured nails in the media does not help an average new mother, not one bit. We end up feeling unnecessary pressures and focusing on all the imperfections around us and in us instead of using that time to bond with our precious babies.

I chugged along in a haze of anxiety trying to hide my fears, dismissing them as irrational and crying all the time praying to God to help me feel better. I so desperately wanted to be happy and not be plagued by dark thoughts. I resorted to simply not discussing myself every time my mother called. I would hide from my mother in law and cry my eyes out. In a way I felt sad that I had to hide this way from the women closest to me just so I would not have to explain what I had no idea how to explain.

Fast forward to about three months later, my fog cleared (somewhat) in the most bizarre way. I was struggling to get in touch with the state disability office while battling engorged painful breasts by heating up a pad to place over them. I was literally in tears of exhaustion standing by the ironing board.

I lifted the iron while holding the phone in my other hand and instead of placing the phone on my ear, I almost put the iron on my cheek. I stopped in time but just about. Somehow this jolted me in a way I did not expect. Coupled with the fact that my maternity leave was ending and I had to get back to work, my mind set shifted, perhaps the hormones balanced out, or I just got lucky.

I did struggle (still do) with balancing work, pumping, nursing and a baby (notice how I did not even count a house or my husband). Now I tell my story every chance I get. I am not ashamed or embarrassed one bit. Every woman needs to know about this crippling phase, just so she doesn’t feel punched in the stomach when a baby doesn’t come with rainbows and unicorns.

To all those who suffered and are suffering, please know that this foggy version of you is NOT you. Reach out to everyone and anyone, speak about it, discuss it and know that there is help and just take each day one day at a time.

~Jehanara Haider

Get Nosy: Be Direct When Asking Moms If They Have Postpartum Depression

[Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post comes from a Warrior Mom who wants us to be more direct when we’re talking to new moms about postpartum depression. Her points are very valid and very helpful. -Jenna]

Get Nosy: Be Direct When Asking Moms if They Have Postpartum Depression

Today I’m giving you permission to be intrusive.

There’s such a stigma around postpartum depression and mental health issues that people won’t even ask about it directly. We have no problem asking someone for an update on their back pain, if they have a cold when they sneeze, or encouraging them to see a doctor when sick. Why aren’t we the same way with mental health?

My challenge to you

Ask people directly. Don’t take a “step back” to let them “get settled with the baby” unless told to. Don’t beat around it by making a joke—all you will get is a nervous laugh and mistrust in return.

Here are just some of the examples of hints and jokes about mental health said to me between M’s birth and diagnosis.

“Wow, a house, baby, marriage, new job…aren’t those all at the top of some checklist of mental health stressors?”

“That’s a lot of change! Those things are all on those mental health inventories!”

“Are you feeling back to normal?”

“If you don’t feel like yourself in a couple weeks, you need to tell me.”

“It’s just the baby blues. You’ll get over it.”

None of these directly address postpartum depression or other postpartum disorders. Nor are they directly asked if I am experiencing it.

Not being asked directly made it easier for me to hide in my shame and delay getting help.

I’m sure some of you are thinking right now that as a mature, responsible adult, I’m responsible for advocating for my own needs. You are right—to an extent.

However, some people experiencing depression are not capable of self-advocacy. It’s just part of the sickness. Besides, with all the pressure to be perfect, what new mom wants to admit they don’t have it all together?!

To all the folks who may be feeling guilty for not saying anything or recognizing a loved one needed help, it’s okay. What new moms need is different for everyone, and everyone has their own way of giving support. I’m just saying next time, ask directly about postpartum depression. Here are some examples:

“It’s quite common for moms to continue to feel down, depressed, anxious, or just not themselves after giving birth. Do you feel this way?”

“Are you experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression?”

“Lately I’ve noticed *insert behavior here*. Do you feel like you might be experiencing a change in your mental health?”

Finally, when someone does disclose to you, make them feel affirmed, loved, and help them find help.

~Cassie Walizer

When Postpartum Depression Looks Like Lazy

When Postpartum Depression Looks Like Lazy

My husband and I were both 35 years old, barely married one year, when our first son was born. Mark and I were much alike, having spent our lives beginning at age 14 working part time and then full time.

When we met, I not only held a full time position as a medical underwriter, but also volunteered weekends at a childrens’ hospital. He was always mid-project in something and it was this that drew us together, our mutual drive and satisfaction from living full to the brim lives.

Our first son, Alec, was born 11 months after we married. We had made the decision for me to stay home with him, and I felt excited about how much I would be able to do without having to go in to work. My bucket list as a stay at home parent grew to include volunteering, auditing college classes, reviving forgotten hobbies, and home-remodeling.

