How To Help Your Wife With Postpartum Depression (what I learned)

How To Help Your Wife With Postpartum Depression

What to do during an episode, and the advice I Needed when my wife had postpartum depression

My wife had postpartum depression, and it was the first time in my marriage that I really felt like a problem was out of my league.

I went through so much painful trial and error until we finally saw a counselor who had experience with PPD.  Only then was I confident that I was helping my wife survive PPD to the best of my ability.

I'd like to help you skip all the hard lessons... Instead, I'm going to teach you everything I wish I'd known from the beginning.  This post is divided up into two main parts:

  • 1
    During an episode -- When your wife is having a really bad day (I'm sure you know the kind I'm talking about), what should you do?  What is the 'right' way to handle it?
  • 2
    Big picture advice -- This is where you'll be learning the things you should be doing all the time as long as your wife has postpartum depression.

In The Moment:
Helping Your Wife Survive Intense Episodes Of Postpartum Depression

We’ll get to the big picture stuff - the stuff you should be doing all the time throughout your wife’s struggle with postpartum depression - but first I wanted to talk about how to handle those really bad days..

This is the part that took me a very, very long time to figure out:

  • What is the best way to handle a really bad episode of postpartum depression?
  • What do you do when your wife is expressing her anger or sadness in unhealthy ways?
  • How do you help her pull out of the depressive episode as quickly as possible?

I’ve made a list that runs through the details, but it can really be summed up in one sentence:

Help your wife during an episode of postpartum depression

Here’s a more detailed description of do’s and don’ts:

1.  Validate how she feels right now

Often times I would try to tell Kalee that things weren’t that bad, or that her feelings would pass.

This made her feel like I didn't hear her, or that her bad feelings weren’t real and that the only reason she felt them was because of poor self-control.

Instead, agree with how she’s feeling.  Validate it. 

Let her know that you hear her and that you support her even when she’s feeling bad.

Say things like, “Yeah, I agree, things suck right now,” and, “I see how much pain you’re in right now, I’m so sorry.”

2.  Don’t try to Force the mood To go away

It's not that you're not allowed to help your wife feel better.  It's that you can't make her feel like the only way she's doing a good job is if she immediately feels better.

Along the same lines as the first one, you really, really have to get rid of the ‘fixer’ mindset.

Know this: Nothing you say or do will instantly make her feel better.

Nothing.

Therefore, your goal is not to make her feel better in the moment... Your goal is to help her find the tools she needs to start working out of the funk.  There’s no shortcut.  Don’t try to make her feel better.  It will just come off as presumptuous and controlling.

Here are some of my most common mistakes that I learned to avoid:

You can't make her feel like the only way she's doing a good enough job is if the depression goes away.

  • I tried to correct her feelings or tell her why she should feel better.
  • I tried to tell her it’s not that bad.
  • I tried to tell her that she could feel better if she wanted to, that she was in control of her feelings.  This is not true when you're suffering from a mental illness!

3.  Offer to help or give her a break, but don’t insist

This is one that I was pretty good at, and looking back it is something that I think all men should do for their wife with postpartum depression.

Nine times out of 10, Kalee would turn down my offer for help immediately.  She would say, “No, I’m fine, I don’t need your help.”  Then I would say, “Okay, well let me know if you change your mind,” then I would give her some space and time to calm down and think.  Almost every time, she came back and accepted my offer to help.

It’s important that you offer help, but don’t force your wife to accept it.  Trust that she will accept help when she’s ready.

4.  Stay calm

This is another one I was pretty good at as I’m naturally slow to anger.  However, that’s not true for everyone so this needs to be said:

  • NEVER let yourself get heated with her during an episode of postpartum depression.
  • NEVER criticize what she’s doing or tell her she needs to do a better job.
  • NEVER ever get angry and tell her to get over it.

When she’s in an episode, that’s when it is crucial that you keep your cool and use your brain.

5.  Ask to use a tool from counseling

In counseling, Kalee and I learned some tools that we could take home with us.

One example was the Heart Talk, which is basically a routine for using “I feel” language (e.g. “When you do [insert problem], I feel [insert feeling].”).

This was great for postpartum depression because in the middle of an episode, we could say, “Hold on, let’s do a Heart Talk.”  We both knew what that meant and we knew the rules for having a Heart Talk, and it helped us remember that we’re on the same team.  This made it easier to take a breath, think about our feelings, and start really communicating.

6.  Be honest, gently

Kalee can always tell when I’m holding something back.  Chances are that your wife can too.

Being honest is always harder in the short-term, but better in the long-term.

