How do we make sure our kids have fully-functioning parents?
May 21, 2008 9:18 PM   Subscribe

I have two toddlers and a wife with severe postpartum depression that went untreated for two years, all of whom I love very much. However, I think I'm starting to crack, and am not thrilled about my children potentially having two emotionally unstable parents.

The past couple of years have been pretty scary. The PPD hit my wife HARD: her temper went through the roof, and her fuse got much shorter: she would go into rages on a regular basis, she dropped out of law school, and couldn't manage to hold a job. I couldn't talk to any of our mutual friends about it, if she caught me asking somebody for advice, i'd be on the receiving end of a Rage that was very difficult to diffuse. At one point, she shut off my cellphone service (the bill was in her name) to prevent me from asking my mother for help. It was a constant "walking on eggshells" kind of thing, and the kids...the kids were there for ALL of it.

That's mostly over now: we're both currently in therapy (talk *and* drugs), trying to make sense of just what the hell happened. Rage Mode has mostly gone away (with some notable exceptions), but now that she's getting a bit more stable, I'm completely losing it. I know that PPD is a really intense, fucked-up mental illness, and I don't think she's to blame at all for the events of the last two years, but I still have this huge ball of resentment about it, so there's this cognitive dissonance there that's driving me up a wall. To put it bluntly, I'm pissed about the way the kids and I were treated over this period, and that just makes me feel petty, small, and incredibly narcissistic. I'm constantly questioning the decisions I've made and am having severe social anxiety and panic attacks, to the point where I draw the blinds and hide when the neighbors are outside. My kids deserve a dad who's not a socially-phobic basketcase.

The kids are 2 and 3, and all this drama is obviously very, very bad for them to be around. I never want to hear "mommy mad at daddy?" again. Does anybody else have experience or advice about dealing with severe PPD and anger issues? How can we get through this without breaking our children? I try to diffuse and/or keep the drama away from the kids when it goes down, but they're perceptive as hell, and know what's going down.

God, this all makes her sound like such an ogre. She's not: she's incredibly intelligent and funny and loving and a fantastic mother, when things are on an upswing. And I've certainly done and said my share of asshole stuff over the course of this thing.

I'm pretty nervous about posting this, because it feels like I'm just whining "victim victim victim", and if my wife comes across it, I'm dead fucking meat, and it's all stuff I'm working through with my therapist anyway, but I'm just incredibly confused and scared and worried that this is completely destroying the kids, and I need insight anywhere I can get it. Thanks.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Your feelings are O.K., and beyond that, they're normal. You are allowed to feel anger and resentment over what has happened. What has happened was not fair to you; and beyond that, you did not deserve it. Injustice like this should make a person angry and resentful, because that's how ethical beings behave and how they feel when they are confronted with something that isn't fair.

if my wife comes across it, I'm dead fucking meat

This may be true, but you don't deserve that either. You deserve to be in a loving relationship where your feelings and opinions are treated with the respect and care that they deserve.

It sounds like both of you are doing what you can to progress towards giving each other what you each deserve and stopping giving each other what you don't deserve.

I hope that you will have the strength to give your kids and your wife the unconditional love that they deserve, regardless of how you're feeling; and that you will have the good fortune to receive the love that you deserve, and the courage to demand it from those who love you, in a way that is respectful but effective.

That's about the most you can ask out of life and the best you can do. Keep at it. Don't worry about the kids; kids are very resilient and a little unconditional love for them can go a long, long way.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:29 PM on May 21, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry. Postpartum depression affects entire families, sometimes for years. This is terribly difficult to have gone throug -- and doubly difficult to speak about, because your perspective is so rarely articulated. So I offer you kudos, truly, for saying your piece and seeking help. It speaks well of you -- as a person, a partner, and a parent.

I would start here: I'm pissed about the way the kids and I were treated over this period, and that just makes me feel petty, small, and incredibly narcissistic. Seriously, that's your starting point. You're. Pissed. Off. You just are. That's all. Don't judge yourself for feeling angry. Everyone has feelings, and yours are really intense right now. You are not weak, nor an unfeeling husband, nor a whiny victim for acknowledging your anger. In fact, I would say that that acknowledging your anger without judgment or self-recrimination is the only path to finally letting it go. As long as you keep a lid on it, it will just simmer. If you can take the lid off, you can deal with it -- as you are, with therapy and meds.

