Recently I told a friend that if I don’t write my mental health goes downhill and she said thoughtfully, “I didn’t know that about you—your mental health looks superb from the outside.”
I’m doing really well, and it’s because I’m six years in and my husband and I attack my mental health like it’s a full-contact sport. I’m guilty of posting adorable pictures on Facebook, showering every day, and wearing cute clothes I feel good about because I like to see myself as a happy, put-together person. But I struggled with anxiety during pregnancy and can smell the symptoms of a panic attack hours before it starts. I know the darkness, and I’ve written about it here before.
Postpartum depression is not a stigma in my circles—it’s something we talk about. But there’s this idea that you magically grow out of it. You go into a dark cave, you imagine terrible thoughts, you give up self-care, and then someone—your spouse, a parent, a support group—helps to drag you into the light. You’re exhausted and changed by the experience, but slowly you start to do cartwheels in a wildflower-filled meadow with your newly functional child.
That’s not true.
[Note: As I write, in this moment, the Fairy Pig wakes up and starts crying. I’ve finally moved away the clutter of my space and mind to sit and do my special thing, and she’s crying. It fills me with a sinking feeling and resentment.]
Maybe for some the darkness leaves just a faint scar. But for me it’s an open wound that needs to be carefully tended—always there, always trying to suck in more light. A friend whose wife died shared this metaphor with me and it fit perfectly into my soul place.
[Note: She’s still crying, but I’m going to write.]
I want to open up my first-aid kit and show you the tools I use to tend my wound.
I challenge you to change from thinking “How could she struggle when she gets so much support?” to “How can I care for myself better?” Our culture of parenting martyrdom encourages us to thrive on the least amount of support possible, and to see others with more tools as lucky and indulgent.
I see these tools as the spoils of a hard-fought battle, and the golden eggs that will hopefully take me deep into adulthood. They are long-term investments in myself and my marriage and my family.*
My Postpartum Depression First Aid Kit
1. Here’s my therapist. She was recommended by my midwife. Sometimes I go to her once a week. Sometimes I go to her every few months. I know where to find her when things get bad. That was the most brilliant idea I had: asking someone I trust for a recommendation.
2. Here are my friends who have intense kids and who don’t try to be perfect. They are funny and incredibly empathetic. They have no dignity. They are free some days after bedtime and they like ice cream. Sometimes we have play dates and our kids fight while we try to say full sentences. I can count on them to take my kids or help me out in an emergency.
3. Here are my friends who don’t have kids. They are free on evenings and weekends, and I can talk to them about things that are not children. They love me and they love my kids. They like to hike. When I’m out with them, they always hold the baby. They can’t get enough of her. It’s weird.
4. Here’s the doctor who did my physical a few years ago. He said, “Are you getting four to eight hours of time for yourself every week?”
5. Here’s my Saturday free time. I hung on to the idea that we should do meaningful family activities on Saturdays for a long time. After a few activities were crushed under the weight of my expectations, my husband shoved me out the door. I’m a much, much better mom during the week if I get away on the weekend.
6. Here’s my extended family. A big reason we moved to Oregon was to be closer to family. Someone is at my house or my kids are at their house or I’m talking to them every day. It’s really awesome to have a big family because three kids six-and-under is a lot to handle and they all help out in different ways.
7. Here’s my naturopath. She is dogged about helping me figure out solutions to ongoing health issues like bronchitis, fatigue, allergies—whatever I bring in.
8. Here’s my acupuncturist. I started going to her when I was mentally in a good place. Then when I had prenatal anxiety, I went to her once or twice a week. Now I go to her and she holds the Fairy Pig while I get my treatment. It really helps to build relationships with your practitioners.
9. Here’s my blog. And here’s my Facebook page. When I write and reach out, I get support back. And when I publish a post, I feel really happy. I look back over the last five years and I think, “I kept something meaningful to me going.” I’m proud of that.
10. Here’s the Montessori school where Boy Woww goes to preschool four full days per week. We changed schools so that he would be in school longer because we knew that having the baby and Boy Woww at home all the time–in theory–would be a magical kid wonderland, but in reality would be a lot of yelling and tons of TV.
11. Here’s the list of babysitters we use for date nights and daytime relief. We like the babysitters list to be at least three or four deep. Any less and I start shaking.
12. Here’s our housekeeper who comes every two weeks.
13. Here’s the income that we use to pay for the Montessori school and the babysitters and the housekeeper.
14. Here’s my husband. He’s collaborative and willing to make calls to insurance or set up babysitters. He doesn’t think I’m crazy. He handles logistics. He gets the kids ready in the mornings and puts them to bed at night. In exchange I feed people, fix stuff, coach soccer, handle homework, and all the other things.
15. Here’s Baby Blues Connection, a free support network that has a hotline, a Facebook group, and in-person support groups in the Portland metro area. Check them out for resources even if you’re not in Portland.
*I also know that for many of these tools, ample income and good healthcare create a privileged base to work from, and that in our country meaningful support for postpartum and mental health care is difficult to come by. I’ll be signing every change.org petition I can get my hands on regarding these issues. I may even call a congressperson. But I have a phone phobia. Letter-writing it is.