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Dear Partner of the Woman Who Might Not Seem Like The Same Person Since She Had a Baby:
I know how confusing it must be for you at this time — to be navigating the world of new parenthood, deep in sleep deprivation and feelings of both extreme joy and overwhelming exhaustion. I know it must be a bit scary to look at the woman who gave birth to that new baby — a woman you thought you knew really well but suddenly don’t recognise. Not because she looks different than she used to (although she likely has changed in that way too). But more than that, she acts differently. She treats you differently. She might cry a lot. She might rip your head off. She might not act like she wants you around while also letting you know she wants you close by. She might be critical and picky and controlling. She might lose her sh*t over spilled milk, especially if it is breastmilk. You might say something you find to be quite benign or even kind, and it will set her off. You might try to fight her on these things. You might feel it necessary to tell her to “relax” or remind her that the things that seem to upset or overwhelm her “aren’t a big deal” or “aren’t worth getting so upset over.” But before you do that, I want to tell you something. And if you are really open to hearing it and really love that woman, it will change everything. Are you ready?
She can’t help it. No, really. She truly cannot help it. She hates herself for feeling this way. She probably doesn’t even recognise that she’s doing it, not yet, and even once she does she won’t know how to stop. She probably doesn’t recognise herself. She is probably terrified of the person she sees in the mirror and the feelings she feels inside. She probably feels trapped inside a body and mind that aren’t her own, all while trying to figure out how to be a mother. She probably feels unworthy of that new baby and that partner that she is being so unkind to. She is probably very overwhelmed, beyond sleep deprived, and still physically healing from growing a life and giving birth to that life. There are things happening in her body and her mind that she has no control over. I would be pretty confident in saying that as much as you have grown to dislike the person she has become, she feels the same way about herself ten times over. So before you tell her to “relax” or “to get over it” or to “calm down” — before you respond in an unkind way or show her how much you hate her behaviour — repeat this in your own head: She can’t help this, this isn’t personal, she is struggling, show empathy and love. And then refrain from saying those things and just ask her if you can help her or if there is anything you can do to make her feel better. That bit of kindness shown to her during a time when she is struggling so hard will go so far in helping her heal. And if you remember that it isn’t personal and she isn’t trying to do anything to you, it won’t feel so hard to just let it go. Because I get it, no one wants to be treated this way. It sucks. But also remember, she doesn’t want to treat you this way and she isn’t intending to. You’ve got to put your ego and personal feelings aside. She carried the baby, she gave birth to the baby, she breastfeeds the baby. This is your turn to take one for the team, as hard as it might be. Remember how much you love her and remember how much she is struggling with hormones and anxiety that she can’t control. Because that is what it is — postnatal anxiety. Panic. Terror at the thought of things that should not cause terror, like leaving the house and having to change a poopy nappy in public. “What if the baby starts screaming while we are out?” “What if I have to nurse him?” Things as simple as taking your baby for a walk or them being woken up from a nap can cause a downward spiral of emotions for someone with postnatal anxiety or depression. Or both.
If you are lucky, that is as bad as it gets and it won’t last long. It might be weeks, or maybe a couple of months. But eventually the clouds will part and things will start to get sunny again. She’ll start to be recognizable. She’s start to smile and laugh. She’ll start showing you affection. She’ll start to get dressed, to want to participate in things she did before she had a baby. And then maybe, she’ll be her old self again.
If you don’t recognise your partner since she had a baby — if she has withdrawn or cries a lot, if she bites your head off over little things or loses her cool over stuff you think is irrelevant — the best thing you can do for her and your baby and yourself (in the long run) is to show her as much empathy and kindness as you can. Keep a kind tone in your voice. Ask if she is feeling ok or if you can help. Tell her you are worried about her and ask if she feels like she might need to speak to her doctor. If she says things or acts in a way that seems like she might harm herself or your baby, then insist on visiting the doctor. Make sure she gets time for self-care: a warm bath, a walk without the baby, lunch out with a friend, or whatever else helps her to calm her mind and take a breath. Give and get her support.
Postnatal anxiety and depression are more common than you think. It can happen with your first baby, or not until your third. It can happen even if you have no history of depression. Your partner can’t snap out of it or decide to be happy. She might need help. You can support her by being kind and not judging her. You can encourage her to seek help from her doctor and support her if she decides to try talk therapy or medication. You can encourage her to take time for herself. You can let her go back to sleep when possible. You can tell her you love her, when she is being her most unlovable. Because whether she recognises that she is suffering from PPD or anxiety or not, she does see that she is behaving in a way that isn’t ideal (to put it nicely). She can’t control it but afterwards she can usually see and hear herself. And she will be judging herself. She might be hating herself.She will be feeling bad and unlovable. And if she doesn’t get help and support, she may start to feel as though everyone is better off without her and things could get much much worse. She might want it to get better so bad that she starts thinking of ways to make it stop, and not all of those ways are positive. Imagine how scary that must be to experience — how hard it is to feel like you are drowning or suffocating but you don’t know why. Now look at your partner and know that when they are being the worst to you, they are trying their hardest inside to fight that monster that is sending them into a panic. Tell them that you love them and are there for them however they need you to be and that in time everything is going to be alright. And know in your own mind that it is true — things will get better. And the more supportive you can be the sooner that will happen.
I am not a medical professional. I am just a mother who has been through this myself.Twice. If you or someone you know might be suffering from postnatal depression or anxiety (or depression or anxiety of any kind) talk to someone. There are lots of resources to help. Look for a support group, a counselor, or a doctor who specializes in postnatal issues. Read books on the topic, or look for Podcasts if you like those. Try meditation, exercise, yoga. Just don’t ignore it. And know you are not alone.