You do not negate your wife's illness and pain by recognizing your own pain. Indeed, seemingly paradoxically, you are on the same side of this equation: postpartum depression illness hurt you both -- in some ways very similarly, and in some ways very differently. You have the right to be hurt. You have the right, frankly, not to fear being "dead fucking meat" for having the full range of human emotion. You deserve support, just as she does.

It's going to take some time for the anger to pass. There's nothing wrong with you because you didn't wake up one day happy because she's getting treatment. Just reassure yourself: your anger is just a feeling. It's real, and it will pass.

I wish all the best to your family.
posted by scody at 9:38 PM on May 21, 2008 [10 favorites]

You owe your kids this much: Don't yell at your wife in front of them. Period. And when you get your wife in a calm, sane mood try and get her to agree to the same thing. Just that one little commitment will help your kids a lot.
posted by bananafish at 10:04 PM on May 21, 2008 [1 favorite]

Would you judge your children for feeling resentful of the situation? You need to take care of your self, too - you have just as much right to feel these things. You can handle them a little better, but you're still going to feel them.

It sounds like you were, in effect, [please forgive me world for using this phrase] emotionally abused. Whether the perpetrator was your wife or your wife's illness, it looked like her, and you're conditioned to respond to looks-like-her. Maybe recognizing that could help.

And it sounds like she hasn't gotten to the point where she has much compassion for you yet, maybe? Ask firmly for that when you feel she can handle it.
posted by amtho at 10:20 PM on May 21, 2008

You say you're both in therapy, but are you seeing a couple's therapist together? That would give you a regularly scheduled time and place, with the therapist as a voice of reason, to sort this out and address your concerns about your kids' emotional wellbeing. The last paragraph of your question tells me that you desperately need this. "it feels like I'm just whining...I'm dead fucking meat," is no way to live, and a sad example for your kids. Find somebody good, who makes both of you feel safe but challenged to be better.
posted by tula at 11:07 PM on May 21, 2008

You are beyond PPD, that is months not years, although it can trigger just the regular old thing. I hate to be just a pill pusher, but it sounds like Prozac or something would be good for your wife. It definitely takes the edge off the rage,.
posted by caddis at 11:59 PM on May 21, 2008

and if my wife comes across it, I'm dead fucking meat,

Being upset about this is, as scody notes, hardly unreasonable. If you were a woman posting about your husband flying into rages after the birth of your kids, you would have a queue of people telling you to quit blaming yourself and get yourself the hell out for their sake and yours.

It was a constant "walking on eggshells" kind of thing,

The fact she's suffering from an illness doesn't make it OK for her to behave abusively towards you - cutting off your cellphone to stop you asking for help? You're describing textbook abusive behaviour, and you're right to be angry for yourself and your kids. You ought to deal with that constructively, but you have a right to demand a baseline level of acceptable treatment for them and you.
posted by rodgerd at 2:56 AM on May 22, 2008 [7 favorites]

Separate her intent from her impact. Your wife did not intend to inflict trauma on you and your children. She did create a rein of terror in your marriage due to her mental illness.

It's entirely normal that your feeling anger, resentment and a whole range of emotions. You can carry those emotions for a long time post-trauma.

Are you both in marriage counseling and individual therapy? I can't tell from the question what type of therapy you're getting. You need to talk to your individual therapist about what you're feeling and what you need. That's not whining or victim mentality. It's ensuring your children have 1 mentally stable parent. You need to do that for yourself and for your kids.
posted by 26.2 at 4:16 AM on May 22, 2008

she's incredibly intelligent and funny and loving and a fantastic mother, when things are on an upswing.

yeah, when things are on the upswing; the sad thing about being a parent is that you're only as good as your worst moments -- what about that great dude who's the greatest dad ever except for that one time every month where he gets drunks and beats the shit out of everybody in the family?
emotional abuse is not OK just because it doesn't leave you visibly bruised and bleeding.

If you were a woman posting about your husband flying into rages after the birth of your kids, you would have a queue of people telling you to quit blaming yourself and get yourself the hell out for their sake and yours.

posted by matteo at 4:28 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

As a nurse, psychology major, and PPD sufferer x3, I can say that sometimes it DOES last years and not months, especially is she didn't get adequate treatment the first time. Much has been said here about your therapy and feelings so I won't get into that. I just wanted to add that my children suffered right along with me and all have turned out beautiful, insightful, empathetic, intelligent children. So while you cannot change all the negative things right away, just try and add as much positive things as possible. Sometimes that means getting another family member or trusted babysitter to do that. Just a suggestion that worked for us.
posted by nummies911 at 4:37 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

As I understand the clinical diagnosis, PPD "proper" has a duration of no more than a year; sustained clinical depression after a couple of rounds with PPD doesn't sound out of the question, but still chalking it up to childbirth rather than the longer horizon of parenting in the present seems like a counterproductive idea.

