My Postpartum Therapist Understood Me like a Friend, but I Needed More Than That

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When I sought out therapy after a tough pregnancy and traumatic childbirth, Deborah seemed perfect. An LCSW and former nurse who specialized in obstetric mental health, she was a mom herself and a free-spirited creative writer like me. When I asked if I could bring my baby to our sessions, she was the only clinician who agreed—enthusiastically. What could go wrong?

“I’m trying not to be distracted by the baby’s cuteness,” she kept saying during our sessions as I breastfed. Sometimes I thought of Deborah as an aunt or mother figure watching my baby grow. This felt right to me because, at the time, I thought an ideal therapist should be like a friend or mentor. Indeed, Deborah seemed like the kind of woman I wanted to be in 20 years. An artist, a feminist, and hippie, she had a huge smile and infectious laugh. She wore cool red glasses (I had the same pair in electric blue).

Also, she was a neighbor, so I bumped into her regularly at our local Dunkin’ Donuts. When she frequently texted between sessions, asking for updates about my life, she reinforced the unprofessional boundaries that we both fostered. Unfortunately, I didn’t improve in her care. My postpartum depression dragged through my daughter’s first year.

I was reluctant to take medication while breastfeeding, but I urgently needed it. Deborah didn’t tell me about breastfeeding-safe options until I’d suffered for too long. It’s hard to say whether she was hesitant because of her own beliefs or because she thought I didn’t need them. Mental health professionals can misdiagnose just like other doctors. Sometimes practitioners just don’t understand how much pain you’re in.

Deborah was kind, but didn’t see me clearly. She often told me I was doing better than I was. I can be very outwardly cheerful and productive when I’m depressed, so it’s easy to fool people. I drafted a whole novel during my baby’s naps. As a writer herself, Deborah thought this was amazing. But she didn’t hear me when I said my worries were getting the better of me. It was time for medication.

I connected with a psychiatrist who connected me to a lactation-safe prescription, and I did enough research to feel confident in my decision. I wish I hadn’t waited so long! The meds were a huge help—and taking care of myself made me a better, healthier mom.

In sharing my story, I do not claim to have the answers for others. I simply want other parents to know that searching for and finding help—the right help—can be a process, and there’s no one-size-fits-all counselor. We know that postpartum depression and anxiety are common; one in eight women experience symptoms within twelve months of a baby’s birth, according to the Center for Disease Control. One in ten fathers also experiences mood changes after the birth of a baby. And those individuals (heck, all of us) deserve support tailored to their personalities, needs, and communication styles.

RELATED: I Survived Postpartum Depression and I Swear You Can, Too

A good postpartum counselor doesn’t have to be your buddy. My current therapist, Samuel, is structured and unsentimental, the opposite of Deborah. My anxiety responds better to someone who helps give me distance from my unproductive thoughts instead of encouraging me to delve into them. Samuel will cut me off if I spiral in circles and get stuck, whereas Deborah would give me pep talks and indulge my worries. Ultimately, it was Samuel—and the medication—that helped me get well. I urge other parents not to give up on their quest to find exactly what they need.

If you’re looking for a counselor, consider Zoom therapy to broaden your range of options. Check out the CDC reproductive health page and sliding scale and affordable therapists. It can take a few tries to get a good match, but don’t give up on therapy if it doesn’t click the first time. Good help is out there.

Jess deCourcy Hinds (jessdecourcyhinds.com) is a writer and librarian. Sign up for her free quarterly newsletter, I’m an Open Book: On Love, Libraries and Life-building.

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