Preventing PPD 4: Finding your tribe

(This is part 4 in my “Preventing Post-PartumDepression” series. You can read the other installments linked from here. If you're reading this because you already have PPD, don't try to suffer through it. Tell your partner and your provider, and get help. It's easily treatable and is not your fault.)

Once you make it through the first few weeks, you're going to need to start focusing on finding friends to spend time with.

We (Westerners, I mean) have a bizarre idea that it's normal and healthy for one adult to be alone at home, isolated, with a child or children. I'm not sure when this became the expectation, but it's highly unnatural. Anyone who's spend a whole workday alone with a child can attest to the fact that it's just strange to be the only one on task all day long, whether your child is a cluster-nursing explosive-pooping newborn, or a cat-gluing Candyland-playing preschooler.

In other cultures, parents live with other adults who are around all day to help them care for their children. They get more conversation, they get more sleep, they get more validation, and I'll bet they get a lot less PPD.

Since it's not practical to move back in with your parents (and invite your aunts and uncles and cousins to move in, too), you'll need to create your own tribe in your community.

If you're part of a group of friends who have kids already, you've got a tribe. They already know what it's like, and how it's important to be there physically, not just emotionally. But if all your friends are childfree, or their kids are older, or you're new to the area, you're going to have to set out deliberately to make new friends.

Wait! Keep reading. I know the thought of having to make new friends as an adult, especially when you're feeling lumbering and cranky and stinky, is painful. But new parenthood is the first time since college that it's actually easy to make new friends, since everyone else is feeling equally adrift and hungry for the friendship of other people having the same experience they are.

The most obvious places to start are with the couples in your chidbirth education class before you have the baby. Their children will be the same age your baby will be, so you'll all be going through the same stages together. There's a 90% likelihood that something funny or stupid will happen in your childbirth ed class (and you may luck out and have a truly odd teacher), so this is the perfect way to vet your friendship prospects. Look around the room, and watch for the other couple having the same reaction you are. If you're trying to stifle your laughter, there's going to be another couple doing that, too. If you're speechless in shock at someone's comment (or one of the movies--oh, the movies!), then look around for the other couple struggling to process it, too.

When class is over, arrange to walk out at the same time your prospective friends are walking out. Then extend an invitation: "She's really hungry, so we're going to Friendly's. Would you like to come along?" Then as you're walking out or are on your way to the restaurant, you can strike up conversation by alluding to the happenings in class.

If you're reading this after your baby is born, and thinking about The Couple That Got Away from your childbirth class, it's not too late at all. If you got a roster of class couples, just call and leave a message with the excuse that you're calling to find out about their baby and how everything went. If you don't have a roster, call the teacher and ask if there's going to be a class reunion party so you can see everyone again.

Another good place to find friends is in your breastfeeding support group. (Remember? It's the one you researched and checked out while you were still pregnant.) There's nothing that promotes bonding like being topless in a room together. And you know the other moms there will be just as tired and freaked out as you are (even if they managed to put on lipstick for the meeting). Don't feel bad if you're struggling with the nursing and are supplementing with formula. The leader of the group will understand, and the other moms will, too. (If any don't, then you know who to avoid anyway.) If nothing else, going to the breastfeeding support group might make you feel a little better about how things are going for you and your baby, because there's always someone there with a situation worse than yours.

You can also try going to new mothers' groups in your area. Some are run through hospitals or birth centers, and some through parenting centers, YMCAs, childbirth educators, or houses of worship. Remember that it's not important that you like the whole group or the facilitator of the group. You're only there to meet one or two women you find tolerable like. It's a bonus if you learn something or find the whole group fun.

Don't fall into the trap of looking for someone else who looks just like you. That lady with all the tattoos and a baby named Spider might have the same ideas about positive discipline that you do. That woman with the matching sweater set and hair that's not only washed but combed might be viciously funny. Your future best friend might be the woman who's 10 years younger (or older) than you are. The woman who talks too much could turn out to be your greatest ally in the fight for sanity and good humor, and the woman who doesn't say anything at all could be the one who helps you keep it together during the 9-month sleep regression.

So look around for the other woman who's rolling her eyes at the dopey comments. But don't rule out the others. You're probably not at your sparkling, logical best at this point in your life, so be willing to give others a second and third chance.

The logistics of making the leap from group allies to actual friends is pretty simple: As you're leaving the group, approach the woman you want to get to know and mention that you're going to get an iced coffee/smoothie/wheatgrass juice/gin and tonic/whatever moms drink where you live. Do she and her baby want to come along? Unless they have a pediatrician's appointment, she will not say no, if only because there are still hours to fill before her partner gets home from work. So then you're on a date to see if you like each other. But at least you don't have to think about whether you're wearing your good underwear.

Lather, rinse, repeat until you get 2-3 people you can call and hang out with. (I love the image Andi Buchanan writes about in Mother Shock: Loving Every (Other) Minute of It in which she and her new mom friends call each other every morning at 8 to make plans for the day. Park? Children's museum? Just hanging out with the babies?) It's a numbers game, just like finding a job or a partner is. You'll end up drinking some coffee with some women you realize you don't ever want to talk to again, but if you put yourself out there enough, you'll eventually find a few people you really like.

[This sounds beyond cheesy, but I wish I'd done it with my first son: Go to Staples and get business-sized cards printed with your name, phone number, and email address. Carry some around in your diaper bag and coat pockets. Then when you meet someone you'd like to get to know, you can say, "Our kids are the same age. Would you two like to come over for coffee next Tuesday? Here's my number--give me a call." And then you hand over your card smoothly and can escape before you die of embarrasssment, instead of fumbling awkwardly for a pen and piece of paper.]

Once you've got a few people to hang out with, do it. Establish a regular day of the week to have playgroup. That will help give your week some more structure. It also makes making new friends even easier. "We have a playgroup that meets every Wednesday morning. Would you like to come?" Meet in between. Do some things on weekends so your partners meet each other.

If you're going back to work full-time, time is not on your side. You're going to have to establish a group of friends before you go back, so that you have weekend playgroups and friends to talk to during the week. But it can be done if you're proactive, and it's so worth it for the support and community. If your LC or hospital offers a "working and pumping" class, take it, if only to meet other moms going back to work when you are.

The effort of making a tribe may seem overwhelming in the first few weeks and months of parenting. But if you make consistent baby steps toward friendships, you'll eventually be surrounded by people you can share the burden with on the tough days, and have fun with on the good days. It can keep you above water if you start to slide into depression, and if you do develop PPD you'll have people who notice and care enough about you to help you get help.