If you’re feeling stressed or sad or frustrated and your wife asks how you feel, you’re allowed to tell her, but you need to be careful to say it gently and DO NOT blame her for those feelings.

Instead, tell her that you accept that this is challenging for both of you and that you know how you feel is nothing compared to how she feels.

Tell her that even though you might get frustrated sometimes, you still love her and that if it ever seems like you’re hiding how you feel in the moment, it’s because you want to do whatever you can to support her.

Important to note, do NOT make a habit of hiding how you feel from your wife.  For a long time I thought I was doing my wife a favor by swallowing my frustrations, especially about postpartum depression.  It’s harder to be honest in the short-term, but it’s better in the long-term.

7.  Let her cry or be alone or otherwise express her negative feelings How She Wants

Sometimes, Kalee just needed to cry.  Or go write in her sketchbook.  Or be alone and be sad.  That’s okay; she’s allowed to have those negative feelings and she’s allowed to cope with them in her own way.

It's not my place to tell her how to deal with her feelings.

Get out of her way, watch the kids, and let her do her thing.  Trust her to cope with her depression in the best way for her.  Plus, crying releases endorphins which are your body’s natural feel-better chemicals.

8.  Things Really Bad? Insist On Watching The Baby

If things really start to escalate, you may need to end it by suggesting that you both take a breather or by insisting that she lets you watch the baby alone.

There were only a couple times where I felt like the right thing was to insist on her taking space for herself, and it did not feel good.  This should never be a go-to solution, even if you know your wife really does need some space.  It is much, much better to offer or let her ask for it than to insist on it. You WILL come off controlling and mean if you do this.

But! If you know that your wife is going to do things that she will regret, or if you know that she is not capable of being a safe parent during a particularly nasty episode, you are allowed to make this call.

Surviving wifes postpartum depression 2

My biggest mistake?

I thought doing the right things during an episode meant that my wife would immediately feel better.

Therefore, if my wife didn’t feel better immediately, I must not have done the right things.

This is a trap I fell into many, many times.  This is a frustrating and futile way to think, and will make your wife’s struggle with postpartum depression much harder for both of you than it needs to be.

The important thing to remember in all of this is that even if you do the right things, it probably won’t feel better immediately.

Instead, accept that an episode of postpartum depression is always going to last a certain amount of time no matter what you or your wife does.  Patient support is the best tool to help your wife see through the haze of depression and remember her coping skills.

Big Picture Advice:
How To Support Your Wife When She Has Postpartum Depression

I’m going to start with the general advice for when your wife has postpartum depression.

These are things that you should be doing all the time.

Following this big picture advice will enable you to support your wife through PPD in the best way that you possibly can.

Don’t try to fix it; it’s not yours to fix

Sound familiar?  This is very similar to my first piece of advice if your wife is having an episode, and that’s because this fact forms the foundation of how you help your wife through PPD.

This "Fixer" mindset will be your Achilles' heel.

I’m a fixer by nature, so this was a HUGE struggle for me.  If I see a problem, I want to fix it.  And if I can’t fix it, that means I’m doing a bad job.

The thing is, your job right now is not to FIX your wife’s postpartum depression.

Why?  Because it’s not yours to fix. You can’t fix it.

Your job is to support your wife, love her, encourage her, forgive her… All of that.  But not to fix her.  You just can’t be the one to do that.

This ‘fixer’ mindset will be your Achilles heel.  It certainly was for me.

Trust me, I tried many, many times to fix my wife's postpartum depression for her, in many different ways.  It only made things worse.

Your wife can and will find her way out of postpartum depression.  But only she can do it.  You can’t do it for her.

Get help

The first major turning point in Kalee’s postpartum depression was identifying and admitting what she was struggling with.

The second major turning point was professional help in the form of counseling.

The moment that your wife tells you she might have postpartum depression, ask her to find a counselor she likes and make an appointment.

If she’s not interested, do it for her.  Make a list of female counselors who have experience with postpartum depression, and ideally who are moms themselves.

It’s important that your wife see a female counselor with real-life parenting experience so that she can take her seriously and be open and honest with her.

The sooner you get help, the faster she will recover AND the easier her recovery will be.

... And Don’t wait To Get Help!

I kept telling myself that things would get better on their own.  And after 14ish months of blind suffering, things did seem to get better for a little bit… Until we started foster care, and my wife’s PPD came back stronger than ever.

I know you think things will get better on their own.  She probably does too.  And honestly you might be right… It’s possible that the postpartum depression will eventually fade.

But, it won’t be resolved.  It won’t be healed.  And if you ever have another child, there is a very strong chance that her PPD will come back twice as strong as before.

