New mothers rarely admit to the full extent of their stress level or to the difficult emotions they live with. After all, women with new babies are supposed to feel blissful, loving and grateful for the miracle of new life in their care, right?
Many new moms fear they will be thought of as unfit mothers if other people knew the truth about their feelings. They may never ask for help because they don't have a baseline sense of what is actually normal and what's not.
What many people don't know is that mood swings, irritability, fatigue, persistent tearfulness, forgetfulness and anxiety are common symptoms in new mothers. The vast majority of birth mothers cope with some version of the "baby blues." The good news is that these symptoms generally pass without any intervention within a couple of weeks. The postpartum mother's' body simply needs a little time to normalize the tremendous fluctuations in hormone levels after giving birth.
But what if the symptoms are more severe and last longer? What if depression, hopelessness, feelings of vulnerability and inadequacy as a wife and mother, lack of interest in the baby or oneself, low level of daily functioning or severe mood swings are part of the mix? Surely this is crazy, right? Wrong. These symptoms are common in the 10% - 17% of women who experience postpartum depression.
What if the level of intensity is ramped up? What if a new mom has unreasonable fears, panic attacks, obsessions about cleanliness and germs, or visions of something bad happening to the baby and not being able to do anything about it? This may indicate postpartum obsessive-compulsive disorder, a bit more severe than postpartum depression, but still in the postpartum mood disorder continuum, and still sane.
What about the women who get sensationalized on the news, the ones who think their babies are from the devil? We've all heard stories about new mothers who think they were told to hurt themselves or their babies. Can these women be sane?
In these cases, they are dealing with the severe end of the postpartum mood disorder spectrum. This is the line between crazy and sane. Only one or two out of every 1000 women will cope with this rare disorder. Their auditory and visual hallucinations can be quite dangerous. Women with postpartum psychosis need immediate medical attention and hospitalization, and yes, their babies will have to be taken care of by other people for a while.
I like to put it this way: Anytime a new mom is worried about the well being of herself and her child, she is probably still sane. After all, it takes a significant level of self awareness to be concerned about one's thoughts and feelings. Rather than judging or ostracizing new mothers with postpartum mood disorders, let's make it easier to get help. Every symptom I've described is 100% treatable, and help is available now.