That New Mom Life Podcast, Episode 3: The Emotional Highs and Lows
It's been said, but it's true: the postpartum experience can be a rollercoaster of emotions. One day you're euphoric, the next, the tears won't stop. Yes, there's a bundle of joy in your arms, but there's also a bundle of hormones changing in your body.
This week on That New Mom Life, Alexandra Sacks, M.D., Parents advisor, reproductive psychiatrist, and host of The Motherhood Sessions podcast, speaks candidly about the wide range of postpartum emotions. She breaks down the bliss myth, differentiates between baby blues and postpartum depression, and gives advice to moms who are wondering about help.
"If it comes to a question in your mind, 'Should I get professional help?' Just make the call," says Dr. Sacks.
She recommends Postpartum Support International, a 24-hour help hotline that's staffed by volunteers. English- and Spanish-speaking mothers can call at 1-800-944-4773.
"It's amazing," says Dr. Sacks. "And it connects you to postpartum professional help all around the world, no matter where you are."
And of course, it wouldn't be a That New Mom Life episode if we didn't hear from moms in our community. Five moms open up about feeling elated, enraged, and longing to be invisible.
Upcoming topics this season:
- Sleep deprivation
- Mom friends
- How to stay in the moment
- Body changes
- How to share the parenting load
- Establishing routines
- Preparing for what's next
If you have a story to tell or want to learn more about That New Mom Life, email us at email@example.com.
Listen to episode 3 right now:
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Grace: I just remember crying all the time and thinking that I would somehow, through my breast milk, transfer these feelings of sadness for my baby.
Desiree: I was so excited to become a mom. I could not believe that I had three babies coming at one time! There was so much love, so much excitement, so much joy, then reality kicked in, and it was way harder than I expected.
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Grace: Hi, I'm Grace Bastidas.
Desiree: I'm Desiree Fortin.
Grace: You know what Desiree, I'm feeling a little emotional just thinking about all those feelings that bubble up when you have a new baby at home.
Desiree: Gosh, I know what you mean. One minute I'm bursting for joy, and the next I'm crying my eyes out! Big old sobfest over here.
Grace: Well, you've got four small kids—including a newborn. It kinda comes with the territory! But today on That New Mom Life, we're talking to the amazing Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a psychiatrist who works with new moms, and I cannot wait to hear what she has to say.
Desiree: I can't wait to hear what she has to say but first, let's listen to moms just like you and me, sharing postpartum stories about that emotional rollercoaster.
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Mom 1: I was nursing one of my daughters, standing up walking around the house because she was screaming so much, and my other daughter pulled my pants down. And after months and months of me being angry and having all of this shame inside and feeling so guilty, I finally lost it, and I punched a hole through the wall. My own hand went through the wall and there was just so much guilt in that moment.
I was so scared that my husband was going to leave me. When he got home from work, I told him what happened and he said, "I love you. I am with you. Let's go get help."
The very next day I got an emergency appointment at the OB, and I was diagnosed with postpartum depression. And although I felt so much shame over it, I knew that I needed to show up for my family, but most importantly, for myself. So I started taking my medication. I started going to Zumba, I started taking breaks for myself. So I could remember who I was as a person, as a woman.
And after six months, the doctor gave me the green light to stop the medication. And I had this beautiful moment where I went to Home Depot, and I bought a patch up kit, and I patched up my own bedroom wall myself. It was a beautiful and very hard season of my life, but I'm very proud to have admitted that I needed help at the moment. And that didn't make me weak. That made me smart and strong. And I showed up for my family.
Mom 2: There was a day that I remember just hiding on the other side of my room, behind the bed, in the dark, on the floor, literally in child's pose, just crying away the stress, trying not to scream.
My baby was 3 months old at the time. My other son, 2 years old. And I heard him running down the hallway saying, "Mommy, mommy, mommy," and I was trying to become invisible.
And I hid that from my family. I never really spoke to anybody about that. This is really the first time that I'm even saying it out loud to anyone outside of my own self.
It's a very real thing. And you know, I think ultimately, it's all about staying strong.
I know I've had my rough moments, but I'm glad to say that I'm still here.