I have seen plenty of marriages end in divorce because of postpartum depression.  Please, please take it seriously.  Humble yourself and get help.

Don’t make my mistake.  I was too proud to get help for too long.  If you’re anything like me, you already feel like this is more than you know how to deal with, so bite the bullet already.  Start looking for a counselor TODAY.

Help as much as you can, any way that you can think of

This is the one I was usually pretty good at.

Yes, it was very tiring.  Yes, my work and productivity suffered.  But it was worth it, because my actions proved to my wife that she wouldn’t struggle alone.  No matter what she needed, if I was able, I gave it to her.

When Eden was still breastfeeding, I never let my wife get up alone.  At the very least, I got up with her, helped her get setup for feeding, turned Netflix on her iPad while Eden nursed.  I changed Eden’s diaper when she was done.

Notice there’s a difference between helping and fixing.  Helping is making your wife’s life easier.  Fixing is trying to take control.

HELPING is making her life easier. FIXING is trying to take control. Don't fix, help! 

If this is something you’re already doing, keep it up.   If it’s not, start now.

  • Help out with childcare as much as you can.
  • Cook as much as you can.
  • Clean as much as you can.
  • Don’t let your honey-do list get too long (this is one I was not as good at… I let several car problems go way too long).
  • Offer her as many breaks as you can.

Yes, it means taking on more than your fair share, and many times your wife won’t be able to offer you very much thanks or praise.  That’s okay – that’s not why you’re doing it.  You’re doing it because you want to help her; if you know you’re doing that, you can live without the thanks.  That’s a sacrifice you can make.

Tell her she’s doing a good job

Your wife needs to hear that she’s doing a good job.

She needs to hear that you believe in her and that things are getting better.

Ideally you can be specific.  Try to find things that she’s doing well that you can praise her for.  Here’s an example:

"Good job watching Eden this morning!  I saw how cranky she was, so it's really impressive that you kept your cool.  That seems like great progress!

See, there you’re being specific about something she did.  It doesn’t matter whether you saw something she could have done better, or if it wasn’t perfect, just praise her!

Even if you can’t be specific, or if you think that anything specific will come off as pressuring her to perform, go for the supportive side… Say stuff like, “I know this is hard, but I really think you’re doing an amazing job at this.”

Encourage In The Good Times & Bad

Also, remember that she needs encouragement and praise on the good days AND on the bad.

If you only praise your wife on the days where she’s feeling good, over time it will feel like your love and appreciation is conditional.  This may not come up in the first few weeks, but if this journey lasts months then your wife will catch on that you’re only encouraging her on the good days.

This is a habit that I fell into without realizing it, and it made my wife feel like I only thought she was doing a good job when things were easiest for her.

Pick your battles & Respect Her Limits

If there is something that you disagree about, let her have the final call, especially if it affects her more than you.

Ok, I have to give some background on.  Here are two examples where I did NOT follow this advice:

I Pushed Too Hard For Breastfeeding

Both times that Kalee suffered from postpartum depression, there were major instances when I held on to what I wanted for too long.

If I could go back in time, I would say, "Kalee, I trust that you know your limits better than I do."

After Eden was born, it was the breastfeeding.  I really wanted to wait at least 6 months before even starting to introduce formula.  This is something I’d decided before Eden was born, and I stuck to it even though Eden had a tongue-tie and even though our pediatrician wanted us to start using formula at the 3-month mark.

Kalee was pumping around the clock and Eden still wasn’t getting enough, but I held onto what I thought was the “right decision”.

I refused to see that the added pressure or breastfeeding was killing my wife, and that despite what the breastfeed-only camp would have me believe, formula wouldn’t ruin my daughter’s development.  In fact, it helped it because she was finally getting enough to eat.

If I could go back in time, the moment that Kalee told me that she wanted to start using formula, I would do one thing… I would say, “Okay, I trust your judgment.”

I Pushed Too Hard For Foster Care

With our foster son, we were in a similar-but-different situation.

I desperately wanted it to work out and hoped to adopt M, but Kalee repeatedly told me it was getting too hard and that it just wasn’t working for her.  She told me that I was asking her to do something she couldn’t do.  I pushed her to keep going, and meanwhile I kept trying to take on more and more and more to make it work, but everything around me kept getting worse.

Again, if I could go back, I would say, "Kalee, I trust that you know your limits better than I do."

Don’t get me wrong.  These are big decisions and I was very convinced that my way was right.  But I was wrong, and my prideful stubbornness made both mine and my wife’s life much harder in an already hard situation.

Pushing your wife to do what she cannot do will only make her feel like she's not good enough.

Heed my advice: Listen when your wife tells you she can’t do something.

