Helpless And Small In the Dark: A Story of Postpartum Depression & Childhood Trauma

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postpartum depression childhood traumaWhen I was about eight or nine years old and my little brother was five or six, my mother threw us out of the house.

I don’t remember many specifics about that night. Only that my mom was falling-down drunk, not an unusual occurrence, and very mad for some reason. It was nighttime, she was drunk and mad, and she kicked us out of the house. Like “Get out! Door slam!” kicked us out.

I think at that point she and my dad were already separated or divorced, and I know he was out that night and nowhere near. So we sat on the front steps and waited, in the twilight, not sure where to go or what to do. Probably crying our eyes out, though I don’t remember for sure.

We lived in New Orleans at the time, in a really bad neighborhood … bad enough that we had iron bars on our windows because we had been robbed more than once. I’m sure we were scared to death sitting out there. There was no such thing as a cell phone back then, and we wouldn’t have known how to contact anyone even if there were.

Among the murky shadows of my memory I recall that someone finally happened by, one of my mother’s friends perhaps. I’m not sure how long it took for them to get in touch with my dad, but he eventually came racing to get us. I’m sure there was much acrimony when he arrived, but again, I don’t remember. The brain has a way of burying these sorts of things.

I don’t know how long we were out there, two children helpless and small in the dark, but it was long enough. A minute was likely an eternity.

One of the risk factors for postpartum depression is early childhood trauma. Sometimes the researchers call it life stress, or past physical or sexual abuse, or adverse life events, but whatever the terminology, you may be more likely to have postpartum depression or anxiety if you had terrible experiences as a child.

As explained on HelpGuide.org, emotional and psychological trauma is:

“… the result of extraordinarily stressful events that shatter your sense of security, making you feel helpless and vulnerable in a dangerous world.

Traumatic experiences often involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves you feeling overwhelmed and alone can be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical harm. It’s not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but your subjective emotional experience of the event. The more frightened and helpless you feel, the more likely you are to be traumatized.”

I recall what it was like to have very little sense of security as a child. I didn’t know at the time, though, that it could potentially lead later in my life to having postpartum depression, or to be more specific in my case postpartum OCD. I didn’t know it was a risk factor. I thought I was completely over everything that had happened to me and had no idea those events could rise up again to haunt me.

It’s important for women to know that their history can truly impact their experience as a mother. So how do you know if you’ve been through something that could be considered traumatic? HelpGuide.org offers a checklist:

  • It happened unexpectedly.
  • You were unprepared for it.
  • You felt powerless to prevent it.
  • It happened repeatedly.
  • Someone was intentionally cruel.
  • It happened in childhood.

In the case of the event I described above, five out of the six characteristics listed were true for me.

If you have suffered childhood trauma of any kind and are planning to have a child, you could consider working through that trauma now with a therapist to start the healing process. I’m not sure that this would prevent postpartum depression, but perhaps it could lessen the severity should it develop. Even if you don’t think you are still affected by what happened, it might be worth at least one discussion with a professional. And if you are suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety or OCD or psychosis or PTSD now, you may want to bring up your background with your healthcare professional. Once you have gotten through the immediate crisis of PPD, later on it may benefit you to do some therapy around your trauma.

For further reference, Trauma Pages is a great resource that will lead you to many other resources on this topic.

 

Photo credit: © Oleg Kozlov – Fotolia

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About Katherine Stone

is the founder & editor of Postpartum Progress. She was named one of the ten most influential mom bloggers of 2011, a WebMD Health Hero and one of the top 25 parent bloggers using social media for social good. She also writes the Fierce Blog, and a parenting column for Disney's Babble.com.

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Comments

  1. Katherine, thank you for this. I do know that childhood trauma factored into my PPD and dealing with that trauma helped with my recovery…however…I needed to be at a certain place of healing with the PPD before I could work on those issues.

  2. I had no idea the logistics behind childhood trauma. This brings many things to light!

  3. Thank you so much for sharing this Katherine! I grew up in a home where you had to walk on eggshells for fear of my Dad's explosive anger. Anything I or we did was never good enough in his eyes which I am certain led to my undying need to be perfect and chronic low self-esteem. Also we were never allowed to express our feelings effectively which can be another reason why I am unable to deal with all of these emotions I am experiencing with PPD.
    Such an important topic!!

  4. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    Thanks Kimberly. It IS an important topic. The truth is that PPD is not only a "chemical" issue as many like to say. A person's history can play a big factor, which is why I think therapy is important for those of us who've been through trauma either as children or adults.

  5. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I had never really seen it described in the way it was on HelpGuide.org. They made it very simple to understand, and helped to open my eyes as well.

  6. Christina says:

    I wish I had known this before I had kids. I too had a childhood like this and inspite of years of therapy suffered a severe PPOCD/PPD. It was hell. Thanks, though Kat Stone!

  7. Katherine Stone/Post says:

    I hear what you are saying. It's definitely important to get treatment for the current crisis of PPD (if you are in the midst of suffering) before you can begin to delve into the deep work of childhood traumna. You have to be able to function and be a mother first, and can work on that other stuff later. I just wanted people to know that it's a factor.

  8. The Muser says:

    Thanks so much for sharing this. It's so important–I had done a lot of work on my trauma and was totally shocked at how it overwhelmed me after I had my little one. I've recently loved Dan Siegel's book _Parenting from the Inside Out_. He's a neurologist and child psychiatrist at Berkely and does research on how the brain is shaped by childhood experiences and parenting styles and then, in turn, how that affects what happens we become parents. It's not super easy to wade through for the lay-reader, but I have no background in neurology and still found that it made sense and was so so so helpful. He has lots of tips for parents on how to work through and recognize how old traumas are shaping our parenting.

  9. Thanks for sharing this, Katherine. There were many similar moments for me in childhood…though without siblings who lived with me, I felt very alone in dealing with my traumatic childhood.
    When I consider all of this I try to focus on the BOTH, AND of it. My difficult and abusive childhood certainly both played a part in my developing PPD/PPA and allowed me to keep strong and faithful (as I had in childhood despite enduring years and years of trauma) through my horrible postpartum experience.
    The other piece that is not discussed much is how not only does the trauma impact you, but how becoming a mother when your mother was abusive or alcoholic or addicted or neglectful, etc. can cause A LOT of anxiety. Not having a proper mentor or a positive mothering experience to pull from can leave a new mom feeling helpless, anxious and especially scared that she will become like her mother…adding real substance mentally to her already irrational fears that SHE isn't able to care for her child. It's a vicious cycle of guilt, pain from the past being drudged up and overwhelming fear. What an awesome ministry it would be to work with women specifically dealing with this issue. There's always more work to be done, huh?

  10. Wow. Another factor in my story. thanks for this article. I had not processed or dealth with my childhood moments. I had buried them inside, or “forgotten them on purpose”. After having a baby, my past and present collided with their own unique issues, yet deeply intertwined. Your article links thinks I denied were connected. thus preventing healing and continuing problems for my babys young life into kindergarten. So glad I am getting help, but this article hit deep for me too. Thanks for writing!

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