I gave birth to a baby boy five weeks ago. Things are going great with him. The problem is that my partner doesn’t really seem to be enjoying the experience at all. She seems irritable when I’m busy with the baby and annoyed whenever I give him to her. After taking two weeks off, she’s back working as late as ever. And then on weekends she always says she’s tired and needs to sleep, which I must say I find kind of annoying since I’m up all the time nursing. I don’t know if she’s jealous of my connection with the baby or what, but she’s really a downer. To complicate matters more, she does have a history of depression, though that was a long time ago when she was still dating men. How can I help her have a better time? I’m really loving being a mom, but I miss my girlfriend! – down by proxy
Dear down by proxy,
Though hormones sometimes take the rap for postpartum emo issues, the truth is that the life-wracking shock of new parenthood can send anyone reeling, whether or not their connection to the experience is biological. In fact, there’s a lot of research suggesting that social and support issues are just as likely as hormones to be at play when a person gets depressed postpartum. A recent study reiterated this by publicizing what many people have discovered firsthand: Dads get PPD too. And if dads can get it:well, it ain’t about what sex you are.
One study reported that lesbian mothers were actually more likely to experience PPD than hetero ones. The theory was that lack of support from family and society at large might be to blame. There’s obviously a huge range both personally and culturally, so it’s hard to say whether that might be part of what’s going on here. It’s also hard to say from the info you’ve given us what your partner’s relationship to the reproductive experience is herself. Does she see herself as a person who might want to birth a child someday, or is that not her bag? What is clear is that your partner’s in a new role. She may have imagined herself there for a long time, or feel completely thrown for a loop. She may have lots of models and lots of support, but she may not feel like she can measure up. Or she may have few models and feel unsure of how to get her footing. All these issues might be playing into what she’s feeling bad about. Or she may be just plain bummed out that her home has been invaded by an alien and her partner’s been usurped in the process. Jealousy is hugely common for partners, regardless of gender. Sometimes they just feel left out and respond by retreating rather than trying to find a way in.
So while it’s totally normal for any parent to feel completely groundless at this stage in the game, that doesn’t mean ignoring the problem will help it disappear. You’ve already started to express the seeds of resentment about her pulling away and leaving you with the bulk of the baby responsibility. Whatever your agreement about the day-to-day baby grind, having a partner who’s emotionally uninvolved is not healthy. And it’s probably a sign that if she’s not depressed already, she’s on her way there. People who have a history with depression are more vulnerable to a flare-up in the months after a baby’s born. Her depression may have been tied to her sexual identity somehow, which may or may not make it relevant here, but it’s not something to brush aside.
If you think you can do it from a place of understanding, try telling her that you want to talk about what’s going on. It’s been shown that partners are key in recognizing and finding help when it comes to postpartum depression. Another idea is to have a close friend whom you trust do the discussing. You know your partner and your relationship best, so you can decide how to address the challenges. Very often talking to other people who are in or have recently been in the same situation can be a huge relief. If you don’t feel there are likeminded people nearby, consider going online. The important thing is that she feels supported. Acknowledging that things aren’t okay – but that if you take action, they eventually will be – is a huge step.
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