In preparation for the 7th annual Ruth Rhoden Craven Foundation 5K Moms’ Run/Walk for Postpartum Depression, I have been reflecting on the plethora of challenges and transitions women must face on the journey towards motherhood.
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As the Executive Director of the base and facilitator of the postpartum depression support groups for the last 7 decades, I am saddened by the seeming lack of awareness and lack of resources available for women struggling with this monumental life transition. The media has definitely played a pivotal role in society’s avoidance of problems pertaining to postpartum depression, leaving us with dark and disturbing images of a disheveled, psychotic, homicidal woman who’s capable of unthinkable actions.
As a society we’ve avoided the problem and kept it under wraps that isn’t surprising given that the direction the press has traveled. Few women are prepared to risk being thrown in exactly the exact same class as the Susan Smiths and Andrea Yates of the planet. Instead many suffer in silence, terrified of being perceived as parentally unfit or worse, risk losing their kids.
The media’s portrayal of postpartum depression is horribly misleading as the tales we tend to hear about on the news are more often cases of postpartum psychosis, an exceedingly rare condition characterized by hallucinations, delusions, periods of delirium or mania and suicidal or homicidal thoughts. More commonly, cases of postpartum depression-which afflicts approximately 10 percent of new moms – involve periods of melancholy and/or stress, fear of injury to the baby, sleep problems, moodiness and irritability, feelings of shame and guilt, difficulty bonding with the infant, feeling overwhelmed, bothering intrusive/thoughts and suicidal ideation.
With the appropriate screening, diagnosis and treatment, postpartum depression is a really manageable disorder with a positive prognosis. Most women who suffer with postpartum depression aren’t psychotic and have a good grasp on reality. In actuality, much of the suffering is produced by the recognition that something is horribly wrong. They long to regain a feeling of equilibrium and balance and they feel guilty, ashamed and frightened by their battle. Although they may harbor disturbing or frightening thoughts, they are much less likely to act on these ideas than women with postpartum psychosis. Becoming a new parent is wrought with many difficult lifestyle transitions and psychological adjustments.
Most women report chronic fatigue, sleep deprivation, body image concerns, marital distress, tearfulness, feeling overwhelmed, difficulty concentrating and irritability in the months and weeks after giving birth. Such experiences are rather widespread and typical of the transient and common baby blues- a less severe condition that typically clears up within a few weeks. However some women are misdiagnosed with the baby blues when actually they’re in the throes of postpartum depression and seriously in need of treatment.
Unfortunately, these are the cases which frequently fall through the cracks and worsen over time because of lack of specialist intervention. This is why it’s so crucial that women be properly educated about the gap between the baby blues and postpartum depression and better understand the risks, warning signs and treatment options available for postpartum depression. Most important, as a society we have to start to open our eyes and mind, expand our tolerance level and conquer our fears and psychological blockages relating to this quite prevalent and highly treatable disorder.
I have recently given birth (pardon the pun) to a new concept I’ll refer to as the evolving girl. The evolving lady is a work in progress. She’s vulnerable and strong, proud and humble, wise and naïve, beautiful and flawed. She loves deeply and desires the support and validation of those nearest to her. She’s highly sensitive to bodily imbalance, hormonal fluctuations, sleep changes and the state of her physical surroundings.
The evolving woman is a teacher and a pupil, a parent and a child. She’s never ending learning and growing, changing and maturing. She’s emotional and whimsical, grounded and sturdy. Throughout the course of her life, the evolving lady encounters many challenges and weathers many storms. If she will survive, she needs to learn how to bend and sway with the changing winds of life just like a flexible bamboo tree; differently she runs the risk of breaking.
In the coming months I’ll focus on three different life stages of the evolving lady: Family Planning, Embryonic Nurturing, and Maternal Adjustment. You will observe that the first letter of every word spells FEM- the first half of this word feminine. The family planning stage applies to every woman, irrespective of whether or not she really becomes a mother. Sooner or later in life all women grapple with the question of babies and motherhood. The resolution of the point is accomplished either through natural conception, fertility treatments, adoption or a child free lifestyle.
For many women this stage is solved naturally and easily while others, like people who struggle with infertility or have a difficult time finding love, it may be full of painful choices and crossroad moments. The embryonic nurturing phase is attained immediately following conception. This phase encompasses pregnancy and childbirth and the related physical, psychological and lifestyle changes that ensue during the course of a pregnancy. Not all girls enter this stage of life though they may nurture a niece or nephew, a creative passion or a particular pet instead.
Finally, the maternal adjustment stage occurs immediately after childbirth and reaches its peak in the months and weeks after giving birth. This is normally the stage of life once the baby blues and postpartum mood disorders first start to surface. It’s a point of many blessings and gifts, in addition to colossal changes and lifestyle alterations. The evolving woman in the adjustment stage must make tough choices like whether or not to breastfeed, when to go back to work, the way to manage time more efficiently and how to deal with parenting and marital stress.
In the coming months I will focus more intensely on every different life span of the evolving woman. It’s my expectation that a special feature devoted to postpartum depression will talk to the heart of soul of my female readers and the men and women who love them, as the shock waves of the illness have a tendency to reverberate throughout the whole family system. Husbands are an essential part of the process as they also suffer the fallout of postpartum depression. Remember, the stiffest tree will easily snap in half while the bamboo tree will survive by bending and swaying with the changing winds. The evolving girl is like a bamboo tree because she needs to learn how to bend and sway with the shifting currents of life. With the appropriate education, screening, treatment and support, even the stiffest tree can learn how to bend and sway.