I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety after the birth of my third child. That’s a scary diagnosis. Every day, we hear about women who take their own lives because of the disease, leaving behind a grieving family with small children.
My husband was scared — no, he was fucking terrified. He knew I was in therapy. He knew I was beginning meds, but he felt impotent. He wanted to help, but he didn’t know what he could do. What can you do in the face of such an overwhelming monster?
Actually, as we discovered together, a spouse can do a hell of a lot to support their partner through postpartum depression. It may not be easy, and it may not be pleasant. Illness never is. But a spouse can help their partner overcome — or at at least live with — postpartum depression and anxiety.
Don’t invalidate her feelings.
She can’t control the thoughts that arise. She can cope with them in a variety of ways her therapist will eventually teach her, but she can’t make the thoughts go away — especially in the early stages of her disease. Moreover, these thoughts feel brutally real. They tell her that she’s worthless, that she’s a bad mother, that she doesn’t deserve her child. Don’t brush her off with “Honey, you know that’s not true, because…” and proceed to argue with her disease. It doesn’t work. You’ll only force her to maintain that she is indeed worthless.
Instead, try “I’m so sorry you feel that way. It must hurt a lot to feel like that.” She needs someone to validate that she’s in pain. This helps her feel supported and safe.
Her therapist knows best.
Don’t question a decision to try or not try medication, to use cognitive behavioral therapy, or to do some combination of the two. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t intervene if you think her therapist is incompetent, but you need to realize that this person has a degree in psychology or psychiatry and treats women with postpartum depression and anxiety every day. When in doubt, ask her if you can sit in on a therapy session. She’s free to bring whomever she wants, and it can help give you an idea of her treatment plan.
If she’s on meds, help her figure out the breastfeeding thing.
Some medications are compatible with breastfeeding. Some are not. Most are. Do your own research and help her make the decision to continue nursing or not. “Help her” means “tell her what you found out” and defer to her decision. Whatever she decides — to nurse with medication or not — support her choice.
I chose to nurse through several medications because breastfeeding was important to me, and I’m grateful that my husband never questioned my decision.
Don’t ask, “Did you take your pills today?”
Maybe she didn’t. But when you ask her about it, it just feels minimizing and belittling. When my husband asked me this, it always felt like he was accusing me of irrational behavior and chalking it up to a lack of meds. Some women may not mind a gentle reminder. But a pill container or phone alarm works much, much better — it doesn’t judge you.
Let her sleep.
She’s spent all day either being a mom or working. She needs her rest to recharge and get better. Taking the baby plus any other kids you have is one of the best things you can do for her. She can get some restorative sleep and rest from a long day, which will help her feel better about life in general.
Usually, cooking falls to the wife, and it can be an enormous stressor at the end of the day to realize you still have to feed several people. Instead, cook dinner for her. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but the healthier the better. Good food (veggies, whole grains) will help her get better faster. When you take over the cooking, you remove what can potentially be a big stressor, and give her more time to concentrate on feeling better.
For older children, relax the screen time expectations.
More Scooby-Doo won’t kill them, and it will give you and your partner a much-needed break. You need time to spend together to recharge — more time than usual. Put the baby in the bassinet and switch on a kiddie movie. This can give the two of you valuable time to spend together just chilling out.
Don’t forget the dates.
Yes, she feels horrible about herself right now. She probably hates the postpartum weight she’s carrying, and she just wants to curl up in bed and not get out until Doomsday. Don’t let that happen. You need time together as a couple to reconnect. Even if you’re going to Red Robin, make sure you get out. It’s good for her in the end, even if you have to drag her. (You will have to drag her, and she’ll think of a million excuses why she should stay home.) Leave the baby if you can, but if you can’t, hopefully the baby is small enough to sleep through the whole affair. A baby wrap can help that happen.
Wear the baby.
Get a good carrier — wraps are super snuggly, even though they can look intimidating — and use it all the time. Your baby will basically get swaddled in and then will either fall asleep or look around quietly, giving you time to get housework done, hang out, or just take care of the baby with a minimum of effort and a maximum of benefit. Knowing my husband could wear the baby and keep him happy really helped me to relax and have the baby-free time I desperately needed.
Get a housekeeping service.
Obviously not every day. But it can be a big deal to have someone come in once a week and dust the shelves, scrub the tub, and do all those pain-in-the-ass chores that need doing. It’s not an admission of housekeeping failure — it’s allocating valuable resources elsewhere, i.e., toward getting your wife better. And as stereotypical as it may sound, a clean house will do wonders to lift her spirits.
Your wife needs your help.
Your role, as a spouse of someone diagnosed with postpartum depression and anxiety, is to support her emotionally and physically while keeping the household running. That sounds like a lot, and it is. Because of that, you need to spend some time taking care of yourself as well. Make sure you’re rested. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Don’t be afraid to admit you’re burned-out and do something about it.
Postpartum depression and anxiety is exhausting for the whole family. Minimize the impact on the kids, and take care of the woman you love. Realize she needs your help desperately at this difficult time. Your help can make a big difference in her recovery.
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