Mom 3: It wasn't until I completely overreacted to my husband ruining my chopped salad order, and adding bread straws instead of croutons, that he realized that I was not being myself. And I definitely was showing signs of postpartum depression.
He very gently and kindly sat down with me in bed that night and started the conversation by saying, "Hey, don't be upset, but this is what I think is going on with you. You're not yourself." But I was very offended and angry because I felt that he was telling me that I was already failing at motherhood and hated our daughter.
It wasn't until later that I got more knowledge of postpartum depression and exactly what it meant that I slowly began climbing out of it. And I really say that the knowledge is my armor, and this is why I talk about it and share it with people because if you see, "Oh, look, she had it, and she's fine," then you're going to get through it too.
Mom 4: After I gave birth to my first born, I have to say, I was so elated. I was expecting to feel down because so many people had told me that's what I would feel.
But I went into an almost euphoric state. I could not stop smiling. The tears did not come for a while. And I just had this feeling like I had come into my own, like I was the person I was always meant to be.
In some ways, I guess I was the mom that you hate, because I really, I just didn't feel those lows for a long time. And, you know, maybe I guess a couple of weeks later, I started to feel overwhelmed. But the immediate postpartum was really easy.
With my second, I had some serious baby blues, and it was a much more complicated postpartum experience. So just goes to show you every birth is different.
Mom 5: I was having a lot of stress and anxiety, and it made me start to have these weird thoughts. I was thinking that I would fall off my balcony with my baby, and another example was that I would carry him and just drop my baby. It could be accidentally, or it could be on purpose. So you can imagine how guilty I felt, and how I didn't want to really talk about it.
I'm blessed that I am a doctor, and I am a mindfulness instructor, so I addressed that. I knew that this was not me, that it was just my thoughts, and that there was something going on with me, like my anxiety was just flaring up. So I took action. I talked to my doctor, and I started doing some meditation and mindfulness activities, which helped me a lot.
Every now and then I get those thoughts, and I just go back to my mindfulness activities and then it helps a lot.
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Grace: Our guest today is Dr. Alexandra Sacks, a reproductive psychiatrist who works with women and families.
Desiree: She's also a Parents magazine advisor, host of The Motherhood Sessions podcast, and co-author of What No One Tells You: A Guide to Your Emotions From Pregnancy to Motherhood.
Grace: Thanks for joining us today, Dr. Sacks. Lovely to have you on the podcast. You have this great word for the transition to motherhood called matrescence. Am I even pronouncing that correctly?
Dr. Sacks: Yes. Matrescence, It's like adolescence. That's how I remember how to pronounce it.
Grace: What does it mean?
Dr. Sacks: Matrescence is the transition into motherhood. It's an identity transition, but it's also a physical transition. Your hormones shift, your body changes if you're physically giving birth to a baby, but also your role in society changes. If you're stepping back from work, if your income is changing, you may have a different time schedule. So that may affect how you relate to your friends, how you spend time with your partner, your sexuality, your sleep.
So there are so many things in terms of identity that really run the gauntlet from physical to emotional to social.
Desiree: I feel like I can absolutely relate to that as I am in that identity shift right now.
How is it possible that we can love our babies so much yet also miss our old selves?
Dr. Sacks: Well, I always like to say that with new beginnings always comes an ending.
Good things, things to celebrate, moving forward in life also involves loss.
People enter motherhood in all different ways. For some people, pregnancy is unplanned, but for people who really planned and longed to have a child, they may be surprised that feelings of confusion or sadness emerge because, "Wow, I do actually miss being able to sleep in." People say, "Oh, I'm done with that phase in my life where I went to a bar or where I, you know, sat around in a coffee shop. Like I'm done with that. I'm ready to be a parent."
Yes. That may be true. But there may be a part of you one day that walks past a coffee shop or walks past the bar and remembers the pleasure, you know, and has a pang of loss, right? For that old life that is different now that you have a baby, and it's OK to grieve that. It doesn't take away from celebrating also your new motherhood and your love for your child.
