When I had postpartum depression (PPD) at the end of 2006, I wasn't prepared for all the ways my life would change. As if having a baby and becoming a new mom weren't already hard enough, I had this storm cloud hovering over me. It was dark, cold, and isolating. Plus, people didn't know what to do or say, so I felt like something was wrong with me; something I should be ashamed and embarrassed about. It's not really anyone's fault, really, because most people don't know the basic rules for talking to someone with PPD. Still, if they had, I think I would have asked for help a lot soon or, at the very least, felt understood.
My postpartum depression was gradual. It snuck into my life as a new mom and ate away at all the promises I had made my baby girl (and myself). For awhile I thought if I just persevered it'd go away and I'd somehow get better on my own. I've battled bouts of anxiety and depression since I was a child, and I've overcome those periods so many times, so I didn't see how this would be any different. I was so, so wrong. Not only is PPD something I had no control over, it changed who I was as a mother, partner, and woman. The old me became unrecognizable in so many ways, and I started to wonder if I'd ever regain the pieces of myself postpartum depression was taking away from me.
Months later and as my postpartum depression raged on, it became clear I needed help. Not only was it not going away, but I started to have unwelcoming thoughts about how much life would be better for my daughter if I weren't here anymore. My gynecologist was kind and compassionate enough to guide me towards the help I needed (something I'll never forget), and while it took some time to find my footing, I eventually did. Once I was out of that darkness, the guilt overwhelmed me. How could I be so lost for so long? How could I let something fracture the bond I could've had with my new baby?
Unfortunately, I only realized these answers after treating the PPD. It was a long, painful journey but, in the end, I'm still here. Throughout that journey and during the process of navigating PPD, I was surrounded by people who didn't seem to know how to acknowledge this volatile disorder, let alone understand it. With that, here are some basic rules for talking to someone with PPD. They may make all the difference in someone's dark world.
Start By Saying "I'm Here For You"
It sounds simple, but having been on the receiving end of this sentiment, it's actually difficult to get just right. When I first started showing signs of PPD, my partner was there for me. In fact, my mom was, too. I knew this, logically, but the words weren't actually said until I sought treatment.
When you tell a new mom suffering through PPD that you're there for her, early and often (and following through with action), you're showing her that you mean what you say, you care, and you're not going anywhere.
Acknowledge Without Criticism
For those who've never been through PPD, it can seem illogical and even dramatic. However, if you want to be there for a mother suffering, refrain from diminishing her thoughts or feelings. Don't be condescending or assume you know exactly what she's going through (because every woman is different), and try not to make her feel as though whatever she feels (however dangerous it sounds) is wrong. PPD is a disorder that requires medical intervention. If something you say makes her feel more guilty or more unworthy of motherhood, you'll only contribute to a longer recovery time (and might even make things worse).
When I went through postpartum depression, I had people who didn't understand criticize the way I parented. I was already struggling to stay alive and, still, there was always someone ready to pounce at my smallest missteps or mistakes. Parenting is hard enough without PPD, so please be sympathetic to those hurting.
Listen Without Offering Advice (Unless Asked)
When a new mom is venting or crying from the frustrations that come with being a new, exhausted parent (especially while enduring PPD), hold off on offering advice unless you're explicitly asked. Oftentimes we're quick to give a possible solution, when all the person really wants is someone to hear them and acknowledge they've been heard.
For me, I didn't want anyone to tell me ways to feel better. Honestly, I had already tried every suggestion given to me and not a single thing had worked (until I started therapy and medication). I didn't want to hear about breathing exercises or meditation or prayer. I honestly just wanted another human to look me in the eye and listen to me. I wanted someone to validate my feelings, so I didn't feel so damn alone.
Respect Boundaries But Make Your Support Known
My time as a new mother in a depression was spent in isolation. I liked, and preferred, my space and didn't want people constantly surrounding me while I learned how to mother my new baby. That doesn't mean I wanted to be left alone completely, though. It's a fine line, to be sure, but when I needed space I also needed the reassurance that I had the support of others if and when I needed it.
Don't Diminish Her Pain With A Comparison
I get that a lot of other mothers have been through PPD, and some of those mothers might assume sharing their own stories would make a new mother feel better. It might for some, but I didn't want to hear any of that. If anything, it felt like my pain wasn't worthy enough to be discussed. Yes, this disorder consumes every last bit of rationale. Comparing PPD tales does little to put someone like me on the path to recovery, only because I'm too involved in the self-loathing process to hear any of it.
1 in 7 women are diagnosed with postpartum depression, according to the American Psychological Association. If I'm one those women, telling me about the other six won't ease my symptoms or give me sudden clarity. They may even have the opposite effect. If you must share a PPD story, please only do so if I ask.
Avoid The Need To Divert
Distraction works for my toddler, sure, but when I was a new mom in the PPD phase it did little to take away the despair. I understand my partner's attempts to make me smile when I didn't feel like it, or a friend's sudden pop-in to give me a break, but honestly all these things did was make my anxiety worse. I didn't want to be distracted, I just wanted to feel better.
Let Her Know You'll Do Whatever It Takes
I understand this is a complicated road to navigate. You want to help without overstepping and there's always a fear of doing or saying the wrong things. If you're going to talk to someone with PPD, the most important thing to remember is to emphasize, as many times as it takes, that you'll be there. Let the mom in your life know that you will play whatever role is necessary to aid in her recovery.
I had a loving partner who watched our daughter while I went to therapy, a devoted mother who drove from out-of-state to sit with me when I felt too isolated, the desire to get well for the sake of my family, and myself. PPD doesn't have to be (and shouldn't be, honestly) such a difficult thing to discuss. As long as there's compassion and a real desire to help, you're on the right path.