Supporting a Partner with Postpartum Depression

Recently, my wife asked me to write about my experiences with parenthood and the ongoing postpartum depression she has suffered since the birth of our first child. To be honest, I have found that to be an onerous task – not because I don’t have enough to say, but because I struggle with how to express my observations in a meaningful way. I know what it is that she has struggled with on an intellectual level and have even mourned and grieved over it with her. Ultimately though, I haven’t directly experienced what she has experienced, so my understanding of what it is to suffer depression of that sort only extends so far. Rather than comment on what she has felt, I think it would be more honest to express the anxiety and struggles I’ve had as an intimate witness to my wife’s battle with depression.

Four years ago, we were eagerly awaiting the birth of our first child, a baby girl.

Our conversations became dominated by expectations of the changes to come, but they were filled with nervous excitement rather than anxiety or fear. I imagined life as a parent would be difficult, but rewarding. I imagined my wife and I would be exhausted, but utterly content in our new roles. I imagined a joy that would accompany all of that concern for the baby’s well being. The prospect of anything other wasn’t even in the realm of my consideration.

As promised, those first few weeks were indeed exhausting, but I found the work joyful, especially when our daughter would laugh or smile. Naturally, I assumed my wife felt much the same. She seemed run down with perhaps a touch of the blues some days, but I still didn’t truly understand that something deeper was tearing at her. She would tell me of the struggles she was having with feeling down and overwhelmed, and like the foolish man that I am, I attempted to solve the problems by advising that we stick to schedules and routines. I remained convinced that she was overtired and prone to worry, but that with adequate rest everything would even out in due time, and we would settle into that idyllic life of a young family that we’d always planned for ourselves.

At some point, I noticed my wife staying up later, all the while rising early in the morning to get things done before the baby woke.

She also began requesting alone time to “reset” herself, and I tried my best to understand despite having no clear idea of what it was she was dealing with. It became obvious with the dizzy spells and emotional volatility that something was deeply troubling her. I tried to convince myself all the while that it was just the ugly effects of exhaustion, but she soon began confessing troubling thoughts, and I was no longer able to fool myself into believing that everything was going to be like we always wanted.

My wife began telling me fears that she wasn’t a good mother and darker thoughts that somehow she was going to ruin our daughter’s life.

I knew of the abuse she’d suffered in her childhood, but up until that point, I had considered her remarkably well adjusted and felt that she had all of the wonderful attributes of a caring and attentive mother. I must confess that it is a terribly heart-wrenching feeling to listen helplessly to those confessions. My compassion and love were with my wife, and I was determined to see her through the pain somehow. Still, I began to harbor traitorous notions that I dared not speak out loud. Doubts about our daughter’s well being crept into the back of my mind, and I carried that anxiety with me throughout my workdays.

As bad as the situation was, nothing prepared me for the terrible sadness of watching her go through that depression all over again when our son was born.

I have tried in vain to tell her that, despite all of her worrying, our kids have turned out to be happy and well cared for children. Still, her tears have come along with renewed worries and a conviction that she has been failing them somehow.

All too often she has told me it’s too late and that she is harming them irrevocably through her sadness, impatience, and overly emotional demeanor. So many nights I have held her through her tears, reassuring her and telling her all of the reasons I think she is a good mother. Those words have come readily, but I can’t help but feel that they reach her ears as empty platitudes that do very little to comfort. Most of the time, I settle into silence myself and hold her until the tears stop, and she is able to breathe again.

I know something darker is going on, and truthfully, I feel powerless to help in any meaningful way most of the time. What can I possibly say when she admits fears of harming herself in some way? I envision a terrible future trying to raise the kids by myself and have grown frantic in my desire to support and help her overcome this.

Fortunately, she has been able to receive some professional counseling, and I am eternally grateful for that.

I admire the courage it must take to walk into those appointments, but I know this is just the beginning of a long road. We have also made it a point to discuss our parenting strategies together, and my hope is that being unified in that purpose will help her to see past the depression when it comes. I don’t know how much any of this helps, but I have to believe that it does.

Before our daughter was born, I never imagined our family would face this trial, but regardless of what I imagined, it is here, and it is ours. I find some small comfort and hope knowing that there are those out there that have gone through this before and are willing to lend their experience to those going through it still. It’s difficult to admit that our family struggles with this, and much of the time, I wrestle with guilt over how much my wife would want me to divulge to friends, as though by seeking help I would be somehow betraying her trust. Still, I believe she will be buoyed up by that help and know that having someone there that truly understands may make all the difference.

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