Your feelings of loss and anxiety or anger or whatever comes up in your matrescence are entirely separate from your love for your child. And I think that's why historically this has been a hush topic because I think for people, these feelings, any negative feelings are connected to shame, right? Because I think people do worry this is acknowledgement of not loving the child enough. And these are quite separate emotional worlds: your love for your child and your wrestling with grief or ambivalence or conflict in your identity transition.
Grace: Well, I love my children, but I do miss watching a grown-up movie in the middle of the afternoon, laying on my couch.
Dr. Sacks: Yeah, yeah.
Grace: So let's dive into those first few days of motherhood. They're overwhelming. You're not sleeping, you barely have time to shower. Can you talk about the range of emotions that a new mom may experience?
Dr. Sacks: Yeah. So really in the first two weeks of motherhood, 80 to 90 percent of women may experience what we call the baby blues. So that's a very specific time where your hormones are radically shifting, around delivering the placenta, around the new production of milk, and of course the sleep deprivation. So that is a time when hormonal sensitivity is quite high. And so, you know, the cliché of bursting into tears for no reason is actually quite common.
Sleep deprivation affects the brain profoundly, so that also may cause moodiness and irritability. You may be disappointed in yourself if you feel like closing your eyes, but you want to be more productive.
I think it's natural also during that time to be anxious, right? And this is again a spectrum, and postpartum anxiety would be at the clinical end where, you know, we recommend getting professional support and we can talk about that separately, but the normal range of worry and anxiety comes from being attuned to how vulnerable a newborn is.
You're on your toes. And for many people that creates feelings of nervousness, you know, "Am I holding the baby's head right? Am I feeding her right? Is she still breathing, you know, while I wake up and haven't heard her because I've been asleep." So, you know, anxiety for sure.
I always like to remind people that pregnancy is really a relationship to your fantasy baby. It's the baby in your mind. And then once the baby's in your arms, there may actually be a feeling of disappointment. That could be anything from, I'm disappointed that I'm having a boy when I longed to have a girl or vice versa. Or I'm disappointed that this didn't fix the problem in my relationship. It didn't make me feel closer to my partner or I'm disappointed that this doesn't feel more natural, you know. It could be any sort of feelings of disappointment.
You will likely feel lots of positive feelings of excitement, of love, of tenderness, of relief. And so it maybe is like a snow globe where your emotional, psychological life is being shaken up and any emotion may truly fall from the sky.
Desiree: When I gave birth to my triplets, there was just such a wide range of emotions. And one of them that was very common for me was fear. I was afraid that something was going to happen to them, it became very challenging for me. How can we deal with that?
Dr. Sacks: This is where I often talk to my patients about some practical tools. I think that mindfulness and meditation are good ways to calm down and there are lots of interesting apps these days for breathing, for meditation. I believe Expectful has apps that are specifically towards pregnancy and the postpartum.
So I was speaking to a woman this week, who was saying, "Whenever my baby makes strange noises, I get this fear that she's not breathing." And so we talked about, well, strange noises means that if your baby is able to produce sound, that means her airway is open. A strange noise might mean something, but it doesn't mean not breathing.
So kind of getting oriented to the difference between your logical understanding and your emotional understanding. So she and I talked about just that fear was present, her logical mind was filling in this explanation and what she had heard of was "not breathing."
So sometimes writing things down, these are cognitive behavioral therapy exercises, and I really like a book called The Pregnancy and Postpartum Anxiety Workbook, that's another reference for people. So, breathing in mindfulness is to calm yourself down. Cognitive behavioral therapy is to remind yourself of the logic that your children are safe. You know, you're taking them to the pediatrician. They're telling you what to look out for. You've been educated.
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Grace: What about feelings of anger, anger about how your birth went, your baby won't stop crying, or anger about you messing up? We heard from a mom earlier who punched a hole in the wall because she was carrying around so much rage. How can we react when anger shows up?
Dr. Sacks: If you're angry, I would say, "What are you angry about?" Take some time by yourself, right? Because the most dangerous thing about anger is when you explode your anger onto something else or someone else, and it hurts a relationship, or God forbid hurts a person.
