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How to Help a Depressed New Mom

I’ll just come out with it: I’m an eavesdropper. I love to write and edit in coffee shops, partly because I can’t procrastinate by doing laundry and partly because I love to hear the snippets of conversation around me as I type. The coffee shop I frequent is very close to a local Christian university, and I especially enjoy hearing the conversation of the undergrads as they discuss the devotionals they’re reading and the great speaker they heard in chapel. They’re so earnest and on fire for Jesus that they often encourage me without even knowing it.

Today I heard a different kind of conversation. Next to me were two older women talking about a young mom they knew. I don’t know if she was a daughter-in-law or a young friend; I must have missed that part of the conversation, but what became clear was that the women they were discussing was suffering from depression. They remarked how she was always tired, even though she didn’t seem to have much to do other than care for her four-month-old, and that she never seemed to want to leave her apartment, even though it was tiny.

To them, her behavior was difficult to understand. Why was she so tired? And why did she find it so hard? After all, they said knowingly, it would be much harder when the child got older.

As they spoke, I felt a spark of recognition. That young woman was me when my first son was small. I was depressed and exhausted and completely overwhelmed by the tremendous life change of becoming a full-time mother. I didn’t really want to leave my tiny apartment because I had nowhere to go, and I had to be back to nurse and pump anyway. I didn’t realize at the time I was depressed, not until I felt better.

Here’s what I wish I would have said to those well-meaning women.

She is likely tired because she is getting no sleep. Even though you may feel that a baby doesn’t require that much care, a lot of babies don’t sleep all that much, and most of them don’t sleep through the night at four months. She has likely not gotten a full night’s sleep since late in her pregnancy. Maybe you could offer to help her by holding the baby while she takes a nap. I personally never turned down the offer of a nap when my kids were small. I don’t care if I was fully dressed and ready to go out the door to church, if someone said, “Here, let me take your baby and you take a nap,” I would immediately pass off the baby and run, not walk, to my bed.

  • Listen without judging. I wonder why this mom is feeling so down? For me, it was because I was having such a tremendously hard time with breastfeeding, and my baby’s weight was too low, and I was stuck in an exhausting schedule of nursing and pumping and supplementing. Not only was I completely run down, I was devastated by my inability to properly nourish my baby. It was my brand-new 24 hour a day job for life, and I felt like a complete failure at it. Having someone to talk to about these feelings would have helped me tremendously. At the time, I didn’t even understand quite why I felt the way I did.
  • Help her to get out and to be with other young moms. She may not understand why she feels down, and so she probably doesn’t know what it might take to help her feel better. For me, the feeding/pumping/ supplementing schedule took so long that it didn’t seem even worth it to leave the house in between, but of course getting out in the fresh air was one of the few things that did help. Having somewhere to go and something to do also helped to give additional shape to the days so we didn’t spend all of them in our pajamas. One thing that helped me tremendously was joining an outdoor baby and mom exercise class. Although it felt like a big challenge to get us both up and dressed and out the door in time for the 8:30 a.m. class, it was so incredibly wonderful to be outside and moving and around other moms who were struggling with the same things that I was that I found myself driving around town to other locations so I could attend the class five times a week. Especially for a first-time mom, finding a mom community is crucial. MOPS and a moms’ Bible study also were wonderful blessings for us, providing an hour and a half where I could trust that my son was cared for by qualified and loving child care workers while I learned about parenting or about God in a setting with other moms where we could actually finish a conversation without the interruptions that little ones bring.

Postnatal depression comes in many forms, and if you feel that the depression is so severe that the mom could possibly hurt herself or the baby, of course the first thing to do is to get her help with a professional, but if the depression is more of this baby blues variety, please help her to know that the feelings she’s experiencing won’t last forever. Because that’s how it feels when you’re in the throes of it, that you’ll always feel just exactly this bad.

It’s hard to remember, when our children get a little older, just what a shocking transition it is to become a parent for the first time. At this point I can hardly remember not being a mother, but those first few months were some of the most difficult of my life—not because I didn’t love my new son and the privilege of being a mother, but because everything in my life had been turned upside down, and there was no break, no going home after your long shift. I wish I had been able to help these ladies remember how that might have felt for them, so that they could empathize with her feelings as well as give her hope that the future would be much, much brighter.

Did you experience these feelings after becoming a parent? If so, what helped you?