I agree with matteo; if the sexes were reversed people here would be calling the angry, depressed, rageful husband an ogre and telling the poor wife to get out of the situation. Talk about glass ceilings.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:40 AM on May 22, 2008

Stating repeatedly that the advice would be quite different if the genders were reversed is a moot point (since men don't have that childbirth thing and thus not PPD) and not very helpful, in my opinion.

anonymous, I just wanted to say good for you and your wife that you're both in therapy and that you're trying to reason through this really, really difficult time.
posted by desuetude at 6:34 AM on May 22, 2008

men don't have that childbirth thing and thus not PPD

they can certainly suffer from depression and all other non partum-related mental illnesses. I know it's hard to digest because it's not politically correct, but if the asker were a woman you'd be advising her to call the police, not to suck it up.
posted by matteo at 6:44 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

You are completely normal. YOu are feeling these things NOW because it is safer to feel them now.

As for walking on eggshells, that needs to be brought up in therapy because that does NOT need to be. She has to take responsibility for that. I used to be mentally ill but that did not give me a pass for how I treated others, even at my worst. It is what it is. It is good you understand what was going on, so hopefully blaming is not part of the scenario, but this is not about blaming-this is about facing facts. It really doesn't matter WHAT caosed her to treat you that way because blanket statement, it hurts the same no matter what. YOUR hurt and pain has a right to be addressed, and she has a moral duty to acknowledge that.

If she won't, the problem isn't just PPD.
posted by konolia at 7:39 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I don't think anyone should automatically assume that everyone would immediately tell a woman to get out just because she's a woman. If there were physical abuse going on, yes I would. I would for the poster as well. I feel like I'm being boxed into some histrionic rabid-feminist archetype by assuming I'd be so thoughtlessly sexist.

While emotional abuse is real and just as important to confront and defeat, it poses no immediate physical danger, and it sounds like they're working on it. Marriages are difficult to say the least, and a committed relationship requires work from both parties, not just cutting and running at the first sign of trouble - and that is true of both sexes.

Obviously this is an extreme case, and certainly no one could have blamed the poster if he had decided to leave. But it's important to remember that his post does not ask how he can get himself the hell out, but rather how he can gracefully stay in while managing his anger about the relationship. Why introduce a gender differentiation at all?
posted by GardenGal at 7:43 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

As everyone is saying, your anger and hurt are valid and you are completely entitled to them and should be discussing them with your therapist. Even if the abuse is the result of a mental illness and/or chemical imbalance, it is still abuse and you have been her victim. Forgiving is good, but you need to allow yourself to deal with being the victim first, before you worry about forgiving.

Where I have to disagree is on the resiliency of kids. Sometimes they're not so resilient, and you should be aware that this may have a significant impact on them. One of my daughters has PTSD as a result of things that happened when she was under 3 years old, related to her father's rages but never involving any direct harm to her. Keep an eye on them, and if they develop problem behaviors in school or at home, talk about self-harm or harming others, or seem unusually sad, worried, frightened, angry, or sensitive, please take them to counseling and be frank about what they've experienced.
posted by notashroom at 7:50 AM on May 22, 2008

And to the poster:

Please don't beat yourself up about feeling the way you do. It's perfectly natural after putting in such a heroic effort for three years. Many people suffer post-traumatic stress symptoms, like being able to pull people out of wreckage, lift cars, deal with grad school theses.... only to dissolve into a shivering, sobbing mess once the actual stress is gone and their bodies realize "okay, it's safe to react now."

Of course you're angry. You are a sweetheart for dealing with what you have for so long and understanding that she wasn't rational, but at the same time she really didn't have any basic right to treat you that way. Your wife needs to understand that and accept her role in producing this anger - at some point you're going to have to tell her. (Couples counseling may be the best place, where you can speak moderately freely and not fear her reaction.) If she is as committed to the relationship as you are, she will have to be very, very apologetic and very, very nice to you for a very, very long time.

