Postpartum Depression To-Do Lists: Do They Help or Hurt?

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postpartum depression listWarrior Mom Robin Farr of Farewell Stranger shares how when her psychiatrist told her to make a to-do list to help her through her postpartum depression, she wanted to smack her. 

When I was on leave from work last year to deal with the ongoing effects of postpartum depression, I was seeing a psychiatrist I hated. At one of our visits, she suggested making a list for myself of things I needed to do each day, explaining that doing so would help me recover from PPD.

The problem I had with this was that she was suggesting the things on my to-do list should be things like showering. Or eating breakfast. Very basic things.

It was all I could do not to smack her.

I have it together, thank you very much! I’m Type A, dammit! I don’t need to be told to take a shower!

Except I kind of did.

At that time, I wasn’t going to work so I wasn’t getting up and getting dressed every morning like I usually would. My husband was doing all the kid care so I wasn’t going to play dates. If I absolutely had to go out, I pulled on some sweats and a hat and tossed a hoodie over my pajama top.

It’s not that I wasn’t showering at all. It’s just that there was really no impetus for showering at a certain time. Most days, I would still be in some state of undress at 4 p.m. and would hop into the shower around the time my husband started to make dinner.

Even I could see it wasn’t helping me.

So in the end I followed the psychiatrist’s advice and made a list. It was as much to force myself to think about how to help myself feel better as it was to have some things to check off each day. It wasn’t an ambitious list. I decided I would shower before noon every day (see? not ambitious) and get dressed in something other than pajama pants. I knew I needed to get out of the house but wasn’t up for much, so my husband and I agreed that it would be my job to walk the dog. He needs a walk every day and I knew it was my job to do it. That, more than almost anything else, was what really helped me get some perspective (doubly so if I had showered before we went on the walk).

In that original conversation with my psychiatrist, her suggestion to put these sorts of things on a list came across as very condescending. It didn’t acknowledge that underneath the postpartum depression I still was my normal, quite competent self, and I just needed a little prodding to find her again.

What that psychiatrist should have said, in my opinion, was this:

You have the ability to help yourself feel better.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by everything that’s going on, but if you do this it will help you see what you’ve been doing that has not actually been helping you.

It’s okay to want to stay in your pajamas every day. And some days that’s fine. But by making the effort to get dressed, pajamas will start to feel less like the only appealing option.

We all sabotage ourselves sometimes – either a little or a lot. In this situation, make the decision not to do that to yourself.

She didn’t say any of those things to me. Instead, I figured them out myself, but only after getting mad and rebelling a little bit first.

So today I’m saying those things to you. Pajamas are okay. Really, they are. But maybe, just for today, take them off. Pull on your sweats and a hat, and go for a walk.

And then come back and tell me about it.

~ Robin Farr

Photo credit: © Cowpland – Fotolia.com

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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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  1. I TOTALLY get the to-do list thing. The only problem was that it eventually became a crutch for me.

    I actually blogged about my "lists" back in February, if anyone's interested.

    http://kyfirewife.blogspot.com/2012/02/tools-or-o

    • I made lists not to help myself, but because of my OCD. I had to obsessively track EVERYTHING. In that situation, the lists just made me even more "crazy". In the situation Robin speaks of, I can see how even a short, simple and basic checklist could help.

  2. Great post! My therapist told me to "fake it till you make it". Basically telling me to do things like take a shower, get dressed, and look in the mirror and tell myself I'm worth it…ect. When she told me this I totally rolled my eyes. I had to fake enjoying all those things for a long time, but eventually it worked.

    • I hear that A LOT, from a lot of moms who've seen therapists. Sometimes you just have to drag yourself through the day. You don't have to like it; you just have to do it anyway.

  3. Love it! I have just started to truly heal in my own opinion and it has started with reclaiming some of those same basic responsibilities, for me its no tv in the morning until everyone is fed and dressed (2 kids +mom) and i will have dinner started when my husband gets home. So simple but its the start of the new normal for me.

  4. I totally need a list. Today I pulled on yesterday's jeans and put a fleece over my pajama top. That's how I was all day until about 4 p.m. when DH came home. My problem is waking up early enough to shower and dress before having to race out the door to get DS from school. So we have a frenetic morning and I just want to come home and chill. Before I know it, it's noon and my 2 yo and I are still in pj's and we've been watching tv all morning. I hate it! I feel much better when I'm productive.

  5. Brooke Middleton says:

    Great post! I had and continue to have an excellent relationship with my Psychiatrist. He has been there for me through all things. I can relate. My PPD was so bad that we moved in with my parents for seven months. I cannot thank my parents and my husband for the help they provided. My Mother is a true warrior. She slept on the couch with my son in front of her, waking with him and feeding him throughout the night. I was able to help a little more as time went by but I suffered from severe panic attacks, which were setbacks for me. Yes, I too had independent jobs. I gave my son his nightly bathes. I tried to go shopping at Target one night and I got so overwhelmed that I almost did not make it out. We are trying to have another child and PPD is my greatest concern. I appreciate your candidness! My son just turned five and I cannot imagine my life without him. But, sadly, carrying and birthing him took its toll. Medication and talking really help. I enjoy your comments as well as the others. PPD is real. The stigma is starting to lift some but not enough.

  6. I've never been much of a list maker, but really for me this has been a huge help. I think the vast spaces of unscheduled time were a huge precipitating factor in my PPD. I've always been prone to depression, but when I was working and had commitments and a structured day, I was able to control it (although that often meant denying it). But once I was home, I had no external forces keeping me "together." I would tell myself that pajama days were self care or all I could manage, even as my logical brain was telling me it was doing the opposite. What I had to do was have one place every day I had to be, a class I'd paid for or a playgroup I'd RSVPd for, so I had to get dressed and get myself out of my stuck thoughts for a little while.

    • I identify with this as well. Before I had my son, I was working. I had things I had to do. My day was filled up with deadlines and meetings. Then I was at home on maternity leave and it seemed like the day went on FOREVER!!!! I had no idea what to do with my baby or how to fill up the day, and it felt excruciating. ~ K

  7. My experiece with to-do lists has been mixed they have both hindered and helped. At times I would get so bogged down by the list, checking and rechecking that it just increased my anxiety ten fold. Other times when I had, a hard time functioning in my routine a list or a simple schedule helped me from becoming too overwhelmed with simple daily tasks and helped me cope so that I would not be thrown off with something extra added to my routine. Sometimes I was embarased for myself. It felt like I was in preschool but preschools have schedules because they work to bring a sense of order and predictability to the day. On days when I was experiencing a lot of inner turmoil the outward structure of a schedule gave me a small sense of security and control over my day and a place to start moving forward.

  8. Well, your doc suggested something besides pills, and that is pretty remarkable by itself.

  9. My psychiatrist gave me a list, but I actually liked it. I think he was babying me a little, but I felt like I needed that at the time. He told me I needed to get dressed, take a shower, do one chore, take a walk, drink water, and handle the baby for 15 minutes if I felt like I could -I did get a bit obsessive about it, logging everything I did, but it made me feel like I was accomplishing something. Then, once I started feeling better, I just kind of stopped with the lists.

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  1. [...] But I do (of course) have some suggestions for how she might have worded it differently.Come and visit me over there. Comments here closed.  Share with Stumblers Tell a friendPin ItShare [...]

  2. [...] postpartum depression.  I appreciated her gentle (and maybe a bit snarky) consideration of “to-do lists” for people who are living in the middle of postpartum mood struggles.  I think that her [...]