My numbered activities filled three pages of a notebook. I knew what our lives would be like. Alec would be lovingly placed into a front-carrier and be part of this new season. I could not wait to get started.

I entered into labor at 31 and a half weeks. After one month of bed rest in a high-risk pregnancy unit, Alec was born. He spent one week in NICU, but after five weeks total in a hospital, counting my bed rest, I wanted nothing more than to be home, with my sleeves rolled up and ready to be upright, out of bed, and jumping back into life.

It wasn’t even two weeks into being a new stay at home parent that things felt off. My usual burst of energy to get my day started in the mornings had vanished. Though I felt physically spent and my body so tired, my mind kept me up, never quieting down enough for me to fall into sleep. My days blurred into nights and the only thing to break the a.m. from the p.m. was me brushing my teeth.

What was happening to me? The person I once was—involved in community events, exercise classes, and meeting with friends—had disappeared. The thought of moving my body from one side of the room to another involved me spending five minutes of gathering myself together for the walk across the room. Once I arrived into the kitchen or the bedroom or where ever it was I was headed, I fell into a collapsed heap, and then again beginning to mentally prepare for the next steps I’d need.

We were late into the game of starting a family, and my husband and I were thrilled to have a son less than a year after we married, so the way I felt was bewildering. I would hold Alec in my arms, and see that we had our hopes right here in the flesh, but I could not gather myself together to do the things I wanted to do. I would stare at the baskets of laundry, unable to even consider folding the clothes it held or even pick up Alec’s nursery.

You would think I’d be bubbling over with the energy of our new married lives together, at beginning this whirlwind journey of parenting. But I had no joy in me and more than that, I had no drive to accomplish anything. I couldn’t describe it to anyone, it was much more than fatigue and lack of want.

I would spend the day with Alec and my husband would come home to find me in the same way as he had left me in when he had gone for the day. Still in my pajamas that became my clothes that went back to pajamas for days in a row. One day he walked into our second floor flat and his words fell out of his mouth before he could stop them, “You didn’t even bring the mail in?” I sat stunned, because I couldn’t disagree. What I heard, was “lazy.” And I didn’t blame him; it looked that way to me, too.

But what I felt and what he couldn’t see, was the pain from being judged with that behavior. I wasn’t lazy; he knew me better than that. It hurt me that it looked so much like that to him. But it wasn’t a giving in that was happening to me. What I had felt like inability. I couldn’t will my body to move.

It wasn’t just my arms and legs that felt heavy, it was my mind, too. A combination of not yet diagnosed postpartum depression and anxiety that I had no idea had taken over my body. My heart broke when I saw him exasperated with what our lives had become. I wanted this no more than he did. On top of feeling my own disappointment, I felt his. Never had I felt more exposed and vulnerable. I had no context to place this new me in; I had never known myself as other than industrious and always contributing.

“You didn’t even bring the mail in?”

We both heard his words and they hung in the air. I sat with Alec sleeping in my arms and tears pricked my eyes. I had grown up hearing the merits of work and drive, and to be judged as lazy made my heart sink inside my chest. I was embarrassed, believing the same scenario that he was witnessing. I tried to explain how I was tired, wired, overwhelmed. I wanted to do things, but my motivation had vanished.

I thought I knew what having a baby would be like. I was positive that being at home meant time to do everything I wanted to. I never counted on the heavy cloak of postpartum depression and the paralysis of anxiety. I wasn’t prepared for this new state I found myself in. I was being seen as lazy, and without understanding anymore on my own, it looked as much like a lack of discipline as it appeared to be.

I see now how there is no way that I could have anticipated or prepared myself for the road ahead of caring for a newborn while living with postpartum depression.

In the months following Alec’s birth, I did see how I had to seek my doctor’s help. With professional attention and a mental health therapist, I realized how little I knew about depression and its physical toll on a body. I wasn’t lazy, my body just could not find the life it needed without outside help.

I was not lazy, though outward appearances would bring on that judgment. How many would have looked at me and seen apathy and not the depression that was at the root of my days? How many never consider inaction as something else and label it inaccurately as lack of self-discipline? Depression and anxiety are much more complicated than we see on the surface.

Had I failed? Was I a failure as a new mother? With my therapist’s help, I began to fully understand my body’s response to postpartum depression and the taxing nature of anxiety. As I removed myself from the equation of “lazy,” I found my voice and was better able to find patience for myself as I worked toward my recovery.

With my husband along with my therapist, we worked toward a strategy to get me back. The assumption of lazy, such a go-to when we see someone doing nothing, disappeared and was replaced with the knowledge of my PPD and symptoms.

In the midst of tension and adjustment of being newly married, newly parented, and newly diagnosed, my husband and I came together. With his understanding and a new compassion I had for myself, I began to find joy in doing things like I used to.