What are you angry about? Can you give yourself some privacy? Can you blow off steam? Can you take a cold shower? Can you scream in the shower? Can you do 10 jumping jacks? Whatever you need.
Then figure out what you're—sit down, maybe make a list—figure out what you're angry about. Do you need to talk to your partner about them stepping up more? Do you need to figure out how to get more sleep because this is just not sustainable?
If you're angry at your baby, angry at your baby for crying after trying to soothe your baby for hours, I think that is a sign that you just need more support in taking care of your child. When you're angry at your baby for being a baby, for throwing up after you've just gotten them dressed, that means that you're burnt out in the mothering work of that moment, of that day, and that you actually need help with your mothering, which by the way, every mother does.
Desiree: Absolutely. Yeah. And, you know, we talked about some of the angry emotions and there's also so much joy that also comes, you know, it's such a wide range of emotions and, is it possible to experience all these emotions at the same time?
Dr. Sacks: It's normal to experience all these emotions at the same time. Think back on other major transitions in your life, maybe getting married, maybe starting a new job, you feel lots of different things at the same time. That's human. And I think it's a fairy tale that motherhood is all bliss. Nothing is all bliss, you know, and nothing is all bad.
Desiree: I would just so appreciate if you could share some other signs that we need to get professional help when we are in that.
Dr. Sacks: My first answer to this question is always, "If it comes to a question in your mind, 'Should I get professional help?' Just make the call."
If the question comes to your mind, there is no downside to making the call. And the call is to a hotline for an international organization called Postpartum Support International. It's a 24-hour help hotline that's staffed by volunteers. It's amazing. And it connects you to postpartum professional help all around the world, no matter where you are.
So when in doubt, ask for help. And it may not mean that you're experiencing a clinical level of depression or anxiety. It may just need the mean that you need to talk, that you need someone to listen, that you need to just put into words how you're feeling, and that's a good experience to have.
If trouble with sleeping, meaning that even when you're a baby is asleep and there's nothing for you to do, if you're tossing and turning and you can't sleep because you're so bothered by worries or anxiety. If there's no time in your day when you feel any pleasure. If, for example, having a warm shower or a couple of minutes of a TV show or a bite of your favorite meal, things that you used to enjoy, bring you no pleasure anymore, that is a very strong sign for what may be clinical depression. So that is something we take very seriously.
Obsessional thoughts are common in new moms. Worrying about cleaning the bottle, or germs in some other capacity, or did they get enough milk. So that is normal, but if once you've checked and confirmed, "OK the diaper is clean," if you can't be reassured and the worry keeps coming and coming and coming, that may be an indication that you're having some obsessional thinking. So these are just some examples—by no means all—that may be signs that professional help is very important. Just make the call.
Desiree: And how can we shake the stigma around postpartum depression?
Dr. Sacks: I think, talk about your experience as a mom. I think even if you are not experiencing a depression, just talk about the wide range of normal. Talk about the things we've talked about today: the disappointment, the feelings of missing your old life, sometimes being angry, sometimes blowing up at your partner, maybe feeling bad about your body image. Talk about it.
When you're talking to people about your experience, include these non-blissful things. Be brave enough to reference it on social media if you're a big post-er about your postpartum experience. I think the best way we can normalize the wide range of experiences is to really end the bliss myth. That is a myth. New motherhood is not a fairy tale. It is a wide range of experiences. And then certainly if you were experiencing postpartum depression to talk about that.
Grace: Wow. Such a great conversation. Finally, Dr. Sacks, what's your top tip for navigating those hormone-driven postpartum emotions that get thrown at us as new moms?
Dr. Sacks: I think to have compassion for yourself and to have patience with yourself. You know, I think of this phrase, "When a baby is born, so is a mother," you're new to this, give yourself time. The road will be long. You'll have plenty of time to make mistakes and get it right. You'll have plenty of time to just have fun. If you have days and weeks and months where you're not enjoying it, where you're not happy, there will be years where you can have fun.
You know, I often tell people when they're disappointed with their birth story, "The day you give birth is just one day in your child's life. It's just one day in your life as a mother. There will be so many more days." You know, and to know that it's really one step at a time.
