Women who are pregnant for the first time will likely spend most of their pregnancy learning how to care for their baby. But what about learning how to care for themselves?
There are three words I wish someone had talked to me about while I was pregnant: maternal mental health. Those three words could’ve made an incredible difference in my life when I became a mom.
I wish someone had said, “Your maternal mental health might suffer pre- and post-pregnancy. This is common, and it’s treatable.” No one told me what signs to look for, risk factors, or where to go for professional help.
I was less than prepared when postpartum depression hit me smack in the face the day after I brought my baby home from the hospital. The lack of education I received during pregnancy led me on a scavenger hunt to get the help I needed to get well.
Had I known what postpartum depression actually was, how many women it affects, and how to treat it, I would’ve felt less shame. I would’ve started treatment sooner. And I could’ve been more present with my son during that first year.
Here’s what else I wish I knew about mental health before and after my pregnancy.
Postpartum mood disorders don’t discriminate
When I was eight months pregnant, a close friend who had just had her baby asked me, “Jen, are you worried about any postpartum depression stuff?” I immediately replied, “Of course not. That could never happen to me.”
I was excited to be a mom, married to a wonderful partner, successful at life, and already had tons of help lined up, so I assumed I was in the clear.
I learned very quickly that postpartum depression doesn’t care about any of that. I had all the support in the world, and yet I still got sick.
Postpartum depression doesn’t equal postpartum psychosis
Part of the reason I didn’t believe postpartum depression could happen to me was because I didn’t understand what it was.
I always assumed postpartum depression referred to the moms you see on the news who hurt their babies, and sometimes, themselves. Most of those moms have postpartum psychosis, which is much different. Psychosis is the least common mood disorder, affecting only 1 to 2 out of 1,000 women who give birth.
Treat your mental health the same as your physical health
If you get a high fever and cough, you’d probably see your doctor without thinking. You’d follow your doctor’s instructions without question. Yet when a new mom struggles with her mental health, she often feels ashamed and suffers in silence.
Postpartum mood disorders, such as postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety, are real illnesses that need professional treatment.
They often require medication just like physical illnesses. But many moms perceive having to take medication as a weakness and a declaration that they’ve failed at motherhood.
I wake up every morning and take a combination of two antidepressants without shame. Fighting for my mental health makes me strong. It’s the best way for me to take care of my son.
Ask for help and accept it when it’s offered
Motherhood isn’t meant to be done in isolation. You don’t have to face it alone and you don’t have to feel guilty asking for what you need.
If you have a postpartum mood disorder, you cannot will yourself to get better. I started feeling better the minute I found a therapist who specialized in postpartum mood disorders, but I had to speak up and ask for help.
Also, learn how to say yes. If your partner offers to bathe and rock the baby so you can sleep, say yes. If your sister offers to come over to help with the laundry and dishes, let her. If a friend offers to set up a meal train, say yes. And if your parents want to pay for a baby nurse, postpartum doula, or a few hours of babysitting, accept their offer.
You’re not alone
Five years ago, when I was dealing with postpartum depression, I honestly thought it was just me. I didn’t know anyone personally who had postpartum depression. I never saw it mentioned on social media.
My obstetrician (OB) never brought it up. I thought I was failing at motherhood, something I believed came naturally to every other woman on the planet.
In my head, there was something wrong with me. I didn’t want anything to do with my son, didn’t want to be a mom, and could barely get out of bed or leave the house except for weekly therapy appointments.
The truth is that 1 in 7 new moms are affected by maternal mental health issues every year. I realized I was part of a tribe of thousands of moms who were dealing with the same thing as me. That made a tremendous difference in letting go of the shame I felt.
It’s OK to not be OK
Motherhood will test you in ways nothing else can.
You’re allowed to struggle. You’re allowed to fall apart. You’re allowed to feel like quitting. You’re allowed to not feel your best, and to admit that.
Don’t keep the ugly and messy parts and feelings of motherhood to yourself because every single one of us has them. They don’t make us bad moms.
Be gentle with yourself. Find your people — the ones who always keep it real, but never judge. They’re the ones who’ll support and accept you no matter what.
The clichés are true. You must secure your own oxygen mask before you secure your child’s. You can’t pour from an empty cup. If mom goes down, the whole ship goes down.
All of this is just code for: Your maternal mental health matters. I learned to take care of my mental health the hard way, a lesson forced upon me by an illness I had no clue about. It shouldn’t have to be this way.
Let’s share our stories and keep raising awareness. Prioritizing our maternal mental health before and after baby needs to become the norm — not the exception.
Jen Schwartz is the creator of The Medicated Mommy Blog and founder of MOTHERHOOD | UNDERSTOOD, a social media platform that specifically talks to moms affected by maternal mental health issues — scary stuff like postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, and a ton of other brain chemistry issues that hinder women from feeling like successful moms. Jen is a published author, speaker, thought-leader, and contributor at the TODAY Parenting Team, PopSugar Moms, Motherlucker, The Mighty, Thrive Global, Suburban Misfit Mom, and Mogul. Her writing and commentary has been featured all over the mommy blogosphere at top websites such as Scary Mommy, CafeMom, HuffPost Parents, Hello Giggles, and more. Always a New Yorker first, she lives in Charlotte, NC, with her husband Jason, tiny human Mason, and dog Harry Potter. For more from Jen and MOTHERHOOD-UNDERSTOOD, connect with her on Instagram.