Preventing PPD 6: Taking care of yourself emotionally

This is Part 6 of my Preventing PPD series. Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, Part 3 is here, Part 4 is here, and Part 5 is here.

Even when you're taking care of yourself physically, you can still slip into depression if you aren't taking care of yourself emotionally. It's hard, when you're pouring so much love into this tiny creature who may not even be able to smile back at you yet, to love yourself, but here are some steps you can take to help ensure that your emotional cup gets filled every day.

Maintain basic levels of hygiene. This sounds almost insulting, because maintaining basic levels of hygiene is just a given, right? But when you have a baby, it's so easy to get caught up in the millions of things that need to be done, plus the non-stop drudgery of it all, that you neglect basic tasks like taking a shower and brushing your teeth.

The simplest way to make sure you get youself washed adequately is to stick to a routine. Maybe you hand the baby to your partner when s/he walks in the door and take a shower right then. Maybe you bring the baby into the bathroom with you and let him or her lie on a soft blanket or in a laundry basket or a bouncy seat while you shower right after the first nursing of the day. Play around with it to see what works best, then just stick to that schedule. You'll feel so much more human if you're clean.

Talk to adults every day. The best scenario is that you have plenty of mom-friends and you go to each others' houses to hang out and share the experience, But if you're not there yet, you should still make the effort to talk to at least one other adult every day. For months after the birth of my first son I called my mother three times a day (sometimes more). One day she told me she knew I was out of danger of PPD because I'd only called her once a day for the previous week.

If you can, you should try to get out to hang out with some other mothers. The breastfeeding group you researched before you had the baby is a good place to go, as is any kind of new moms' meeting you can find. But even if you can't find an actual meeting, it's vital to try to connect with other women going through the same changes you're experiencing right now.

If you have absolutely no one you can go see or call up and talk to who will understand, at least log on to your computer. Message boards and blogs have saved the sanity of more new mothers than anyone can know. The other benefit of "friends inside the computer" is that you can access them at odd times of day and night.

Maintain a routine. You have a little baby, so you can't stick to a strict schedule with any reliability, but you can establish a general routine and stick to it. Figure out if your baby has developed any preferences yet for nap times or anything like that, and then make up a routine. It'll evolve over time, but even the first day you'll feel better if you know what's coming next.

A sample (realistic) schedule to start with could look like this:

  • Wake up, feed baby, feed self.
  • Shower, get dressed. Change diaper and baby clothes.
  • Hang out while "playing with baby," or feeling guilty about not knowing what to do with baby.
  • Feed baby again, baby sleeps for 30 minutes. Feel like you should be doing something, but can't remember what, so zone out on the couch until baby wakes up.
  • Change baby's diaper.
  • Scrounge up some lunch for yourself and feed self while holding baby.
  • Clean dropped food off baby's head.
  • Get everything together for trip outside the house. Stop to feed baby, then change diaper again. Finally leave the house on errand.
  • Do errand. Panic every time the baby starts to cry in public.
  • Come home from errand. Put baby down for nap.
  • Call your mother and ask for her sympathy without coming directly out and asking for it.
  • Change diaper. Feed baby. Change diaper again.
  • Turn on the TV and watch the Food Network, rationalizing that it's educational and therefore good for the baby. When will your partner be home from work?
  • Check cell phone to make sure your partner didn't try to call to say s/he'd left work yet.
  • Hear partner's key in the lock and run to the door to hand off the baby.
  • Suffer option paralysis about what to do in 30 minutes without the baby.

Get out of the house every day. Unless it's a true blizzard, you need to get out of the house every single day. Staying inside is a recipe for navel-gazing, which is going to lead you to feeling sorry for yourself. Getting out at least once will put you in contact with the outer world. Being out in nature will help you if all you do is go for a walk. And if you go out and see other people, they will say nice things about your baby and you'll get to have a little human interaction, which will do your spirit good.

Going out at approximately the same time every day will help your body and mind, and your baby, adjust to your routine. You'll probably be in a better frame of mind if you have an actual mission to accomplish outisde, whether it's seeing other people, or running an errand, or even walking a circuit, but be sure to go out even when you have no plan in mind.

Hire help if you can. If you can afford it, consider hiring someone else to come clean your house every few weeks, or to take care of the baby for a few hours while you sleep or do something fun for yourself. It's not easy emotionally to be on duty around the clock, or to juggle all the baby stuff with the other stuff that needs to happen. If you can afford it, take the help. It'll keep you on a more even keel, which is much more important for the baby and for your family than having you struggle through it just because you can.

Work together with your partner. Presumably, your partner loves you just as you are. (If you don't agree with this statement instantly, then you probably need to examine your relationship and consider changing some things.) S/he wants things to be as easy and satisfying for you as possible. That means that if something isn't working for you, you owe it to your whole family to talk with your partner and ask for help with whatever can improve your situation.

Maintain a spiritual practice that feeds you. If you practiced a religion before you had the baby, stay in touch with it. Your faith community will be happy to see you with your new baby. If you aren't part of any organized group, be sure to take the time to regenerate your spirit daily in a way that's meaningful to you. Prayer, meditation, yoga, walking in nature, reading things that uplift or relax you, listening to good music. All these things can help nurture your spirit and keep your moods even.

Keep in touch with your friends. Even if your friends don't have children, they can still be good sources of support and encouragement for you. And your friends who have older children will probably remember exactly what this phase was like and can give you more than a little sympathy.