'I have postpartum depression, and the holidays are hell'

Up to 20 percent of women in the U.S. are affected by postpartum depression. (Photo: Getty Images)
Up to 20 percent of women in the U.S. are affected by postpartum depression. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Melissa Divaris Thompson arrived home from the hospital on Christmas Eve nearly five years ago, she had her 3-day-old son in her arms. “Joy” was what Thompson, 40, expected to feel when she was greeted by a home-cooked meal from her brother and the sight of presents neatly arranged under the tree. But instead she was completely overwhelmed. “I just wanted to be in bed.”

Looking back, Thompson tells Yahoo Lifestyle, those early days of motherhood are when the first signs of postpartum depression appeared. “I remember crying and wondering if having a baby was a mistake,” she says. “I was sad, anxious, and exhausted. I felt small and young and questioned if I knew enough to be a mother. Being a therapist myself, I thought I would not be so rocked emotionally by having a baby — I was wrong.” Thompson, a New York City psychotherapist, says experiencing those symptoms in the midst of the typical merriment associated with the holiday season made her feel even more isolated.

But Chris Kernes, a licensed family and marriage therapist and co-founder of the therapy app LARKR, says Thompson is far from alone and that the holidays can be particularly hard on people with postpartum depression.

“Research suggests that people suffering from mental health issues are more symptomatic around the holidays,” Kernes tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “Contributing factors vary but are significant enough that they can be debilitating.”

The stress that often comes hand in hand with the holidays can increase postpartum depression symptoms — which can include irritability, crying, fatigue, depression, and loss of appetite — Kernes says. “Another factor is that the holidays send the message that this is the most wonderful time of the year, but for someone who is depressed, this suggestion could bring even more depressive symptoms because of the pressure to be and feel happy,” she says. “Feeling inept for not being able to enjoy or get in the spirit of the holidays can really take a toll on someone who is already suffering from depression.”

At least, that’s what happened to writer, speaker, and coach E. Danielle Butler, 33, whose daughter was 7 months old when the holidays rolled around. It was then that she realized she had been unknowingly suffering from postpartum depression. “To be honest, I don’t remember much about her first holidays,” says Butler, the author of Thoughts & Prayers for the Postpartum Mom. “I guess I was in the fog deeper than I truly realized and acknowledged.”

Butler says navigating postpartum depression during the holiday season also came with a lot of guilt. “I felt obligated to do so much, but just didn’t want to,” she says. “I believe the holidays make the symptoms of postpartum depression more difficult because you often want to be alone, but the holidays demand that you’re with people. There’s also the pressure of being ‘jolly,’ and it’s a battle to live up to that standard.”

Carly Snyder, MD, a reproductive psychiatrist in New York City, says Butler isn’t wrong. In fact, it’s not uncommon for women who are suffering from postpartum depression to feel their symptoms heighten during this time of the year.

“Some people with anxiety may find the holidays overwhelming and more stressful, thus worsening their symptoms,” Snyder says. “[And] people with depression may find it difficult to push themselves to attend the parties and may not enjoy the events as they once did.

“It is hard to smile and seem happy when you are not — it can feel that much more demoralizing when everyone else is festive and you feel profoundly sad and/or anxious.”

Snyder points out that holiday gatherings can also mean people sharing their parenting opinions and insight, which could lead to increased tension and anxiety for a mom.

“Unsolicited advice of this nature can be hurtful and frustrating at best and can worsen a woman’s already fragile confidence in her ability to parent,” she says. “Women suffering from a perinatal mood and/or anxiety disorder — such as postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety — are already very emotionally fragile and are more likely to feel criticized. An otherwise benign comment about what a baby is wearing or how Mom chose to swaddle the baby may be interpreted as a harsh rebuke and further a mom’s sense of inadequacy despite the person not truly meaning to be hurtful.”

For Bridget Croteau, 33, it was those types of pressures that especially made her feel like a failure as she struggled to breastfeed and bond with her daughter. “After a very difficult labor and delivery, my daughter was born and taken to the NICU for a week,” Croteau says. “I had expectations of ‘falling in love’ when I got to hold her for the first time, but I didn’t. I felt terrible about that — and I struggled to bond with her for a while.”

Croteau says learning to navigate life with a newborn — as well as postpartum depression — was made worse by the holidays. “I was in the early days of feeling awful,” she says. “I still baked cookies, shopped online, and decorated our tree — I tried my best to make her first Christmas special. I put on a smile for everyone even though inside I felt so sad.”

Like Croteau, Butler says she set the bar too high for the holiday season when her first child was born, which led her only to disappointment as she also dealt with symptoms of her postpartum depression. That’s why when her second child was born last year during the holiday season, she was sure to have a plan in place.

“It looked a little something like me relinquishing some of the duties and holiday hoopla that I usually indulged in,” Butler says. “I let someone else do the cooking. I shopped online to avoid crowds and hassle, and I limited the number of visitors.”

But most important, she says, she stepped away when she needed time to herself. “Instead of sitting and trying to dryly pretend that I didn’t want to cry for every and no particular reason at any given time, I excused myself, taking frequent moments away to nurse the baby or just sit in silence. It was beautiful.”

Today, Butler says she takes an antidepressant to help manage her symptoms and also holds steadfast to a self-care routine. That means saying no to events and lunch dates with friends when it’s necessary and being transparent with her family about what she needs.

“Be honest with your loved ones about what support looks like for you,” Butler says. “Some people’s idea of ‘help’ is much more stressful than assistive.”

Kernes agrees, adding that she routinely stresses the importance of self-care, which for her is the understanding that it’s OK to not be OK. “Know your limits and triggers and plan ahead to make sure you know how to deal with the warning signs,” she says. “Self-care also means making sure you get your needs met first before putting forth the needs of others.”

Or, as Snyder puts it, “Every mother deserves to enjoy motherhood to its fullest, but this can only happen if you give yourself the OK to focus on you and take the necessary time to heal.”

“Do what will make you feel the best not what you think you are supposed to do,” she says. “There is no reason to continue to suffer and no shame in having any mood symptoms during or after pregnancy — with treatment you will feel better.”

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