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When a Baby Brings the Blues

We'd been home with our baby for a month when I woke up one morning to find my wife, Lisa, sobbing and short of breath. Sitting on the edge of our bed, she clutched the comforter as if trying to brace herself. "I feel like I'm losing my mind," she cried.

I tried to calm her, rubbing her back and brushing wisps of hair from her face. But she winced, as if my gentle touch were painful. Even the sight of our daughter, Anna, didn't bring her any comfort.

"Can you just take her away?" she asked flatly. "I can't deal with her right now."

I knew that Lisa had been feeling a bit down since giving birth, and I attributed that to normal hormonal mood swings. But her behavior that morning made me realize the situation was more serious: My wife was suffering from postpartum depression.

I'd first sensed an uneasiness in Lisa right after Anna was born. The day we left the hospital, she was on the verge of tears. Her face was ashen, and she looked panicky. After a few days at home, though, Lisa improved a bit. She loved taking care of our daughter and cuddling with the baby and me. Friends who visited commented on how relaxed and easygoing she seemed.

But there were also times when Lisa seemed overwhelmed by the pressures of new motherhood. She was having a hard time getting Anna to latch on for breastfeeding, which upset her enormously. She was pumping milk every three or four hours so we could give Anna breast milk from the bottle, but that made it tough to get much sleep. The exhaustion seemed to be taking its toll.

My concern deepened that morning when I found my wife sobbing in bed. Over the next few weeks, Lisa suffered similar uncontrollable bouts of crying. She became increasingly detached from the baby, leaving virtually all of the parenting chores to me. (Fortunately, I'm self-employed and was able to put my work on hold.)

Things went from bad to worse. We had been cosleeping with the baby, but there were many nights when Anna's little whimpers made Lisa so anxious she had to sleep on the couch. During the day, I had to coax my normally energetic wife to get out of bed, eat even a few nibbles of toast, or leave the house for a walk up the block. She spent most of her time staring idly out the window or lying in bed watching reruns of old TV shows, totally disengaged. Sometimes I'd notice her massaging her forehead as if she were trying to relieve her mental anguish. Other times I'd find her curled up next to the toilet, saying she thought she was about to throw up.

Lisa had always been meticulous about her appearance, but now she abandoned her regular morning routine of choosing a nice outfit, putting on makeup, and blow-drying her hair. Day after day, she wore a pair of old gray gym shorts and a stretched-out T-shirt without a bra. Most mornings she didn't even have the energy to take a shower.

One afternoon, I urged her to bathe, telling her the warm water might relieve her stress. I led her into the bathroom, turned on the shower, and helped her undress. Then I sat on the tile floor and, for the next ten minutes, listened helplessly as Lisa's sobs rose above the sound of the running water.

Looking back on those weeks, I'm amazed at how calm I felt. I believe in God, and though this might sound hokey to anyone who doesn't share my faith, I sensed a spiritual presence that helped get me through the days. Luckily, our daughter was a good baby, and I easily managed to care for her. We switched her to formula, and Anna eagerly drank from a bottle every three hours -- right on schedule. She napped on schedule too. On the few occasions when she seemed unhappy, I could quickly calm her by taking her outside to the swing on our front porch.

I wish I could have done more to cheer up my wife. We'd always been best friends, and I felt bad that Lisa wasn't able to find solace in our relationship. But I also knew not to take it personally: I'd read enough about mental-health problems to understand that this was a real illness that had nothing to do with me.

Lisa has a master's degree in public health, and before Anna was born, she had worked for an agency that educates low-income women about prenatal and newborn care. So she was familiar with the prevalence of postpartum depression, and even though she never expected to experience it herself, she was able to recognize her own symptoms.

With a little coaxing from me and her mom, Lisa finally mustered up the energy to make an appointment with her ob-gyn. When she described how she'd been feeling, the doctor immediately prescribed an antidepressant. Her physician also recommended therapy to help Lisa cope with the anxiety she had about being a new mom.

It took a few weeks for the treatment to start working, but gradually I began to notice a change in my wife. Little by little, Lisa was able to spend more time with Anna without feeling overwhelmed. Then she started eating more regularly and began paying more attention to how she looked. Her sense of humor came back too, and she even began to poke fun at her own unpredictable mood swings. Still, it wasn't until Anna was about 8 months old that Lisa finally seemed back to normal.

A year and a half later, my wife is still taking medication, though at a lowered dose, and she sees a therapist once a month. But these days Lisa is very much the energetic, enthusiastic, and nurturing mother I always knew she would be. She didn't go back to work after her maternity leave, and she spends her days chasing after an active toddler. Both of us are savoring every precious minute of our daughter's childhood, and we've recently begun talking about having a second baby soon.

After a difficult start, we both feel we've adjusted well to being parents. I can even see a bright side to those dark days of Lisa's postpartum depression: As tough as they were, they brought me closer to my wife and gave me a chance to bond with my daughter in a way I might not have otherwise. And so I count my blessings.

Copyright © 2004. Reprinted with permission from the October 2004 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.