As a new mom, I think the key to maintaining mental health postpartum is vigilance – whether it’s by taking your medications, seeing your therapist, or whatever else you find works.
I am a new mom, and I have bipolar disorder. There may be nothing particularly unique about this, but let me rephrase it – I am a new mom, and I am successfully managing my bipolar disorder. I am not writing this to pat myself on the back, or even to tell you that I have all the answers. I simply want to share what has worked for me, and what I hope can help others. As a new mom I receive plenty of parenting advice. And living with bipolar disorder, I receive plenty of wellness advice. In some ways, advice for new moms is actually very good advice for people with bipolar disorder. In other ways, new mom advice requires a bit of creative tailoring to make it work for those of us with bipolar disorder. So here are the top ten tips I’ve found that help me manage both:
1) Sleep when the baby sleeps
This is perhaps the most oft-repeated piece of advice from the new mom archives. It may sound fairly reasonable, however, I wasn’t sure it would work for me. Since I used to nap the day away during my depressive episodes, I long ago decided that naps were not a healthy habit for me. Naps remind me of being depressed. However, sleep is also one of the most important ways people with bipolar disorder can stay healthy. But for a new mom, a full night’s sleep is not really an option. So now I take naps when I can, taking a moment to check on my mood before and after. Am I taking a nap because I want an escape (indicating possible depression), or because I’m genuinely exhausted (indicating I’m just a new mom!)? Afterwards do I feel worse (depression), or do I feel somewhat revived (new mom!)?
2) Accept help
I’ve never been very good at accepting help, usually because I like to be in control and am a bit of a perfectionist. However, being a new mom I’ve found that there are very few things I can control, but I can accept help. When someone offers to help I can actually get more done, and thereby have a little more semblance of order in my life (if not control).
3) Ask for help
As bad as I am at accepting help, I’m even worse at asking for help. Whether with bipolar disorder or new motherhood, it is equally important to ask for help when we need it. If someone can’t help they will say so, and you’ve lost nothing by asking. More often than not, I’ve found that people are happy to help.
4) Slow down to baby’s pace
New babies tend to be on their own schedule. They are not concerned that you have a doctor’s appointment in ten minutes, or a blog to write, or even whether it’s day or night. They will sleep, eat, and play when they want. And as long as you slow down to their pace, this is actually OK! It’s also a good way to manage bipolar symptoms – a certain amount of so-called laziness is good for us. Slow down to a pace that works for you, not the rest of the world.
5) Cultivate patience
This really goes along with slowing down to baby’s pace. Once you can slow down, patience comes a lot more easily. In order to cultivate patience, I make sure that I don’t schedule too much in one day, and that my to-do list is fairly flexible. By scheduling only one or two things per day, I slow down to my daughter’s pace instead of getting impatient with her for not keeping up with mine.
6) Go outside every day
Nature and sunlight are so important to our mental health. Because I live in a fairly cold and cloudy part of the world, I take every chance I can to enjoy the sunlight when it shows up. Even getting outside for fifteen minutes can do me and my baby a world of good.
7) Stay in contact with your psychiatrist
I made the decision to go off of my medications while pregnant, and have decided to stay off of them while breastfeeding. This is a decision I discussed with my psychiatrist and continue to discuss as time goes on. I have regular appointments simply to check in, and I remain a patient should the need arise for medications in the future. Whatever your decision surrounding medications and pregnancy, always talk to your doctor first.
8) See your therapist regularly
While I feel great without medications, I could not do without seeing my therapist. If you do not have a therapist you feel comfortable with, don’t give up the search. Finding the right therapist can do wonders for your recovery.
9) Keep communication open with your supports
Besides talking to my therapist, I have a small but strong family support system in place. I make sure these people are aware of any potential mood changes or difficulties I’m having. In the past it wasn’t always easy for me to be honest about my mood changes. Now, I don’t let anything get in the way of my daughter’s well-being.
10) Practice gratitude
This one is important for everyone. I practice gratitude through prayer and thanking God, but also by saying thank you to my partner and others throughout the day.
Alright, now there’s one more thing I want to talk about. While the above tips have absolutely helped me maintain my postpartum wellness, they are not the whole picture. There is one more thing I did that I would be remiss in leaving out. I had my placenta dried and made into capsules that I took every day for a month. Now, before you freak out, let me explain. I used a professional service that came to my home and did an amazing job. Many cultures throughout history and throughout the world have understood that the placenta carries many benefits for postpartum recovery. It is full of nutrients and hormones that help bridge the gap in hormone production that occurs after birth. It has been useful for many women not only for physical postpartum recovery, but also mentally by helping them avoid the “baby blues” and even postpartum depression.
And it worked for me. How can I say for sure? This was my first pregnancy so I don’t exactly have anything to compare it to, but I can tell you this: the risk of postpartum depression for women with bipolar disorder is approximately 52%. The risk for postpartum depression in the general population is about 15%. The odds were not exactly in my favor, yet I have remained stable for the three months since I’ve had my baby (and my entire pregnancy as well). At the same time, I’ve been vigilant about maintaining my mental health and communicating with my practitioners, my partner, and my family. And just because I’ve had a very good mental health year doesn’t mean I will be letting down my guard anytime soon. I think the key to maintaining mental health postpartum (and at any other time) is vigilance – whether it’s by taking your medications, seeing your therapist, communicating with your support system, or whatever else you find works. You can always talk to other women about what has worked for them, but in the end, you know yourself best. Trust your new mom instincts.
April lived undiagnosed with bipolar disorder for ten years until 2013. As a teenager she was diagnosed with depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, anorexia, and bulimia. Finally, after a long mania ending in psychosis, she was hospitalized and diagnosed with Bipolar I. This eventually led her to learn as much as she could about her diagnosis. She became an advocate for bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses. April is also a resource person for the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders. She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Non-profit Management from DePaul University in Chicago, IL and works as an editor and proofreader. April lives in upstate New York with her husband, beautiful baby girl, and rambunctious bichon schnauzer.
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