Grace: Have compassion with yourself because it's one step at a time, and one day at a time. Thank you so much Dr. Sacks for joining us today and for this very valuable conversation.
Dr. Sacks: Thank you for having me, and for all that you do for parents around the world.
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Desiree: Well, that was amazing. Grace, what were some of the major emotions you experienced during this time?
Grace: Gosh, there's so many emotions, Desiree. What stands out for me is when I had my second daughter, my youngest, my mom was very ill, and she was in the hospital. She was actually in the hospital when my daughter was born. And I just remember crying all the time and thinking that I would somehow, through my breast milk, transfer these feelings of sadness for my baby and just feeling really guilty that I wasn't the same happy fulfilled mom that I was for my oldest. I had to just deal with these are different babies, and I'm at different points in my life and just kind of go with the feelings, cause they were too much to hold back. What about you? What emotions stand out?
Desiree: Oh, gosh. Yeah, like you said, there's a lot! With the triplets, I struggled with infertility, and so I was so excited to become a mom. I just couldn't wait, and I was getting three babies at one time! They came and I was just so in love and so happy, but then like reality kicked in and I'm trying to take care of these three babies who weren't sleeping, had major reflux issues. And I vividly remember this one night we were living with my parents, and they were all just hysterically crying, and I didn't know what to do. And I felt completely helpless. And we had to go ask my parents to help us, which made me feel like I was not doing it right. It's just all those things that factor in. The emotions become so strong and they are hard to work through. And would you say that you lost your sense of self? Did you feel like that suffered?
Grace: Totally. Just the other day, my 8 year old asked me what my hobbies are, and I just started talking about the hobbies I used to do pre-baby. So yes, this is something that I'm still very much working on, because I think also culturally, I had these ideas that as a mom, you have to put yourself last, and it just does not make for a good mom, especially for me. So I'm still trying to work through that and, and kick myself a little bit higher on that list of priorities.
Desiree: That's so good and so important because I think that we do have a tendency to kind of lose who we are and I know I felt that, especially with the triplets. I did photography, I was a birth photographer and at this one point I was shooting a wedding, and I completely forgot to show up for the engagement session. And I'm like, "What has happened to me?" I used to be this organized person, and it was gone. Everything about me was just, it was gone. I'm like, I'm a mom now. And I'm just trying to survive day in and day out, you know?
Grace: Of course, It's all about survival.
Desiree: Did you ever get concerned that things were really getting on top of you? Did you ask for help?
Grace: You know I didn't really have to ask for help. I remember a week into being a mom, my aunt came over to visit and meet the baby, and she must've just seen my face and seen what was happening. Because she, when she left that day, she said, "OK, so I'll see you again tomorrow."
And she just came the next day and the day after that, and the day after that, and she really helped me and mothered me and brought me cups of like milky tea and gave me permission to go use the bathroom and held my baby and told me to go nap.
She was really there for me, and I'm grateful to this day because I could not have done it without her. What about you? Did you have some help?
Desiree: We did live with my parents and having that support was helpful, but I did suffer from postpartum depression after the triplets were born, and it was probably one of the hardest seasons for me. And it really took a lot for me to actually like step out, go see a doctor, and get some help.
I knew I was being affected mentally. I just was like, "This is bigger than what I can do." And so, it's great because that experience really taught me now with Cambria to get help when I need it. So these last couple of weeks of sleep deprivation, I'm like, "I need to reach out. I need to talk to people. I need to voice that I need help." You know? It's hard to do though.
Grace: No. It's amazing that you actually were able to recognize that and make that call.
Desiree: Yes, exactly and just as Dr Sacks said, if you think, "I might need some help here," then just make the call.
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Grace: That's all for this episode of That New Mom Life, a podcast from Parents magazine. To find out more, head to Parents.com/newmompodcast.
Desiree: We really hope you've enjoyed listening, leave us a rating or review, and please share our new podcast with all your mom friends.
Grace: Thanks to our production team pod people: Rachael King, Matt Sav, and Sam Walker. I'm Grace Bastidas.
Desiree: And I'm Desiree Fortin. Hang in there mom, you're doing great.