In the mean time, you need to start sticking up for yourself (as gently as you have to at the beginning, even just saying "I don't deserve that" and disengaging by leaving the room). She needs to realize the consequences of her actions, or my guess is she won't get better as fast as she might... after all, it's very easy to get used to being able to throw tantrums and know that no one's going to stand up to you (look what happens to dictators...). I'm not saying she's a tyrant or a witch, I'm just saying that if you want her to return to a normal standard of behavior, you should try to do so as well.

You have the same rights to respect and understanding that she has.
posted by GardenGal at 8:05 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'm going to have to agree with rodgerd. Some of her behavior is abusive. Making the victims of abuse feel as if they ca not seek help or there will be more abuse is a classic example, actually. It makes me wonder... if she's willing to do this with you, now, what will she do later with the kids?

If your response is, "She would never be abusive to the kids," given how she treats you; than you should definitely step back and really consider: did you think she was capable of treating you like this before all of this happened?

If you're wanting to keep the marriage intact, you need to seek couple's counseling. In that counseling (and in you individual counseling) you need to bring this behavior up. You can't make excuses for her, and you need to be one hundred percent honest about the behavior, and about how you feel about it, and how you feel that there will be repercussions for even talking about it.

I cannot give you the advice of leaving the relationship, but i know if it were me, that's precisely what I would do; and I would try to get custody of the kids. As a single father of a special needs child, I can tell you that this is not an easy thing to do. There really is a strong gender bias against fathers in the court system. It took me over a year of court and took a severe amount of emotional reserves (and I was trying to get custody from the state... mom had already lost custody). It is a draining and depressing thing to go through. If you go that route, be prepared... and don't give up. The rewards are amazing.

Regardless of what route you ultimately take, my heart goes out to you and your children. You *must* speak out about this to your counselor. You are a victim, here, whether or not your wife is going through her own emotional issues.
posted by vertigo25 at 8:29 AM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

What you are going through is exactly why I am switching careers and training and re-educating to serve mothers and families in the postpartum period. It's a grossly overlooked and undervalued time in western culture, and yet it is complicated and littered with tricky and harmful landmines that threaten the health and well-being of every member of the family. You are not alone. You are not an anomaly among your neighbors; you do not deserve to hide from them or anyone else. Children come to us ready to receive and magnify the love and kindness they are shown and to minimize and repair any negativity that they witness. Your wife's continued problems with anger are normal, likely a result of being angry with herself and the shame and guilt inherent to anger that enters motherhood, and your resentment and fear of it is also both normal and deserving of relief.

You are brave, as an individual and as family to address it with support and medicine, and to do what you need to do to talk about it to anyone who will listen. We all need to hear your story, in order to offer the kind words and perspective that you deserve as a father, husband, and human being, and to start letting go of the shame when this story is our own story. You have the right to a future that has enough "upswing" that all four of you feel capable and positive, and you are doing everything you can to make sure that is the case--including seeking anything that you think will help you (additional individual therapy, activities that are your own and heal you). Keep going to therapy, keep seeking treatment, insist that your wife continues both as well--this is her responsibility to you and to her children, and over ANY protest, continue to reach out: anonymously, fully identified, to friends and family, to internet pen pals.

In this case, loyalty to secrecy and privacy and shame will not slay the dragon. I am thinking of you and wishing full sun on all your faces, and more and more gentle days ahead, and the continued bravery to do what's right for all of you. Your children will, really, only remember your love and that they have parents who seek to solve their problems rather than hide them away. You are teaching them wonderful lessons about this crazy life we're all in. Thank you for sharing.
posted by rumposinc at 8:38 AM on May 22, 2008 [5 favorites]

For your own peace of mind, I think you need to work out a backup plan for what you're going to do if the situation doesn't improve. This would include informing yourself about what the law can do to help you and your kids in the event that it actually gets worse. Knowing that there is a defined limit to how bad things can get could actually give you more strength to deal with what's going on.
posted by tomcooke at 8:43 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't know about PPD, but I was raised by someone with bipolar, and I wish to god my father had gotten sole custody. I'm 33 now and while I can't blame my adult decisions on my mother, my childhood has had lasting impacts on how I interact with people. As many people have pointed out, your wife is not a bad person for having a mental illness (nor are you for feeling angry/resentful about it), but the impact it has on the kids can't be undone. Do you want your kids in therapy when they're 10, 15, 30? Get out and take them with you.
posted by desjardins at 9:17 AM on May 22, 2008

I've been in an similar position to you, OP, and can't stress enough how good tomcooke's advice is. Get things lined up so that if things go really pear-shaped, you can get yourself and the kids out.

