Q: I am really, really struggling with being a parent. I feel as if I made a horrible mistake; I just don’t know what to do with myself and the rest of my life. I have support and a great partner, but I had no idea how little patience I had and how much they would hijack my ability to be fully myself in the day-to-day.
A: Thank you for writing in. The one message I want you to take away from this column today is: You are not alone. I don’t know how far along parenthood you are, but if you are a new parent, postpartum depression (PPD) is common, and about 1 in 7 can develop PPD after birth, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). PPD is significantly more serious than “baby blues” or general sadness. PPD is a serious mental illness and needs to be treated thusly.
Whereas the baby blues can have you feeling anxious, moody and irritable, PPD has another set of symptoms, which, according to the NIH, include: a depressed mood that is present for most of the day, the loss of interest or pleasure for most of the day, insomnia or hypersomnia, psychomotor retardation or agitation, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, the loss of energy or fatigue, suicidal ideation or attempt and recurrent thoughts of death, impaired concentration or indecisiveness, and a change in weight or appetite.
You also need to be aware of postpartum psychosis, which, according to the Mayo Clinic, includes symptoms such as feeling confused and lost, having obsessive thoughts about your baby, hallucinating and having delusions, having sleep problems, having too much energy and feeling upset, feeling paranoid and making attempts to harm yourself or your baby.
Although rare, fathers can also experience these symptoms.
Regardless of whether you are postpartum, the things you have written are major red flags for depression. I am heartened to know you have a loving partner. Please, go to your partner and let them know how lost you feel, and ask for help in getting support. Find a therapist who specializes in parenting and depression as soon as possible. You should feel no judgment from a therapist regarding feeling as if you have made a mistake, are lost and have lost your identity. Many, many parents feel this way, but our culture doesn’t make much room for ambivalence, let alone feelings that aren’t warm and joyful about being a parent. The pressure for positivity only makes your own doubts worse, but please know that there is nothing wrong with you. (In fact, there’s a whole list of books about the ambivalence around parenting!)
Finally, it is important to address these feelings for yourself, but also for your relationship with your children. Without piling on guilt and worry, the data is clear that parental depression affects the parent-child attachment, so the sooner you get support, the better it is for everyone in your family. As the saying goes, “Children are keen observers but poor interpreters,” which means your children will probably assume it’s something they did to make you agitated and angry.
Again, you haven’t done anything wrong, and you have nothing to be ashamed of; mental health is as important as every other aspect of your health. Please reach out to a therapist, and if the depression feels insurmountable, contact a hotline, such as the one from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-4357. Good luck.