When your wife has postpartum depression (PPD), which affects about 1 in 7 women after childbirth, you might feel confused, annoyed, scared, sad, worried or any combination of these. My husband certainly did. You might be thinking, “Why can’t she just be happy? What’s wrong with her? Aren’t new moms supposed to be happy now that the baby’s finally here? What’s going on?” Remember that PPD is a biochemical disorder which is no one’s fault – not yours or hers. Although you can’t fix it like you can a broken cabinet or leaky faucet, it’s your job to support her as she recovers. Here are some pointers that will help you to help her and your relationship:
(Excerpts from Beyond the Blues: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Prenatal and Postpartum Depression by Bennett and Indman)
• Just being there with her is doing a great deal. Letting her know you support her is often all she’ll need. Ask her what words she needs to hear for reassurance, and say those words to her often. Things like, “We’ll get through this. I’m here for you. I love you very much. You’re a great mom. The baby loves you. You’ll get yourself back. The PPD is temporary. I’m sorry you’re suffering – that must feel awful. This isn’t your fault.”
• Lower your expectations. Even a non-depressed new mom can’t realistically be expected to cook dinner and clean house. She may be guilt-tripping herself about not measuring up to her own expectations and worrying that you’ll also be disappointed with her. Remind her that parenting your child(ren) and taking care of your home is also your job, not just hers. Your relationship will emerge from this crisis stronger than ever.
• Let her sleep at night. She needs at least 5 hour of uninterrupted sleep per night to receive a full sleep cycle and restore her biorhythms (Chapter 11 of Postpartum Depression For Dummies explains in detail how splitting the night can work even if she’s breastfeeding or you need to leave the house early for work.) If you want your wife back quicker, be on duty for this time without disturbing her. Many dads have expressed how much closer they are to their children because of nighttime caretaking. If you can’t be up at night taking care of your baby, hire someone who can take your place. A temporary baby nurse will be worth her weight in gold.
• Get the support you need so you can be there for her. Often a husband becomes depressed during or after his wife’s depression. You can help protect yourself by getting your own support from friends, family, or professionals. Regular exercise or other stress-relieving activity is important, so you can remain the solid support for your wife. Provide a stand-in support person for her while you’re gone.
• Don’t take it personally. Irritability is common with PPD. Don’t allow yourself to become a verbal punching bag. It’s not healthy for anyone concerned. She feels guilty after saying hurtful things to you. If you feel you didn’t deserve to be snapped at, calmly explain that to her.
Refer to the first bullet for ideas of what to say to your wife that will truly help her. There are also some clear no-no’s to avoid. Here are a few:
DO NOT say:
• “Think about everything you have to feel happy about.” She already knows everything she has to feel happy about. One of the reasons she feels so guilty is that she’s depressed despite these things.
• “Just relax.” This suggestion usually produces the opposite effect! She’s already frustrated at not being able to relax in spite of all the coping mechanisms that have worked in the past. Anxiety produces hormones that can cause physical reactions such as increased heart rate, shakiness, and muscle tension. This is not something she can just will away.
• “Snap out of it.” If she could, she would have already. She wouldn’t wish this on anyone. She can’t snap out of PPD any easier than she can snap out of the flu.
Be patient, non-judgmental, and upbeat. With the right kind of professional help along with your consistent and loving support, your wife will recover and your marriage will likely be stronger than ever.
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