Sometimes to lead, you need admit that you're wrong.  If what she wants doesn’t harm her or your baby, give it to her, even if it goes against what you want or think is best.  Trust that she knows her limits, especially if she keeps telling you she's already passed them.

Forgive, forgive, forgive

You and your wife will both do things that hurt the other in ways that you may have never before experienced in your marriage.  Postpartum depression can destroy marriages and shatter families.  Do not underestimate it.

There will be times where you will lose trust in each other.

There will be times where you both feel betrayed.

Everyone has times like this in their marriage.  If it isn’t postpartum depression, it will be something else.

In times like this, lean on your commitment to the marriage, and from that draw the strength to forgive.  Stick to what you know is important.  Read the forgiveness chapter in Manly Marriage Revival.

Forgive your wife during postnatal depression

Forgive yourself too

Just like you’ll need to forgive your wife, you’ll also need to forgive yourself.  Even after knowing all the right things, you’ll still make mistakes.

Not to toot my own horn here, but I literally write about being a good husband for a living, and I still made many mistakes in helping my wife with postpartum depression.

The reality is that supporting your wife during this time is hard.  It is hard to be the one who always has to keep your cool and remain encouraging.  It's really hard.  So go easy on yourself.  And same for your wife -- enduring postpartum depression is hard, very hard.  Help her forgive herself too.  You do that by being gracious with her.

The moment you start wallowing in guilt over a mistake that you’ve made is the moment that you will stop serving your wife the way you should.  Learn from it so as not to repeat it, then move on and focus on helping her in the now.

Keep up your self-care

As things get harder, those self-care habits are often the first to go.  That is exactly the opposite of what should happen.

It’s the classic airplane oxygen mask analogy.  On an airplane, they always tell you to put on your oxygen mask before helping your family put on theirs… That’s because you can’t help your family if you’re at risk of collapse yourself.

You have to stay focused.  You have to stay on your game.  To do that, you need to take care of yourself.

It's the stuff you do to keep yourself happy, helpful and patient.

Self-care is a phrase you’ll hear a lot in counseling.  It’s the stuff you do to keep yourself functional, and to make sure you stay happy, helpful and patient at all times.

Take your self-care seriously.

Use your rest time wisely.  Keep up your daily disciplines, whatever they may be.  For me, it was spending time reading my Bible and getting SOME additional quiet alone time to just read or browse my favorite blogs or play video games.

When your life or your marriage is in crisis, you NEED good self-care to prevent yourself from spiraling into survival mode or desperation.  Again, you won’t be the man you need to be if you don’t take care of yourself.

How Long Does It Take For Pospartum Depression To Get Better?

Once your wife starts seeking professional help, my personal estimate would be to allow 2-6 months for full recovery.

But it depends.

It doesn't take much looking around to find cases of PPD lasting 2+ years

If you go by the book, postpartum depression can last up to 12 months.  However, it doesn’t take much looking around to find women who’ve suffered from PPD for upwards of two years, especially when a second child is born relatively close to the first.

This is what happened to Kalee and I.  We had no idea she was dealing with postpartum depression after Eden was born; we just knew things were really hard.  When it got (mostly) better on its own after about 14 months, we chalked it up to normal new parent struggles and moved on.

... Until we had a foster child in our home around the time Eden was 18 months old, and that brought Kalee’s PPD back stronger than before (in addition to being extremely challenging on its own). After a few more months the second time around, we finally got counseling for Kalee's PPD and things started getting better.

All told, I would estimate that Kalee has spent a total of 22 to 24 months dealing with postpartum depression, with a roughly four month break around month 14.

What Makes PPD Last So Long?

Put simply, because most women don't get help.

Only 15% of women who develop postpartum depression EVER seek treatment.

I've had several men Inside the Haven whose wives have had postpartum depression three or four times, and only on the last child did they finally realize it.

Recovery is not guaranteed without help.  On the flip side, recovery can happen very quickly with professional help... Sometimes symptoms can go away in as little as 2 months, but usually between 4 and 6 months of counseling (and sometimes medication) is needed. 

The longer that your wife has been dealing with PPD, the longer and more difficult recovery will be.  If you give it time to root itself in her mind, it will take even longer to weed out.

This is what makes postpartum depression so dangerous, and how it can destroy marriages and families.  No matter how healthy your marriage is beforehand, suffering through YEARS of postpartum depression is enough to severely damage any relationship.

The moral of the story is, get help ASAP.

In the meantime, be loving, patient, encouraging and forgiving.  Stay strong as the rock of the family.

This too shall pass.

Much manly love,
- Stephen

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