Dealing with Postpartum Emotions

Smiling parents holding baby
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Steve wondered what had happened to his otherwise healthy and emotionally secure partner.  Just a few weeks earlier, they shared in the miracle of the birth of their first child.  At first, Steve's wife Laurel was happy with the new baby, but growing increasingly tired as the baby had a hard time adjusting to sleep patterns and Mom suffered the consequences.  But now, Steve's wife was feeling angry, moody and disconnected from him and the baby.

 Laurel was experiencing some of the symptoms of postpartum depression, and Steve was worried about her and about their little family.

Many men who are expectant fathers experience a series of transitions as they prepare for and greet a new member of their family. Sometimes, dads can't wait to get through pregnancy and the rush of emotions and physical challenges associated with it. But in many cases, the emotions associated with pregnancy, as different as they can be for an expectant mother, are nothing compared to the feelings and moods that come within the few weeks after the baby is born.

Medical and mental health professionals have a lot to say about this emotional phenomenon. It is often called the "baby blues" or postpartum depression. And while we have a name for it, these postpartum emotions are no less real or personal to a new mother.

It's important for a new father to realize that some level of postpartum emotional challenges exists for about 80% of new moms.

So expect to deal with these emotions; knowing that they are likely and being prepared to handle them is an important "life skill" for a new dad.

Most professionals categorize these postpartum emotional events into five general categories, ranging from the very common "baby blues" to full-blown psychosis.

The Baby Blues

Research suggests that most new mothers experience this form of anxiety within a week or two after birth, usually lasting about 3 weeks or so. With the baby blues, mom will feel sad, be a little weepy and have fairly wide mood swings. Her hormones are fully involved, and she will likely not know quite what is happening to her. The baby blues will also often include feelings associated with coming off the high of labor and birthing to the new realities of a demanding little creature, less sleep, being anxious about this new responsibility and concern about spousal support (or the lack thereof). As the dad, you may even feel like the target of her frustration, despite all you may be doing to help.

It is important to know that these are really natural feelings and that in most cases, they will not last more than a few weeks. Lots of communication, tenderness, patience and responsiveness are helpful attitudes for a dad during this important time.

Postpartum Depression

This is the next level of postpartum mood challenges and affects about 15 percent of new moms. The best way we can describe this is the baby blues on steroids. The depressed postpartum mother will have persistent sad moods, finds herself very irritable and short-tempered and may feel hopeless.

Sleep problems are amplified and she will feel seriously fatigued. Often, she begins to feel some detachment from the baby. She may say things like, "Things were so much better before the baby came." She may feel isolated or want to withdraw into her own room or home. She may also see her weight change dramatically (either gaining or losing).

If this is a second or subsequent pregnancy, and your partner was subject to postpartum depression before, there is a particularly high likelihood that it will happen again.

Panic Disorders

A small percentage of new moms will experience panic attacks. The mom will feel extreme anxiety, may experience chest pains or shortness of breath and may be almost immobilized by worry. She may think she is losing her mind when in the midst of an attack; she could have hot and cold flashes or break into cold sweats.

And it may all happen without any warning or any reason.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Usually, less than 5% of mothers experience postpartum OCD. This is a much more dangerous level of postpartum moods. A mom with OCD will have thoughts, dreams or fantasies which play themselves out repeatedly in her mind. Often the thoughts are about hurting or killing the baby, and she will usually feel personal disgust or guilt after having these feelings. She may even feel so strongly that she will make sure there are no knives, guns or ropes around the house (or ask you to get rid of them for her).

Postpartum Psychosis

The most serious and dangerous manifestation of any postpartum disorder is when mom becomes psychotic. Fortunately, this only happens in the rarest of cases-perhaps only once or twice in a thousand births. The psychotic mom will have hallucinations, hear voices, will be delusional, and may relive past traumatic events (like a post-traumatic stress disorder). She may feel suicidal or homicidal toward the baby. If your partner is experiencing any of these kinds of symptoms, she needs to be hospitalized and always be supervised with the baby.

How a Father Can Be Supportive

Listen. The most important thing a dad can do to help a wife who is struggling with postpartum emotions is to sit and listen. Be tender and supportive through this transition.

Help whenever you can. Your partner will likely need lots of sleep - and at this stage, she will get as much as you can provide her. Take the baby so she can sleep. Offer to change, dress or bathe the baby.

Identify a support group. There are postpartum support groups in most major cities. You can find a geographic listing at Postpartum Support International. This will help your partner find someone to talk to who has been there, and you can also connect with dads who have been through the postpartum experience.

Encourage her to get medical help. An evaluation of her postpartum condition is important, particularly if you think she is seriously depressed.

Call and make an appointment with her OB-GYN or family doctor. Your regular doctor may make a referral to a specialist and your partner may not want to go talk to a stranger. Gently help her get used to the idea and take her to the appointment.

Go with her to the doctor. She will appreciate the help getting to the office with the baby. In addition, you can communicate with the doctor and hear first hand what he or she suggests to deal with the issue. She may not be in much of a state to tell the doctor everything he or she will need to know, and she may not remember everything he or she tells her.

Help her get on a simple schedule. Mental health professionals suggest helping mom get into a simple routine with a few easy tasks every day on a schedule. A little bit of structure goes a long way.

Don't take it personally. Because you are convenient (or maybe because you aren't) you'll likely be the recipient of some criticism about what you do or don't do. Don't take it too personally; remember that much of what she says and thinks just comes out without thinking much about it. Let it roll off.

Be prepared for a long process. Postpartum depression is not an easily or quickly solved experience. Hang in there through the recovery and healing processes. It is hard, but there will be a light at the end of the tunnel, and your sensitive and patient help will be appreciated by your partner and your child.