I recently came across a number for the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline. It took me back to my first pregnancy and postpartum experience.
I belong to a traditional family where there is an expectation of bearing a child after a year of marriage. No one prepares the couple for it. No one talks about any challenges during pregnancy and after the child is born.
It was no different for me. My husband and I started a new life in New York after getting married. Our mindset was to have a child before I started my residency because we thought it would be difficult afterward. I feared criticism from my society and family, of course.
We were newly married and were adjusting to a new country while pursuing our career goals. Amongst all that, we had our first child. We were delighted as parents to be blessed with a healthy baby boy.
What happened afterward will probably sound familiar to many new moms out there. My husband was a second-year resident in a busy program, so practically, he was never home. Even when he was, he was catching up on his sleep in preparation for the next day. I was always responsible for running the household, even before the baby. My baby was born in November, so I was afraid to take him out in the cold. I felt confined in my apartment. I could not go out, get groceries, or even take clothes to the basement for laundry. (We lived in a 14-story apartment building, and laundry was located in the basement.) I was in the middle of taking my U.S. licensing exams, and preparing for those with a newborn was not easy.
I recall feeling stuck. I had lost my independence. We had only a few local friends who came to congratulate us. I received a lot of phone calls from family and friends. Everyone was excited about the new arrival in the family and sent us best wishes for the baby.
However, I still remember that the only person who asked me how I was doing was my mother. Everyone else only talked about the baby.
It was as if my existence had disappeared. There were endless suggestions and opinions, which were more of a pressure and burden.
There were days when I couldn’t leave my apartment because either I didn’t feel confident enough to handle my baby by myself, or it had snowed. As the weather cleared up, I found the courage to take my baby out, which made me feel a bit better. I never fulfilled the criteria for major depression or postpartum depression, but I was sleep-deprived and exhausted. These two factors alone would put anyone in a low mood. I started my residency a year later, which helped me find my own self again.
It was a learning experience and changed my way of approaching and supporting any new mom.
Here are some tips which may be helpful.
1. Please ask the new mother how she is doing. She carried the baby for nine months and endured the process of delivery. She is tired, weak, and needs care. Few kind words will boost her mood.
2. Offer her practical help. Ask if she needs help with groceries or cooking a meal.
3. Ask if she needs an hour or two to herself. Offer to babysit even if it’s for a limited time.
4. Please do not bombard her with a million suggestions. She is already anxious and wants everything perfect for her newborn. Different suggestions just confuse her more. Provide support and ensure her that you are there for her. If she trusts you, she will ask for your opinion.
5. Check on her frequently but respect that she may be sleep-deprived and have a completely different schedule.
6. Try to get her out of her house, so she does not feel isolated. I cannot emphasize the benefits of sunlight and light exercise to improve one’s mental health.
7. Postpartum depression is real. If you notice a significant change in mood or self-care, it may be a sign that the new mom needs professional help. Help her with setting up an appointment with her doctor or a psychiatrist.
A lot of new moms are breastfeeding and scared of taking any medications. It’s important to reach out to a professional. Therapy is always a good start and should be encouraged.
Sirosh Masuood is a psychiatrist.
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