“They’d be better off without me.”
“I can’t do this. What am I doing here?”
“How am I supposed to do this everyday for the rest of my life?”
I hear sentences like these frequently in my work with postpartum parents. It is heartbreaking and I know that when someone gets to this place of rock bottom they are feeling helpless and overwhelmed. I’d love for the postpartum months to be an amazing time for parents, but oftentimes it’s not easy. Sure, the baby is cute. But the baby also keeps crying, won’t latch on properly and refuses to take a nap. It’s easy to get caught in a negative spiral of fatigue and insecurities. When this phase goes on long enough, many parents start to have passive or active thoughts of suicide.
Suicide is a taboo topic, and it’s hard to talk about having these thoughts openly. Unfortunately, keeping our feelings buried tends to backlash for the majority of us. Postpartum depression does not necessarily mean you will have suicidal thoughts. However, when we are vulnerable, it’s not uncommon for our thoughts to shift into this space. Whether we are struggling with our baby, handling new stressors as a result of the baby (e.g. financial burdens, isolation), or addressing our already existing mental health diagnoses in combination with a baby, we want an escape. Suicide provides us one of the fastest option for escape. My hope today is to help you recognize that there are safe ways to support you. We can talk openly about suicide and get you to a place of feeling more at peace so that you no longer feel the desperate need to escape.
Step One: Name it
Mental health sucks. In our culture of independent, pinterest-loving super moms, it’s so hard to say that we’re struggling. The statistics for postpartum depression is 1 in 7 moms and 1 in 10 dads; these parents are not all seeking out help.
I appreciate the strong desire to be independent and feel competent. I have parts of me that also feel adamant to manage on my own. We can play this game for a long time and test our limit of how much we can handle. However, there comes a point when we recognize that even our best efforts are not actually effective. Despite going for a walk, eating well, or calling a friend, at the end of the day, you still feel bleak and beyond help.
The first step in getting better involves accepting that you’re struggling with postpartum mental health. This is not your fault. When it comes to postpartum moods, there are so many lifestyle changes and hormonal changes that are beyond your control. This is not just a matter of will power. If you truly could manage to get through these months with determination and grit, I promise, you would have done it. However, if you realize that something is still feeling off, name this. Acknowledge that there is a part of you that is really having a hard time and is feeling helpless. This part deserves the space to talk, process, and recover.
Step Two: Reduce isolation
There is a reason that we have the saying, “it takes a village to raise a child.” Childrearing should be done with support, and in our culture, we don’t often have the network nearby. In line with our independent values, we are not always comfortable reaching out to these village members.
In encouraging a stronger support network, I ask that you reach out to any means of support that you feel is genuinely helpful and compassionate. This may include contacting family members, friends, neighbours, support groups, mental health counsellors, health care professionals, really, anyone who you feel safe around. If our loved ones are unaware of how much we are struggling, they may not recognize the need to offer help.
I know that some of us do not have the best support team. Sometimes our family members cause more harm than good. Their offering of help may come with judgments, criticism, or other consequences that make you feel worse than when you started off. Sometimes our family members become overwhelmed when we share our mental health struggles. Ironically, you may end up spending more time consoling them that your own needs are not addressed. In these situations, I encourage you to reach out to a local therapist (if financially feasible), or to find a non-profit counselling agency. Connecting with postpartum programs (e.g. Pregnancy and Postpartum Mood Disorders Program, Stork Secrets, Postpartum Support International) can help you find safe others that truly understand and are capable of helping with thoughts of suicide.
Your internal system
In Internal Family Systems Therapy, we recognize that our internal system is divided into parts. There are parts of us that are carrying wounds from the past (e.g. abandonment, betrayal, shame). These parts of our personality are often pushed away because they are too painful to acknowledge. In pushing away, we form protective layers. There are managerial parts of our system that work to prevent these wounds from getting triggered. These manager parts can appear as perfectionists, hard-working, critical, or conflict-avoidant. Their roles in our system is to run our day-to-day functioning without having our deepest burdens and wounds show up.
As I said before, when we push our feelings away, they tend to backlash. At some point, we get triggered. At these moments, we have reactive parts of our system that take over. They work to get rid of these vulnerable feelings as quickly as possible (e.g. drinking, anger, suicide). Ironically, whether our parts are playing a reactive or preventative role, there is a protective intent to help you from being overwhelmed by your wounds.
Step 3: Meet the key players of your internal system
In therapy, I work with clients to get to know all of the parts involved in pushing you towards or protecting you from suicide. We work on skills to separate from these intense emotions so we can observe them, hear them out, understand their fears and concerns, and have a better relationship with them. Can you imagine how you would feel if, when sadness took over, you could actually have the capacity to listen to it calmly without becoming overwhelmed? That is the beauty of IFS. When we can step back and listen to our system, we can begin to hear the fears, concerns and protective intent of even our harshest emotions. We are able to access those underlying wounds and support their recovery so that the rest of your system does not have to work so hard at preventing or reacting to triggers.
I understand this may sound unbelievable to many people. After all, you may have experienced suicidal thoughts for months and come to terms that you are “just an anxious mess” or “a pathetic parent.” Therapy can help shift this outlook. You are more than your anxieties, depression or other extreme parts.
Step Four: Address your coping mechanisms
In therapy, we take a close look at the patterns that your parts take on when they are active. We pay attention to what triggers your extreme emotions. We look at all of the coping mechanisms that are used to manage these extreme emotions.
For many postpartum parents, their biggest fear is feeling incapable of taking care of their baby. When this fear gets triggered, these parents respond in anyway or form to self-soothe. Some of parents turn to drinking to help these thoughts calm down. Others look to their partners, parents or loved ones to take over, and avoid any time alone with their infant. Some parents get caught in a spiral of self-hatred, focusing on criticising themselves for being incapable. In therapy, we look at all of these coping mechanisms without judgement. These are the strategies that have kept you going all of these months, and we want to work with each piece respectfully, and discuss opportunities for change.
Change comes in many different ways. Each parent is unique and I don’t want to give generic advice when your needs may be significantly different from the next person. What’s important in understanding our system is that we learn to slow down to get to know these key parts better. We want to build trust that these coping mechanisms no longer have to be employed to keep us safe. We want to have permission to address those underlying wounds so that you have permanent healing.
Suicide is a quick fix for a problem with many alternative solutions
When it comes to postpartum care, I get that suicide is a fast response. We are struggling and we want the struggle to be over. Ending our life would be the fastest option out. While this may be true, this is a decision you can never take back. Before any part of you makes that ultimate choice, it’s important to ensure all of your alternative options are tested. The struggle in this request is that we may need some time to try out these other options. Your suicidal part is taking a risk in working with me. Rather than having a quick fix, I’m asking that we make some permanent shifts so that life does not feel so miserable.
If you would like to talk further, please feel free to reach out.