You’ve become a dad. You are thrilled about having this brand new baby in your life, even though you are exhausted and more than a little nervous about figuring out how to properly raise another human being. You knew this would be a challenge, but you’ve hit a major, unexpected obstacle. Something is not right with mom.
Perhaps you can’t exactly put your finger on it, but you know she’s not acting like you thought she would. Maybe she seems sad all the time and can’t stop crying. Maybe she keeps saying she’s not a good mom even though you tell her over and over again that she’s doing just fine. Maybe she’s really angry with you all the time now, or she’s worrying nonstop and can’t relax.
You are probably unsure whether to make a big deal out of this since it could just be the baby blues. You don’t want to scare her. Perhaps this will simply go away with time. All you know is that she’s not happy, and now you’re not happy either. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know what to do about it. Many dads don’t. Below are five steps you can take to find out what’s wrong and help both her and yourself.
1. Learn what the symptoms of postpartum depression and anxiety are.
The baby blues is a normal adjustment period most new mothers go through in the first two weeks after birth. It is not a mental illness and will go away on its own. If your wife has just had a baby in the last two weeks and is weepy, or having a difficult time adjusting, that’s fairly normal. It’s not necessary to call out the cavalry yet.
Postpartum depression and anxiety, on the other hand, are real illnesses that can arise any time in the first 12 months after a baby is born. If the two-week baby blues period has passed and your partner has any of the following symptoms for more than a week or so, you should consider reaching out to your healthcare provider:
- Feelings of guilt, hopelessness and/or being overwhelmed
- Irritability or anger
- Deep sadness; frequent crying
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Racing thoughts and/or inability to relax
- Constant worrying
- Scary thoughts that she recognizes are wrong and are very disturbing to her
- Thoughts of suicide or of running away
It’s important to point out that she may not experience all of these symptoms. Some have only one or two. Postpartum depression and anxiety are not one-size-fits-all illnesses.
Note: Postpartum psychosis, a very rare illness that can arise after childbirth, is distinct from postpartum depression and anxiety. It often shows up in the first few weeks or even days after a baby is born, and its symptoms include delusions, paranoia and hallucinations (seeing or hearing things that aren’t there). If your partner exhibits any of these signs, she may not be aware of what is happening to her and her illness could lead her to do things she wouldn’t normally do. In this case, it is important to call a medical professional right away.
2. Gently tell her about your concerns.
If you feel your partner is suffering from the symptoms above, the next thing to do is talk to her. Sit down with her and let her know you are worried about her wellbeing. Focus on the behaviors you’ve seen – crying or inability to sleep, for instance -- as the reasons for your concern. Encourage her to share with you how she is feeling. Tell her that whatever she is going through is not a weakness on her part and that you know this is not her fault.
Let her know that, if it turns out she has postpartum depression or anxiety, these illnesses are very common. In fact, they are the most common complication of childbirth, affecting as many as 20% of all new mothers. They are temporary and fully treatable with professional help.
Tell her you will stand by her. Research shows that emotional support from a spouse is an essential factor in the recovery from postpartum depression.
3. Start working with her right away to get professional help.
Studies show that the sooner women who have postpartum depression or anxiety are treated, the less negative impact their illness will have on the family.
Women with postpartum depression and anxiety are often extremely fatigued, scared and ashamed. This can make it very difficult to ask for professional help. Assist her with this. You can easily find out what resources are in your area by visiting Postpartum Support International’s (PSI) support page. PSI has coordinators in every state who will let you know about local peer support groups, specialists and other resources that may be available. Give her the phone numbers she needs or offer to make the calls yourself.
If she is resistant to medical treatment, Families for Depression Awareness makes the following recommendations:
“If the depressed person is reluctant to seek help, then don't try to convince the person that depression is causing the problems. Instead, talk about the depressed person's behaviors and the ways in which treatment can help. For example, after you have listened and sympathized with the depressed person's feelings, try to agree on wellness goals (e.g., consistent sleep and feeling less irritable). Then, try to assign some action steps that you can agree on to reach these goals (e.g., after two weeks, if the person does not improve, you will set up a medical evaluation).”
4. Support her treatment plan.
There are many decisions to be made, including what type of treatment to choose, whether to continue breastfeeding … imagine trying to make these decisions while you are suffering from an illness that has “difficulty making decisions” as one of its symptoms. She needs your unwavering support.
Many people feel nervous about treatment methods like psychiatric medication or psychotherapy, mainly because they don’t know much about them. Instead of making judgments or taking the advice of people without medical training, go with her to the doctor. Learn what the treatment options are, what the risks and benefits are, and what may be helpful to her based on her own unique situation and history. Support whatever decision is made. And if one treatment method doesn’t work, be open to others and encourage her not to give up.
5. Make sure not to forget your needs.
If you are feeling your own sense of frustration or disappointment that your partner isn’t blissful about the new baby, that’s normal. Don’t stuff your feelings down or ignore your own needs. You need to make sure that you are taking care of yourself during this time as well.
There are people who know exactly what you are going through and are more than happy to help you. One great resource is the Postpartum Dads Project, a website where dads share their stories about how they got through postpartum depression with their wives. You might also want to check out the book The Postpartum Husband by Karen Kleiman, written expressly to help men work through this process. And finally, Postpartum Support International offers a free conference call every Monday just for dads called Chat With the Experts, on which you can talk to specialists in perinatal mood and anxiety disorders and get the answers and support you need.
Depression in Parents, Parenting, and Children: Opportunities to Improve Identification, Treatment, and Prevention, National Research Council, 2009
Recovery from Postnatal Depression: A Consumer’s Perspective, Di Mascio et al, Archives of Women’s Health, 2008
MGH Center for Women’s Mental Health