At first, I thought my wife, Lauren, was just exhausted. We both were. After all, we had a newborn. Friends had warned us that in those early weeks, you get no sleep.
But after several months, I started to wonder whether there was more to it. Having been through depression, I knew some of the warning signs. Lauren, who had always been very energetic, now never wanted to get out of bed in the morning — even when she had slept through the night. She also began to avoid spending time with our baby, Liz, aside from feedings.
Then one morning as I tried to speak with her, she blurted out “I want to die.”
“What?!” I responded.
“I can’t do this. I want to be dead.”
I suggested she might have postpartum depression. She insisted she didn’t, but eventually agreed that I could take her to a doctor. After diagnosing her with PPD, the doctor said he wanted to put her on an antidepressant. But Lauren was concerned how it could affect her breast milk, so she said no. I said I was happy to switch Liz to formula, but breastfeeding was important to Lauren. (The CDC says antidepressants may be safe to take while breastfeeding, and that women should discuss with their healthcare providers.) Lauren did try some homeopathic remedies. But things got no better.
Then came the most frightening experience of my life. I came home from work and saw no sign of Lauren or Liz, so I figured they were sleeping. But Liz wasn’t in her crib. So I went to our room, where I found only Lauren sprawled out on the bed, fast asleep. I tried to wake Lauren, but she wasn’t responding. Finally, she opened her eyes.
“Where’s Liz?” I yelled. “I don’t see her.”
Lauren rolled away from me and closed her eyes again. “I think I was feeding her,” she mumbled.
I went searching. Finally, I heard a noise coming from the floor on the far side of the bed. There, lying on her back, was Liz with a big smile on her face. She had fallen off the bed. She was OK.
Again I encouraged Lauren to get help. We went to a psychiatrist and she got a prescription for Zoloft, but stopped taking it a few days later.
At one point, she asked me to drop her off at an institution, but then immediately changed her mind. I had no idea what to do. In some situations, our parents could help. But not with this, and Lauren didn’t want them knowing what she was going through or worrying about her.
Lauren is the love of my life, and I wanted desperately to help her get better. And in the meantime, I had to keep our daughter safe and alive. Exasperated, exhausted and scared, I issued an ultimatum: “If you don’t go on an antidepressant, I am taking Liz away from you.”
That changed things. She agreed to go see a specialist. Using notes I had kept on my iPhone, he put together a timeline that showed when Lauren’s worst days were. He found that they correlated to her period. Something about the scientific nature of that helped change Lauren’s perspective. She agreed to start taking medication. And she chose to stop breastfeeding.
That was three years ago. Since then, she’s been back to her old self, up and about, motivated and happy. She’s enjoying and loving motherhood. She’s one of those super-humans who gets up early to go to a spinning class and, if she ever feels like she might get sick, goes for a long run to “sweat it out” of her system.
And while anyone who is close to the new parent can try to help, often it’s the spouse who’s most attuned to and aware of the problem. That was the case for us.
Experts say new parents should help each other get the support they need. WebMD recommends that dads ask moms how they’re feeling and encourage them to get out of the house for real breaks. “If you notice that she has symptoms of postpartum depression, encourage her to get help,” WebMD says. “She may not realize that she’s depressed.”
But as my experience attests, that may not be as simple as it sounds. So I asked Lauren what it was that finally got her to accept the medical help she needed. “For a while I was just in denial,” she said. “But once you told me you were going to take Liz away from me if I didn’t get help, that I was dangerous to her in the condition I was in, I started to realize I had a lot to lose.”
It’s a heartbreaking plight. The truth is I probably would never have taken Liz away from Lauren. But to keep Liz safe, I would have made sure there was always someone with them. I don’t know how I would have done that, though, since I had to keep working to pay the bills.
Experts say some women with postpartum depression have frightening thoughts that may endanger their children, but don’t tell people about those thoughts because they fear their husbands will take the baby away.
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all solution for what a spouse can do when he or she senses that the other is experiencing postpartum depression. But you can’t sweep it under the rug or just hope it will go away. You have to keep trying, with love and respect. Today, Lauren and I are both glad that I did what I had to do — and we count our blessings that it worked out so well.