I didn't have that backup plan and there's not a day go by that I don't regret it.

Not telling you to get out, but be sure to plan ahead should you need to.
posted by pinkbuttonanus at 10:05 AM on May 22, 2008

Please, please, have your wife go to a second (or third) OB/GYN for thorough exam(s) to rule out all possible physical causes for her behavior.

I know a couple whose experience is remarkably similar to yours. The diagnosis was PPD, and that was probably a correct diagnosis for the period immediately after the birth of the second child. However, this couple moved to a different city during the course of their problems, and the new OB/GYN correctly diagnosed a severe hormonal imbalance due to very aggressive fibroids as the cause of the wife's moodiness/depression. He said a hysterectomy was indicated. They tried other possible therapies to no avail, and finally the wife had a hysterectomy. As the husband now puts it, "I'm starting to see my old girl come back."

If there's an underlying physical condition, all the therapy in the world won't cure your relationship.
posted by dinger at 10:16 AM on May 22, 2008 [1 favorite]

This may be relevant, if not, then disregard.

From "The Transition to Parenthood":

A few years ago when Dr. Jessica Bell of the University of California asked a group of such wives why they pressed home their attacks so ferociously, she got a surprising answer. In almost every case the women reported that their aggressiveness was really an expression of powerlessness. They said their husbands subtly controlled the pace and tempo of arguments through their stonewalling. Frustrated at not getting through, these wives said they often upped their attacks in hopes of breaking though that wall and evoking some kind of human response - some kind of connection. Typically at some point in the conflict the Destructive Fighting wife does get through, and just as typically the result is a cycle of escalation and counterescalation. Annoyed that his distress signals have been ignored, the besieged husband launches a fierce counterattack, producing sadness and fear in the wife, who after regaining her momentum then launches a more ferocious counter-counterattack. At that point the argument usually spins out of control and becomes about nothing but inflicting misery and pain on each other.

Prebaby, what relationship characteristics distinguish new parent who become at-risk for major communication disruptions from those who do not?
Toward the end of the Project we realized we only had a very general answer to this question. While we knew what determined vulnerability to these obstacles, we did not know whether the decision to confront or avoid the autonomy-and-affiliation issue produced different characteristics in a relationship. When we went back and review our data, we found that indeed it did. Avoiders and confronters deal with each other in very different ways. And I think the traits that distinguish their relationships go a long way toward explaining why confronters can usually sail over transition-time communication obstacles with relative ease while avoiders cannot.
posted by dragonsi55 at 10:17 AM on May 22, 2008

Beleive it or not, this is a good sign. It means you are processing the stuff that went on and that you are starting to move on.

You were traumatized by her behavior. You need to grieve it and accept it. You also need a session with your therapists where you can get an apology in a way which doesn't send everyone over the edge--in other words, although your wife was acting that way because she hit PPD, you have been hurt regardless of the origin of her rages.

It is especially difficult to face such anger and rage from someone you care about because your defenses are down and you are inhibited from feeling angry (which is the body's natural reaction here).

More importantly, you have to look out for the kids. This stuff can really do damage to a kid. Therapy for them is a must.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:49 AM on May 22, 2008

I want to tell you from the perspective of someone who dealt with serious parental issues in childhood that if you keep dealing with it, keep getting better, are honest about what's going and are fundamentally loving to your children, and they know that you are on their side, your kids will be okay.
posted by nanojath at 12:40 PM on May 22, 2008

You might want to read some of Jon's (Blurbomat) entries regarding Heather (Dooce) and their battle with depression etc...

These two, in particular, are excellent.

Stress Depression and Me

How I Do
posted by Liosliath at 4:56 PM on May 22, 2008 [2 favorites]

Heather Armstrong, who writes Dooce, has some great entries on her struggle with PPD----including her hospitalization. This post is really good and this post, too, but the archives have it all. Her husband writes at Blurbomat and he has some insights as well from the husband's point of view.

Good luck.
posted by hulahulagirl at 4:58 PM on May 22, 2008

There's a lot of great advice here, but I have to emphasize Konolia's posting. You do need to find a safe space in which you can discuss with your wife how her behavior has affected you and your children. Allowing her to have a "get out of jail free" pass for abusive and hostile behavior because she has PPD helps no one, especially her. Owning the negative impact that her behavior has on your family could be a strong motivator for her to get healthy.
posted by echolalia67 at 9:08 PM on May 22, 2008

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