Recovery from postpartum depression is so much easier said from my chair than done. I know this. Each time a mom comes into my office for the first time asking if she will ever get better, I am reminded of this very simple truth: it is easy for me to say yes. And yet, I give the same answer many times throughout the treatment process. “Postpartum mood disorders are absolutely treatable. And suffering moms who reach out, accept support, and follow treatment recommendations by trained professionals do see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
This reassurance always brings hope. For a while. There is some breath again. A smile amidst tears of frustration. And then, after a session or two, these women realize that the work ahead of them is hard. Sometimes, you see, it is almost easier to suffer than it is to think through the pieces that are required for improvement:
Is it ok for me to talk about what I have been feeling? What if this person thinks I am a terrible mother for having these thoughts? Do I take the meds? What do I really need to feel better? Get more sleep? In what reality? Be more thoughtful about what I eat? In what lifetime? Do I really need to revisit the impact that old family conflict or early trauma has had on me now? Where can I find community and how, on earth, do I muster the energy and courage to meet other new moms when I am feeling this way? What are the ways that my marriage or partnership needs work? How can I communicate my needs to others with more clarity? And, truthfully, is it even OK for me to do this? I shouldn’t really even have needs- I SHOULD be able to do this on my own! How can I make time for myself? What would I do with that time if I had it? And, really, who am I anyway? Where did I go? How will I be able to do this mothering thing without a Road Map? What do I want my own mothering to look like? What do I want to incorporate from my own childhood and what do I want to leave behind? Is that even possible or okay? Practice stress management skills? With what time? Change my thought patterns through Cognitive Behavioral strategies? With what energy?
Yes. Without a doubt it can feel easier for these moms to suffer in silence. The road to recovery can feel long, overwhelming, hilly, and complicated. And while making that first call is often the hardest first step, the work that is required to get better can feel like a close second. And then that signature “3 steps forward, 2 steps back” rhythm of recovery can feel like a whammy. Yes, my job in this therapy partnership is most certainly easier.
And so these moms arrive at my psychotherapy office, some early in their postpartum experience and others having suffered for months or years without yet reaching out. And while they wonder if I judge them for their experience and while they worry that I will see them unfit for motherhood, I am always moved by their bravery and their dedication to themselves and their children. They have arrived here and they want to get well. From where I sit, this simple act makes each one of these women absolutely fit for motherhood.
And man, oh man, do I learn from these women! These women are Professors. They are Artists. They are Lawyers. They are Athletes. They are Students. They are Cooks. They are Writers. They are Labor and Delivery Nurses. They are Pediatricians. They are Obstetricians. They are Accountants. They are Managers. They are Gardeners. They are Dedicated Mothers. They are Wives. They are Partners. They are Friends. They are Human. They are Creative. They are Witty. They are Wise. These women are Thinkers. They are Dreamers. They love to Laugh. They often Cry. These women are Bold. They are Brave. And they are Beautiful.
And, yet, each of these women feels about the size of a flea. Or as if she is floating aimlessly. Or that she is worthless in one way or another. And always that she is unable to do this mothering thing as well as everyone else can. Each one of these women feels totally ripped off and caught off guard by her postpartum experience.
“Why can’t I do it like all those other women?,” they ask.
“All those other women have appointments in my office later today,” I answer. Because the truth is that most moms struggle and need support in one way or another, no matter how put together they look on the outside.
What amazes me most about the women I work with is that underneath the chaos of biochemistry imbalance, of relationship strife, of negative thinking patterns, of sleep deprivation and self care deprivation, each one of these women really does know what she needs to be well again. It is hard to access this — I know that this is another one of those easier said than done moments — but I truly believe that the women who I see each day are their own experts. These women know better than anyone what they need to feel whole again. My job is to simply ask the right questions. To begin to help connect the dots. To educate, inform, and explore so that these women can understand the pieces that may be contributing to their emotional vulnerabilities.
And I’ll tell you something. It gets easier for each of them. Over time the “3 steps forward” become 7, and the tears are replaced by laughter. Over time the stories of “good mom moments” far outweigh those that are plagued by guilt. Over time these women stand a bit straighter, look a bit more rested, give themselves a bit more permission to be human. And while the work may have been the most challenging opportunity yet, they are more of themselves for it. They are more whole. And they have a lot more to give to their little ones whether this be energy, patience, presence, or stress reduction skills.
And then there is the day that the women who stick through the hard work walk into my office and declare that they feel they don’t need to come in regularly any more, that they feel ready to take on the rollercoaster ride of motherhood without my regular support. These days are mixed blessings for me. I will miss being a witness on this ride with each of them. And yet the triumph that follows each one of these hard working women out my door for the last time is moving beyond words.
Kate Kripke, LCSW