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 women are scared to be seen as a “bad” or “crazy” mom. Without a guideline to tell what’s normal and what’s not, they fear their babies will be taken away and never ask for the help they need.
To help set the record straight, let’s take a look at some symptoms common in new mothers. Fatigue, mood swings, persistent tearfulness, irritability, forgetfulness, anxiety, difficulty concentrating are all perfectly normal within 48 hours after delivering a baby. People typically refer to this experience as the “baby blues.” Although the majority of women have to cope with baby blues, the symptoms tend to resolve on their own within two weeks. This is the time it typically takes for a new mother’s body to adjust to the stress of delivery and stabilize the massive fluctuations in hormone levels following the birth of a child.
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.
Well then, what about those “crazy” moms we hear about on the news? The ones who hear voices commanding them to hurt themselves or their babies? The ones who think their babies are demonic? What then?
These moms suffer from postpartum psychosis, at the severe end of the postpartum mood disorder continuum. And yes, if we have to draw the line somewhere, this is it. Fortunately, postpartum psychosis is rare. Just one or two of every thousand women deal with this disorder. They experience visual or auditory hallucinations and delusions that are extremely dangerous. For safety’s sake, these are the women in need of immediate medical attention and hospitalization. Their babies must be cared for by someone else, at least for a while.
Here is a good rule of thumb: If a new mother is concerned about her well-being and the well-being of her child, if she is worried about the thoughts and emotions she experiences, she is still sane. Let’s take away the stigma of postpartum mood disorders and encourage new moms to be honest. All the symptoms described here are 100% treatable and help is available.