Postpartum Depression: When It’s More Than Just The Baby Blues
".... I never needed medication, but I did need my husband's help and understanding..."
The first apartment where my husband and I lived had six stories, and we lived on the sixth floor. I remember this clearly because in the months after my first son was born, I spent way too much time hanging out laundry and hoping that somehow, just somehow, I would accidentally fall off our sixth floor balcony and die.
Astaghfirullah – there wasn't anything really wrong with my life, and I had no reason to contemplate suicide even in such an indirect way. My husband was loving and supportive and adored our new son. I had very few responsibilities other than taking care of the baby, the house, and myself. I had enough food, enough money, and comfortable shelter over my head, but unfortunately, I also had postpartum depression.
Our well-meaning, traditional matriarchs might ask what all this postpartum depression nonsense is all about. After all when your baby is a newborn you're SUPPOSED to be miserable – they call that the baby blues. You're sleep-deprived, learning how to feed your baby for the first time, constantly worried about temperature, safety, illness, and of course, the routine running of the household. You can be expected to feel a little challenged – that's what new motherhood is all about – but suicidal?
There are differences between the baby blues and postpartum depression, and these differences are important. Both postpartum depression and the baby blues can leave you feeling out of sorts in a variety of ways, but the baby blues usually get better on their own within two weeks. Postpartum depression doesn't.
Postpartum depression can last for months, and it can take away your ability to eat, sleep properly, interact with family and friends, or even bond with your baby. This is all made worse by anxiety, feelings of guilt and inadequacy given the task at hand, as well as dangerous thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.
In my case, PPD meant that I alternated between wishing I would die and then feeling terrified that something would happen to me, leaving my newborn son without a mother. I was chronically sleep deprived, but when my son finally went to sleep, I lay in bed wide-eyed, jittery, and unable to sleep or stay asleep for very long. I would hear him crying for me -even if he was dozing peacefully in his bouncer or out for a walk with his father- and the sound of his wailing haunted me.
Sometimes people tell you that there is no depression in Islam. I'm not sure why they say this, because Allāh would not tell us that our hearts would find rest in remembering Him if our hearts were not restless in the first place. Allāh would not give us a healing for our hearts if our hearts did not need healing -but from a cultural point of view, admitting to depression is taboo. So, I told no one but my husband, and all I told him was that I was struggling a bit.
Alḥamdulillāh as the weeks passed slowly into months my son grew, I slowly regained control, got over the insomnia, and stopped wishing I would die. I told no one else though, until a year later when a friend of mine called and said, straight to the point, "I'm taking a survey on postpartum depression. My mother in law says it doesn't exist, but I can't sleep, am mentally paralyzed and don't eat for 36 hours at a time. How about you?"
When the baby cried, I did too. And babies cry alot.
How about me? Well, I had PPD after my daughter was born as well, and this time it was so severe that I would have sudden panic attacks, complete with chest pain, overwhelming hopelessness, and the feeling that life would never, ever be normal again. When the baby cried, so did I.
I love my children -after Islam I consider my children to be the biggest blessings Allāh has bestowed on me- but the combination of fluctuating post-pregnancy hormones, sleep deprivation, and newborn stress does something to my brain that is not normal.
How did I get out of PPD? Alḥamdulillāh, I never needed medication, but I did need my husband's help and understanding. And of course, I needed healing for my heart- I needed Qur'an. When I felt like the walls were closing in on me and I could feel anxiety closing tightly around my throat- I would start reciting Qur'an, and I wouldn't stop until I felt better.
Sometimes, I recited Qur'an for a VERY long time, but I knew that was the only thing that would let me breathe more freely, remember Allāh's blessings upon me, and calm my heart in a way that reason cannot ever begin to explain. I began to memorize new surahs, and I began to fall in love with ayahs that spoke directly to my pain.
Two years after my daughter's birth, I had a miscarriage. Outwardly, I managed to keep things together, but I spent months crying alone and feeling guilty for wanting something that Allāh had not decreed for me. I found myself needing more than Qur'an to pick up the broken pieces of my well-being.
Alḥamdulillāh, my husband pushed me to start attending Islamic classes, and the light of new knowledge pushed the darkness away, even if the darkness had more to do with loss than a crisis of faith. Here I was struggling with my own depression as well as raising two young children- I was in pain that had nothing to do with 'Ilm, but the more 'Ilm I sought, the smaller my pain became. Eventually, it was replaced with joy and lightness in my heart that I have only ever felt when my īmān is on a high, and to this day, I know that if I start to feel darkness creeping in on me, I need to look for light. Whether I find it in the Qur'an or in 'Ilm, I need to find it and hold on to it until the darkness goes away.
That's my experience with postpartum depression, and every mother who struggles with it will probably have a different story to tell. The blessing of being a Muslim though, is that every one of us can benefit from the healing that Allāh has placed in the Qur'an.
"Verily in remembering Allāh do hearts find rest." The Holy Qur'an, surah 13 Ar-Ra'ad, āyah 38
If you are a new mother, you're probably over-worked, exhausted, and damp with baby body fluids of one kind or another at any given moment- but you should not feel hopeless, depressed, afraid or resentful of your baby, or worse -suicidal. You shouldn't be afraid of reaching out for help, whether to your husband or to a close friend. You would be surprised how many people have gone through postpartum depression, and the support that an experienced friend can offer you is priceless. Most importantly, you should not underestimate the power of du'ā' and Qur'an on a bruised and broken heart.
If you're a new father, please be aware that postpartum depression is real, and so is the social stigma and shame that might prevent your wife from telling you that she needs help. Please take a moment to learn more about it, because the healthier your wife is, the happier and healthier your entire family will be.
May Allāh strengthen us all and give us the patience to see our hardships through to the ease He has promised, and help us to remember Allāh's promise that no soul will be burdened than more than it can bear.