by Dr. Shoshana Bennett, who shares from her personal experience and clinical expertise to help you while supporting your daughter through postpartum anxiety and depression.
We have a long family history of anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and I experienced severe postpartum OCD after the births of each of my two children. Both of them have OCD in their own right, but usually the condition doesn’t get in the way of their lives. I’ve taught them how to manage the obsessions and compulsions in order to keep themselves in charge of the disorder, instead of the other way around. We know that women are the most vulnerable during the perinatal period (during pregnancy and the first year postpartum), so I kept my eyes and ears open once my daughter became pregnant.
My own OCD got riled up during my daughter’s pregnancy. You can read more about that in my post, “Scared to be a Grandma.” My daughter’s mental health was fine during pregnancy, but, being high risk, it wasn’t surprising when she delivered her baby eight months ago and was hit hard with postpartum anxiety.
What is OCD?
OCD is an anxiety disorder, often consisting of obsessions about health, safety, and cleanliness. Sometimes compulsions appear–behaviors repeatedly performed in an attempt to lower anxiety, like hand washing, cleaning, or checking. Frequently a person experiences a combination of both obsessions and compulsions. For instance, she might obsess over fears about the baby dying and therefore she compulsively checks the baby’s breathing.
One of the most common perinatal OCD symptoms is known as “intrusive thoughts”–terrifying thoughts and/or mental images of the baby being harmed or killed. The mother often pictures herself doing the harm. This is not psychosis or hallucinations; she simply focuses so intensely on keeping the baby safe that she imagines all possible harm that might come to him. Most upsetting of all, she imagines that she herself might do that harm. She focuses on the worst possible situations that horrify her the very most.
Supporting my daughter through postpartum anxiety and depression
My daughter thankfully did not experience these intrusive thoughts. She did obsess about the baby’s safety and would compulsively check things that didn’t feel super important to me. Although I had concerns about other safety issues, my daughter respects my expertise in the field of early childhood development, and I tried extra hard not to abuse that trust. I often felt that I was walking a tightrope–balancing tenuously between my own worries and what I rationally knew to be true about her infant’s needs.
In the first few weeks following delivery, at all hours I received calls and texts from my daughter out of the blue about little and big issues which suddenly and unexpectedly popped into her mind and scared her. She needed reassurance and information to quiet her anxiety about these particular things. She often obsessed about the health of her baby–sometimes it seemed like normal new mom concerns, but other times her agitation crossed the line and intense and irrational fear plagued her.
I stuck to a few guidelines during my daughter’s postpartum anxiety reaction. Whether or not you yourself deal with anxiety, these five tips can help you while you’re supporting your daughter through postpartum anxiety and depression, or a friend:
Your daughter is holding her baby while pacing nervously around the room. She is agitated, dwelling out loud about her worries and questioning her decisions. She is doubting her ability to be a good mom, saying things like, “Everyone else can take care of the baby better than I can. I can tell my baby doesn’t like me.”
Do NOT say, “Don’t worry – it’s not good for the baby.” “Calm down.”
DO say, “It must be hard for you to worry so much.” “You deserve to feel happy and to know you’re a good mom – let’s get you the support you need.” “I’m here for you.”
She is “what-iffing” about various far-fetched situations happening and scaring herself in the process. She is clearly wanting reassurance that these won’t happen, but every time you try, she finds another way to remain frightened.
Do NOT say, “You’re being silly!” “That’s ridiculous and it’s not worth worrying about.”
DO stay calm and even. It’s important to find that balance between staying relaxed and upbeat without minimizing her fears. Try, “Let’s focus only on what’s happening right now. If we need to handle any of these unlikely situations in the future, we’ll do it then. Agreed?” She will want to be able to do this, but it’s easier said than done. You’ll probably need to gently remind her repeatedly when this type of scenario arises.
You took care of your grandchild last night and today you’re tired and having a hard time managing your own moods. Your daughter’s anxiety is making you tense and you’re concerned that you won’t have the necessary patience to be with her today.
Do NOT ignore how you feel because your tension can easily affect your daughter or grandchild if you snap and become too abrupt.
Do be honest and tell her you need a break today for a nap or time alone to recharge. “Honey, I need some time today to rest so I can be the most help to you. Let me know what time that might work for you.”
Your daughter feels the need to vent her worries (a lot, and often).
Don’t argue with her.
Do be patient and try to listen carefully to what she’s saying even if it seems irrational. This doesn’t mean you need to agree with her – just hear her out. Gently offer your thoughts if she seems open to it. “I heard what you said. I love you and support you, but I want you to know I don’t share these worries. Can I offer you my thoughts?”
You want so much to help her feel better, but you’re at a loss. Everything you say seems to either have no effect or makes her feel even worse.
Do NOT be hard on yourself. It can be disheartening and frustrating when you’re doing the best you can and the daughter you love continues to suffer in spite of your efforts.
DO help her find the information and resources she needs. “You deserve to feel happy. I found someone who specializes in new mom moods and she can help you. Would you like to contact her or would it be easier if I contact her for you?” “What you’re feeling now will pass with the right help. I’m here with a hug whenever you want.”
Bolster yourself first
Regardless if you are also experiencing depression or anxiety, remember that it’s very important to find your own support during this time. To be someone else’s pillar of strength requires you to bolster yourself. No matter how strong you are, it’s easy for the stress to catch up with you either then or later. Don’t let that happen. I spoke on a regular basis with a mentor while my daughter was pregnant and also while she was experiencing postpartum anxiety. This supported my own health in an invaluable way. It also made it possible for me to emotionally support my daughter. And as a follow up to my “Scared to be a Grandma” article, I want you to know that I’m doing great! I’m completely enjoying grandmotherhood. I even have a “Proud Gramma” T-shirt!
You can do this!
My story proves that you can handle these challenges so that you can experience a healthy, happy relationship with your child, and all relationships! Feel free to contact me through my website for grandparent support if your daughter is experiencing prenatal or postpartum anxiety (including OCD) or depression.
Dr. Shosh is a Clinical Psychologist and Perinatal Specialist. She is a survivor of two life-threatening postpartum depressions. She is a pioneer in the field and founded Postpartum Assistance for Mothers in 1987. A former president of Postpartum Support International, Dr. Shosh helped develop the official Postpartum Support International training curriculum for professionals, now considered the gold standard in the field. She has helped over 19,000 women worldwide through individual consultations, support groups and wellness seminars. As a noted guest lecturer and keynote speaker, she travels throughout the US and abroad, training medical and mental health professionals to assess and treat postpartum depression and related mood and anxiety disorders. She earned three teaching credentials, two master’s degrees, a Ph.D. and is licensed as a clinical psychologist. She is also the author of Postpartum Depression for Dummies. Learn more about her at DrShosh.com.