I began cooking again, something I always looked forward to before Alec was born. Preparing meals in my kitchen helped me feel like the old me. As my PPD improved, and I felt more energy, I joined a moms diaper club group and we went along on baby and me field trips. I signed up for mommy and me exercise class and some afternoons, we took walks that once in awhile stretched on into beyond an hour. I had found my energy again!

The weight of my postpartum days stays in my memory. It keeps me reaching out to new mothers so that they also find hope and patience for who they are and where they are, during this challenging and frightening time of life.

My shoulders once felt the weight of postpartum depression and anxiety. With my medical help and therapy, my shoulders grew stronger. My weekly sessions became like lifting weights, both figuratively and physically, as I grew stronger in my understanding for what my body was working to heal.

I still struggle with depression, stumbling as I go, but now, I recognize that when low energy hits, I am not lazy. There is something I have to investigate and so I do. I monitor myself and see my doctor. I take note of what makes me feel better, and what is depleting me.

I only know one way to live now, and that’s with awareness and appreciation for the messages my body sends me. If I start to feel myself struggle with tasks that once were just a part of daily life, I take a closer look. I have trained myself to reach out for help, because I know now how to be kind to myself, to find empathy, and to throw labels out the window, especially ones that call out “lazy.”

PPD, Anxiety, & PTSD as the World Falls Apart

PPD, Anxiety, & PTSD as the World Falls Apart

I couldn’t leave the house yesterday.

That’s really hard to admit. I’m a Warrior Mom® Ambassador. I run the Facebook group for our Warrior Mom® Conference attendees. I lead a support group. I help coach women through pregnancies after a PMAD. I am the strong one, the one you count on, the one with the resources and the answers and the shoulder to cry on.

I’m also a black woman, mother to a black son, daughter to a black father, sister, friend, cousin, aunt. I grew up hearing stories of my father registering people to vote across the South. They were stories of terror in broad daylight and nights spent driving with no headlights on. I grew up on the narrative that my parents, and their parents, and everyone who made me possible had paid a debt so that I could be free, so that I could be safe in this country.

Last year I was followed and harassed by a police officer here in my home town. I was pregnant with my second child at the time and had just made it to what I considered my new normal after battling postpartum depression and anxiety. I didn’t know then that I also had PTSD. All I knew was that I was vomiting, sobbing, and shaking in a parking lot and praising the lord that I was alive.

My daughter is eight months old. I’ve been so lucky to not experience any major relapses in my postpartum depression or anxiety and to have my PTSD under control. I see a therapist every week. I take my medication every day. I practice self-care and I reach out for help when I need it.

I have so many privileges: financial, educational, heterosexual, light skin, in a relationship with a white partner. And still. I’ve spent the last two nights unable to sleep. First because I couldn’t get the voice a four year old girl trying to comfort her mother out of my head. Then last night it really felt like the world was falling apart.

As I write this we still don’t have details on the sniper(s) in Dallas. I know that one is dead and the others are in custody. The officers who killed Alton Sterling and Philando Castile are both on paid administrative leave. They haven’t been arrested. I have no reason to believe there will be any arrests, convictions, or any type of punishment at all for the deaths of those men. Or for the murders of scores of boys and girls, men and women of color before them. Or for me if an officer decides to take my tone of voice, my reaching for my license, my skin color as a threat.

When I say #BlackLivesMatter, it is in desperation and defiance. I say it because I see no evidence that it is believed to be true in this country. I say it because after everything my father went through, after everything his father, and his, and his went through so that I could live free I still don’t feel safe.

I know that I am more fragile than I seem from the outside. We all know that you can’t see postpartum depression or anxiety. You can’t see PTSD. When the panic attacks came at the thought of leaving the house and taking my son to camp, I had a choice to make. I chose to be honest with my partner about how I was feeling. I chose to reach out to my therapist and let her know I was not okay. I chose to keep my kids home with me, where I feel safe. We watched Disney movies and played with the baby, and dumped way too much bubble bath into the tub. I jumped at every sound and shook when sirens passed my house. I touched base with my relatives and made sure that I knew they were all safe. I tried my best not to get sucked into debates online.

This morning I left the house. I drove my son to camp. When I got home I fell apart. Then I put myself back together and sat down to start work.

I want to be the strong one. The one with the answers, and the resources and the shoulder to cry on. I want to be an ambassador, and a moderator, and a coach. I want to be the strong black woman that I am expected to be.

But I’m not. I’m scared. I’m scared that I will never feel free. I’m scared that someone I love will be the next hashtag. I’m scared that I will be the next hashtag. I’m scared that I will forever be shouting #BlackLivesMatter into the world and it will never, ever be true.