In The Dark: Postpartum, Depression, and the Importance of Community
By Grace Evans, mother of two, and Licensed Professional Counselor and Supervisor
Enjoy every moment. You’ll never get this time back. It goes too fast. These are all phrases most women hear shortly after bringing home a new baby. Our society expects us to “enjoy every moment” of an experience that could also be described as traumatic. The postpartum period is often both physically, and emotionally overwhelming. Postpartum depression is thought to occur in ten to fifteen percent of moms. Yet, we are encouraged to be blissfully content with our new life. Perhaps this ambivalence explains why roughly eighty percent of postpartum depression cases go undiagnosed (Agrawal, 2022). These mixed messages could impact a new mom’s willingness to seek treatment or therapy during the postpartum period.
I’ve heard motherhood described as a “rebirth.” When a baby is born, so is a mother. It is a new life both for mom and baby. With this new beginning comes an end. It is the end of who she was before. This reality is extraordinary and many women may not be prepared for the difficult or uncomfortable emotions that arise during the postpartum phase. How could we be prepared for this? We are told to enjoy every moment. The postpartum period might be a special and unique time in a woman’s life but for many, many women it can also be very dark. We’ve prepared our baby’s nursery, got the car seat installed perfectly, and thought of everything for our newborn. But what about mom? It is equally as important for new moms to be well-prepared for their post-partum experience.
The specific cause(s) of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders are widely debated and often misunderstood. Hormonal fluctuations, genes, biology, environmental, and psychosocial stressors are often the most apparent contributors. The distress of pregnancy and childbirth often makes women vulnerable to physical and emotional struggles. Social support or lack thereof shows up time and again on the list of predictors for postpartum depression.
From a biological standpoint, mammalian mama behaviors are directly impacted by their community. There is significant research to suggest that the strength of a pregnant woman’s support system serves as the primary predictor of her maternal health. A strong support network can lower maternal blood pressure as well as optimize placental functioning in pregnancy. In childbirth, moms who are joined by a support person might undergo easier labor, and fewer C-sections. Additionally, relationally connected moms report less fatigue and more successful breastfeeding (Tucker, 2017.)
Karen Kleiman acknowledges, “There is substantial evidence that maternal
depression and subsequent poor maternal-infant interactions adversely affect the developing child. This is why it is all of our jobs…to make sure each postpartum woman who experiences significant distress gets the support and the treatment she needs” (Kleiman, 2017, p. 31). This call to action is an important message for anyone who is, was, knows, or loves a mother. It is our duty to support one another and show up in the dark moments as able and willing to support her.
Social support or community is essential to the well-being of mothers following the birth of a child. Support might consist of emotional support such as comfort and encouragement. Instrumental support like time, money, and hands-on assistance. As well as informational support where women can receive education, knowledge, and resources.
We support moms by normalizing the wide range of emotions that might occur when bringing home a new baby. There are other practical ways we can extend support within our community. Offer to drop off a meal, send a text message to check in on her, validate that it is normal for her to feel sadness, and recognize that it is really hard. Help out with dishes or propose helping out with older children if she has them. Additionally, encourage moms to work with a therapist that is trained in treating postpartum issues.
It is okay for the postpartum months to feel dark at times. It is okay to not love every moment. It is okay to feel confused, lost, and unsure about the rebirth that occurs postpartum. What is not okay is for women to be left alone in this darkness. Be willing to sit with her in the dark.
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Beck CT. Predictors of postpartum depression: an update. Nurs Res. 2001 Sep-Oct;50(5):275-85. doi: 10.1097/00006199-200109000-00004. PMID: 11570712.
Corrigan CP, Kwasky AN, Groh CJ. Social Support, Postpartum Depression, and Professional Assistance: A Survey of Mothers in the Midwestern United States. J Perinat Educ. 2015;24(1):48-60. doi: 10.1891/1058-1243.24.1.48. PMID: 26937161; PMCID: PMC4720860.
Kleiman, K. R. (2017). The art of holding in therapy: An essential intervention for postpartum depression and anxiety. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
Tucker, A. (2022). Mom genes: Inside the new science of our ancient maternal instinct. Gallery Books.