Thursday, June 16, 2016

What It REALLY Looks Like

   Seven weeks and three days ago, my life changed. Again. Seven weeks and three days ago, my body performed an enormous feat of strength, endurance, and physical change. Seven weeks and three days ago, I had a baby. In the days and weeks since, my body has completely transformed from a human incubator completely focused on growing a human being, into a human milk-maker, mother to five living creatures, sleep-deprived human whose all-encompassing job of the previous ten months was abruptly dropped into oblivion as he exited my womb. As it has five times before, my body has been required to do an about-face in function while simultaneously healing from serious physical trauma(albeit a natural function, but physically traumatic none the less). The number of hormones and physiological systems that come into play in this transformation are too many to count, and they all need to work and work fast so I can function. It's called the 'fourth trimester'- the first 12 weeks after giving birth. And it's HARD. It's not without its incredibleness, but this transformation is really, really difficult.
   In the last seven weeks and three days I have also quietly been handed a clipboard four times with a sheet of paper containing ten questions I needed to answer about myself. Collectively, those questions are called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. Always the same, very obvious questions: Are you unable to find joy in life? Do you have thoughts about harming yourself or your baby? I'm glad these questions are being asked. People like Andrea Yates whose suffering was largely ignored until tragedy struck show that these questions are absolutely necessary. The problem I see, however, is that we're not going further. The pediatrician, obstetrician, or whomever, walks in, asks, "How are you REALLY feeling?" as they glance over the sheet and decide if you're 'at risk', and expect us to open up and gush forth with our darkest place, the struggles we feel ashamed to be having because we think it should be easier. We're really missing the bigger picture here, and vulnerable women and helpless babies are paying the price.
   Postpartum Depression still very much carries a stigma. Society seems to be caught in a toss-up of an older generation that often thinks PPD is a weak woman, some one who needs 'fresh fruits and veggies and more sunshine on her skin,' or some one not right with God, and a younger generation of 'Zoloft for everyone!' where doctors write prescriptions for Xanax like it's candy, while in between are most people. People who are half oblivious, half afraid to speak up lest it be seen as offensive. People who have good hearts and mean well, but don't see it or don't know what to do.
   So let's start with what PPD can look like in real life. It's not a crazed woman drowning her children, nor would she confess to that if she were. That's Postpartum Psychosis, a very rare and horrific illness for her and everyone around her. But that's what makes the news as Postpartum Depression. PPD is caused by an imbalance of hormones and brain chemicals(Did you know pregnancy, birth, and lactation hormones all come from the brain? It's all completely intertwined.) that can happen to anyone during the first 6-12 months postpartum as the body makes this enormous change while under great physical strain, and those who struggle with any kind of anxiety or depression previously are exponentially more likely to have this additional struggle. PPD in real life does not always look like some one crying non-stop, outwardly depressed, or wanting to harm themselves or their babies. She can look angry. A hair-trigger, easily frustrated, needing complete order that is next to impossible in this fourth trimester full of physical and emotional demands around the clock. She's fighting inside herself and that fight bubbles to the surface seemingly out of the blue or far too easily. She can look controlling. Not wanting others to hold her baby, wanting clothes, diapers, outfits a certain way, the room to smell or look a certain way, a schedule to be organized a specific way. She's Subconsciously trying to control on the outside everything possible to compensate for how overwhelmed and out of control she feels on the inside. She can look overwhelmed. She can look at her kitchen and SEE the mounded trash can, the piles of dirty dishes, the cluttered counters, and the floor needing swept, or look at a list of phone calls to make, an errand to run, laundry to fold, a garden to weed, and it's all so intensely overwhelming that she is powerless to do anything. She's frozen in her mind because it's too much and she physically does not know where to start. So the mess, the laundry, the errands, the phone calls pile up and she sees more of it, it overwhelms her more, she becomes more anxious. She might have panic attacks. She might be frozen on her couch, knowing things NEED to be done, people NEED to be taken care of, but she is powerless to do anything because her mind is blank- it cannot fathom where to start or how to get it done- and all she can do is feed the baby because his cries cut through the fog and she can make a bottle or pull up her shirt on auto-pilot.
   All this happens behind closed doors, because if she dares to force herself out the door she plasters on a socially acceptable face lest others see that she is so overcome and a horrible mother, or she looks to the world like an angry, hair-triggered, unfriendly person, when what she really needs is help.
   This is not the ONLY way PPD can manifest itself. There are many other ways, and we would only ever see them if we looked. Really looked. Practitioners can ask questions to find out how she really is, instead of tabulating a number to decide if she needs a prescription. Friends and family can be there, support, love, be practical, so they're there to be able to notice. Whatever the role, it comes down to connection. Instead of isolating new mothers, nurture them. Ask the questions. Notice the changes. Offer the help that could be the light at the end of her tunnel. Care. Because it's not her relationship(or lack there of) with God. It's not her diet or the amount of sunshine on her skin. It's not her strength or will lacking to 'fake it 'til you make it.' It's a huge physical shift that her body and mind are struggling to endure, and she's powerless until her inner workings align themselves. She's not to be punished for it. She's to be loved, nurtured, protected, and cared for. Reach out.

I beg every one of you who reads this to check out the organization New Mama Project (and here's their Facebook page- NMP ). It is SUCH a good, practical, encouraging resource for anyone and everyone, whether you're the new or soon-to-be mama or you are close to one. 

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