By: Dvora Entin, LCSW
The months before a baby’s birth are filled with excitement and the anticipation of a life-changing event. Your body is adjusting to creating new life and your mind is adjusting to the new role you are about to assume. For the birth of a first child, you spend the months planning, dreaming about the new baby, names, sleepless nights ahead and the thrill of becoming a mother, while preparing for a growing family includes months filled with thoughts about how your family will adjust to the newest addition. For most women raised in a frum community, it is a role that has been reenacted many times during playdates, stuffing pillows under our shirts and cuddling a doll wrapped in a blanket. We are culturally and biologically inclined to want to build a family and to assume that role of MOM from a very young age.
For most women, the joy and emotions that follow the birth are manageable, and the thrill of holding your new baby outweighs the exhaustion of the sleepless nights and the worry about: Am I doing this right? The mazel tov wishes strengthen you in this new position of parent and slowly, you become accustomed to this new experience.
But what happens when you look at this beautiful baby and you feel nothing? Or, more commonly, your mind is flooded with sadness and despair, a cloud of depression that lingers and unmoors you from this role you thought you knew how to play? For some women, their minds are filled with devastating thoughts of accidentally dropping the baby, falling down the stairs while holding the baby, and in a more extreme case, being afraid to change a diaper for fear of molesting their own child. One client of mine could not cut vegetables in her kitchen with her child in the room for fear that the knife would jump across the room and cut the baby. The mother is aware that these thoughts are irrational, and yet they continue to take up space in her head and impact the way she interacts with her baby and family.
These may seem to be extreme cases, and perhaps they are. But what is most significant is the distress that a woman feels as these thoughts invade her previously healthy mind. Layer on a significant dose of guilt as the mother, who has dreamed of this moment for much of her life, who is holding this perfect child and having these terrible thoughts, or a mother who feels nothing for this child, no love, no connection, no desire to hold or bond with the baby.
And the worst part? The distress the woman feels about revealing this to anyone. The shame and embarrassment that accompanies these thoughts often prevent a woman from sharing this pain with anyone else.
Many women are familiar with the term “postpartum depression,” when a woman’s usual “hormonal stage” post birth extends farther beyond the average 2-3 weeks. The classic “baby blues” are when a mother may feel weepy, sad or down, have difficulty sleeping when she should be sleeping and changes in eating patterns. But when the symptoms extend beyond the initial few weeks, the baby blues have segued into a more serious state of postpartum depression.
As many as 1 in 7 women experience depression after the birth of a baby, and while the increased birth rate in the Orthodox community doesn’t make it more likely that a woman will develop depression, it gives more opportunity for the development of a Perinatal Mood Disorder to occur.
The more generalized category of Perinatal Mood Disorder has additional concerns for women, where the classic symptoms of depression may or may not be present, but the mother has an exaggerated form of anxiety, often with obsessive thoughts. For a previously healthy woman, these thoughts can be terrifying and isolating, as she is fearful of telling anyone that she feels this way and admitting that she needs help.
But help is available and women who get treatment can respond remarkably well and quickly return to fully functioning, healthy lives.
If you or your spouse experiences the following symptoms, ask for help. Reach out to local and national resources for support and know that you are not alone, and with treatment, it will get better.
Constant worry about the baby, checking and rechecking if baby is breathing throughout the day and night, staying away for days or many hours, unable to sleep even if baby is asleep
Feeling sad or hopeless, tearful, or unmotivated to care for yourself, your baby, or other children
Obsessive thoughts that the baby will be hurt by you or someone else
Feeling alone, that no one could possibly understand your thoughts and fears
Decreased or increased appetite, outside of what is normal for you
Thoughts that your family would be better off without you, that the world is a scary place and you don’t want the baby to live in it.
This experience can be temporary. Treatment that includes family support and understanding, counseling and sometimes medication, increases the likelihood that a mother returns to superior functioning and resumes the role she knows she is destined to play in her family.
SPARKS: Serving Pre and Post natal women and families with awareness relief, knowledge and support for the Jewish woman: www.sparkscenter.org
Jenny’s light: www.jennyslight.org