Care and Feeding

How Do I Talk to My Children About My Postpartum Depression?

I’m just not the parent I would like to be.

Sad-looking mom hugging her sad-looking young son
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Waranya Sawasdee/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I have a 5-year-old kid and an 8-month-old baby. The birth didn’t go so well for me; the baby is fine, but I am left with a number of ongoing issues, including some chronic pain. I am having treatment for these issues and anticipate some of it will ease, but also that some will continue.

Because I am in physical pain and discomfort often and am also pretty depressed, I am not the parent I would like to be. My son does see me cry on occasion, and I sometimes have to withdraw to prevent myself from getting overwhelmed. We have made it clear to him that mama is in pain (“giant booboo”), and that is why she is sad sometimes and can’t always play, and that it has nothing to do with him. He knows it has to do with having a baby, and we have told him that having a baby is hard and can hurt for a while after.

His father is very involved, and he is in an excellent pre-K program. We try to keep his schedule as normal as possible. Do you think I should not relate my ongoing situation to birth? I don’t want him to resent the new baby or me, but I feel like if I give no explanation, he may blame himself somehow. The baby obviously knows nothing about this right now, but I don’t want her to grow up feeling bad either.

—Not the Mama I Should Be

Dear NtMISB,

First of all, I am so sorry that you are having this sort of postpartum experience. Knowing that it is quite common isn’t likely to bring you much peace, but I hope you are at least able to understand that there is no reason for you to feel guilt or disappointment in yourself due to the circumstances of your delivery.

I think it is important that partners, children, and other family members understand the toll that giving birth can take on someone they love. While it is totally appropriate to filter how and what we communicate to our children about our greatest challenges, you should not feel as though you have to hide that this birth was difficult to prevent your little ones from feeling resentment or guilt. Like you, they did nothing to cause what happened, and like you, they will have to grapple with what comes of it.

You can and must do your best to help both kids make sense of it in age-appropriate ways, but I personally don’t think you should overly concern yourself with the idea of them feeling like your daughter is to blame. The key words are age-appropriate. Your son is old enough to learn that pregnancy and delivery can be hard on a mommy’s body and that, unfortunately, that was the case in the delivery of your second child. However, that doesn’t mean that you’re any less excited about welcoming her into your family, nor do you regret having her in the first place. Emphasize how happy you are about the arrival of your daughter and, again, that what happened in the delivery was not anyone’s fault, and that you will hopefully continue to improve and feel more like your old self in time.

As for you and your healing, I strongly recommend that you seek professional help for your recovery process if you haven’t already. A dramatic pregnancy can have long-term effects on a mother, as you know, and there are two very young children who need you to feel OK. Furthermore, you need yourself, and you need to get to a point where you can be at peace with the trauma of this birth so that you may move on with your life. Sending you lots of love.