I have a confession to make: the first couple of weeks after my baby was born, I was unhappy. Sure, I had moments of pure joy, and I never wavered in my love for my daughter. But I was exhausted, in pain, and had no control of my emotions. I had the "baby blues" — and it was scary.
Between feeding my daughter, sleeping, and eating, I felt like I was reduced to a milk-producing machine. I wasn't going outside, I couldn't exercise, and it felt like there was no time to do anything but sleep, feed, and eat in order for us both to survive. Was this my life now? Had motherhood completely replaced everything else that I was? In low moments, I thought about how much easier life was before. I wondered if this parenting thing would ever get easier, and the weight of my new life was heavy.
The emotional roller coaster wasn't just negative. I also felt an overwhelming love for my baby, my husband, my family, and my friends. I cried any time I thought or talked about the sacrifices my parents had made for me, or how wonderful a dad my husband already was, or how thankful I was for the friends who came by to cook, clean, or hold my baby.
Good and bad, the reality is I was crying upwards of 10 times a day. As someone who prides myself on being pretty level-headed, I wasn't sure how to navigate these emotions and felt pretty lost and alone. I was hyperaware of my emotions but unable to explain them. And as much as my husband tried to help, there wasn't much he could do. My heightened emotions were just a wave I needed to ride. Thankfully, because of a conversation I had with my sister-in-law Jessie, I wasn't totally surprised that this was happening.
In truth, I was experiencing what many other mothers do: the baby blues.
Just days before I gave birth, Jessie asked me if I had heard of the baby blues or read anything to prepare myself for the emotional and physical challenges I was going to experience. I hadn't. We had a brief conversation that seemed like nothing at the time, but it's one that I am so incredibly grateful for. If not for that conversation, I would have thought I had postpartum depression. In truth, I was experiencing what many other mothers do: the baby blues.
There are endless courses for expectant parents: Baby Care Basics, Breastfeeding, Infant CPR, Preparing For Childbirth, and many others. All of these are important, but there isn't a dedicated space to talk about what happens physically and emotionally to a mother after childbirth. A quick look at the stats will tell you why a new mother's wellness needs to be part of the conversation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, up to 80 percent of mothers experience the baby blues and 15 percent of mothers have postpartum depression.
So what are the baby blues?
The baby blues usually develop a few days after delivery and typically only last two weeks. Symptoms include mood swings, loss of appetite, overwhelming fatigue, insomnia, difficulty concentrating, or feelings of sadness, anxiety, or being overwhelmed.
There are several factors that may contribute to the baby blues. One major factor is the shift in hormones after childbirth — estrogen, progesterone, and thyroid hormones all drop back down to their nonpregnant levels. According to Dr. Madhavi Kapoor of NYU's Langone Medical Center, "These hormonal changes combined with the exhaustion, emotions, and major life changes that accompany bringing a new life into the world are the perfect setup for the baby blues."
What's the difference between baby blues and postpartum depression?
The baby blues should last only two weeks and go away naturally without any medical treatment. Postpartum depression has overlapping symptoms, but they last longer and are more severe. Additional symptoms for postpartum depression include excessive guilt, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in caring for yourself or in everyday activities, showing no interest or too much interest in your baby, or, at its most severe, having thoughts of harming your baby or yourself.
What should you do if you think you have the baby blues?
The most important thing you can do, according to Dr. Kapoor, is to take care of yourself. Allow yourself to "cry it out" if you need to, try to sleep when you can, eat nutritious meals, exercise, don't dwell on the sad moments, and accept help from family and friends when it is offered.
Dr. Kapoor says it's also important to talk about your feelings: "Many mothers who suffer from the baby blues are hesitant to talk to anyone about how they are feeling because they are afraid to appear like they are failing at parenthood. Rest assured that you are not alone."
When should you seek help?
If you are feeling sad, anxious, or overwhelmed, talk to your doctor or your baby's doctor. If symptoms last longer than two weeks or you are experiencing the additional symptoms of postpartum depression listed above, you should speak to a healthcare professional right away.
For good reason, the conversations surrounding pregnancy, childbirth, and postnatal care focus on the well-being of the baby. You take care of yourself during pregnancy to grow a healthy child, then you take care of the baby. I hope that our own self-care, both physical and mental, becomes part of the conversation too.