Everyone expects a few tears after the birth of a baby. First come the tears of joy as parents gaze in amazement at their new creation. Then come the occasional tears of frustration born from the constant demands of a newborn.
But when a new mom’s tears don’t stop – or if they begin weeks or even months after the birth – she and the people around her can descend into a cycle of stress and hopelessness.
“When I found myself crying 24 hours a day, I knew something was wrong, but I didn’t know what,” says CarolJoy, mother of a four-year-old now expecting her second child. “We ended up seeing a marriage counselor who said, ‘I can’t help you with your marriage until you get help with your depression’ .
”Adds Tom, whose wife, Cheryl, experienced severe emotional problems after the birth of their first son, “I asked her one night, ‘What’s the matter?’ She collapsed to the floor, crying. She said, ‘I don’t know’. And we didn’t know what the next step should be. We had that helpless feeling.”
Like many new mothers, CarolJoy and Cheryl were gripped by postpartum depression (PPD), which can range from the baby blues to full-blown psychosis.
“Childbirth is a major life transition and brings on a new range of feelings, thoughts and behaviours. Often, new moms don’t expect to have thoughts and feelings which don’t fit with their expectations and that can cause problems,” notes Honey Watts, executive director of Calgary’s Parent Development Centre, which provides information and support to families experiencing PPD.
The most common form is the baby blues, which is hormonal in nature and occurs within a few days of the birth. Characterized by crying, irritability, anger and exhaustion, the blues affect up to 80% of new moms, but they come and go quickly. Depression, which affects 20-24 percent of new moms, is more long term and can bring on hopelessness, guilt, insomnia, feelings of inadequacy, mood swings and even thoughts of suicide. The most severe manifestation, post partum psychosis, affects one in 1,000 women, causing hallucinations, mania and a loss of touch with reality. Hospitalization and medication are required to safeguard the lives of both mother and child.
Whatever form PPD takes, its most common trigger is changes in hormone levels. And it’s not selective in whom it affects. Young mom or older, wealthy or not, educated or uneducated, any woman can find herself struggling.
While PPD is not always predictable, there are some risk factors, notes Dr. Janet Wright, a Calgary psychiatrist. “One is a history of resolved or unresolved depression in yourself, or a family history of depression. Another is having some depressive symptoms during pregnancy. And there is a whole series of other things, such as a difficult pregnancy or delivery, having something wrong with the baby, marital difficulties or lack of support.”
The most vital step to recovery is to get help. “If the mother isn’t in a position to reach out, then someone around her hopefully is,” says Honey. “Whether it’s the husband or partner, a grandmother, a friend, or whoever, the mother needs support and perhaps medical treatment if life is going to get back to normal.” Adds Cheryl, who is now recovered, “The day came when I said, ‘I can’t feel like this anymore’. I can’t feel hopeless and scared and anxious.
Cheryl and Tom, like some 350 other families a year, called the Parent Development Centre, which offers a wealth of services for families struggling with PPD. These include telephone support, weekly support groups, informational couples nights and a lending library, all of which can augment treatment provided by a physician, who can help the family determine if anti-depressant medication is necessary. The Centre is staffed by knowledgeable, caring professionals, as well as volunteers like Cheryl and Carol Joy who have experienced PPD and received extensive training to help others cope.
More help is available via the Centre’s latest project, a video entitled Heartache and Hope: living through postpartum depression. Designed for both families and professionals, this 26-minute video shares the experience of five couples who survived PPD. Through their candid, stark and sometimes humourous reflections, these real-life stories focus on the signs and symptoms of PPD, everyday coping skills and the importance of support for mothers, particularly from their partners.
The ultimate message of the video – and the Parent Development Centre’s philosophy – is that while no family expects to experience PPD, it is treatable, survivable and finite. With the right combination of support and care, mothers and fathers can recapture the joys of parenting.
Calgary’s Child Magazine © 2023 Calgary’s Child