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The Beauty Rituals That Helped Me Through Post-Partum Depression

Maybe they’ll help you, too.

Toddler putting blush on mother’s face Photo: Cultura Exclusive/Annie Engel/Getty Images

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On a February day two years ago, my spouse and I bundled up our week-old daughter and ventured out to our neighborhood sandwich shop in the rain. We ran into a friend and had lunch with him. Later, he said he laughed when he left us.

“You didn’t know where to look, or where to put your hands,” he said to me. “You were so confused. It was like you’d spent a week on Planet Baby and now you were back on Planet Earth and didn’t know what was going on.”

Leaving Planet Earth for life on Planet Baby is about as accurate as any phrase I’ve ever heard to describe what it’s like to have your first kid. Like everyone else who wants to be a parent, I had envisioned what Planet Baby would be like. The ground would be soft and snuggly, like sheepskin. There would be long naps, cuddly cheeks, and lots of casseroles.

And it was all those things. But Planet Baby was also disorienting, lonely, terrifying, and exhausting, and the ship back to Planet Earth seemed to have sailed for good.

I felt trapped and alien. Everything I knew about myself was no longer true. I wasn’t brave or curious or funny; I was timid, tired, and boring. The same person who could rappel off a cliff couldn’t bathe an infant in some heated water without everyone bursting into tears. I couldn’t get the snaps on her onesies to line up, couldn’t stop her crying, couldn’t escape the fear and feelings of incompetence and inadequacy.

After five sleepless, hellish weeks, I threw myself on the mercy of my OB/GYN, who diagnosed me with postpartum depression and anxiety. With medication and help, the anxiety eased. And with my second child, I was a lot better prepared. Beauty rituals played a big part in that.

For a lot of women, their trip to Planet Baby is a highly anticipated journey where they can finally be free from all those vain, tedious worries about how they look. I get that. But for me, the small, familiar act of putting on lip balm was a thread joining my previous life to this new one. And I needed all the help I could get to feel confident enough to leave the house. Here are some tips I can offer:

If you’re nursing, buy a supportive nursing bra. I went from a pre-pregnancy 32A to a 34D. Hauling my breast out to nurse while wearing cheap, stretchy nursing bras felt like fumbling for a grapefruit in the bottom of a tube sock. It’s impossible to feel good about yourself with your tits dangling to your navel. ThirdLove’s new nursing bras are accurately sized and offer shape and support. Nordstrom’s lingerie department will also convert regular bras to nursing bras.

Buy clothes that fit. Not your maternity clothes. Not your pre-pregnancy jeans. Go to Old Navy or Uniqlo pronto and buy a seasonally appropriate outfit that fits the body you have right now. Even if it’s only for a few weeks or months, think of it as your last set of maternity clothes. I cringe when I think of my daughter’s first pediatrician appointment. She was cherubic in pink frog pajamas, and I was tear-streaked and swollen, the hems of my suddenly sagging maternity sweatpants soaked from dragging in the rain. Just... no.

Change your face moisturizer and cleanser. The glowing (aka oily) skin that I had during pregnancy switched off the minute both of my children started nursing. A nursing baby can drain up to 30 fluid ounces from your body per day. My cheeks were red and rash-y for weeks. The only real solution is to pound water constantly, but switching to CeraVe’s hydrating cleanser and Alba’s intense moisturizer also helped.

Buy a lip/cheek tint and concealer. Knowing that I was at risk for PPD, a friend volunteered to babysit both kids for one night a week so that my husband and I could take a few hours’ break from constantly tending one baby’s needs and handing off the other, like some surreal 24/7 life-or-death version of Whack-A-Mole.

I was tempted to spend those precious hours on hilariously non-restorative tasks, like scrubbing the bathtub. I just didn’t want to go out because to go out and act like a normal person, you have to look like a normal person, and I looked like a pale, puffy, dead person. But a few dots of Clinique Foundation + Concealer on the bags under my eyes and a few smudges of Ilia’s multi-stick in “Tenderly” made me feel just presentable enough to meet a friend for a beer.

Keep something indulgent on hand. Maybe it’s a fun shower cap, or maybe it’s a charcoal mask. But you should have one thing around that will appeal to one of your senses — visually, aurally, olfactorily, whatever — and give you a hit of pleasure, even when you’re on your hands and knees cleaning poop off the floor. For me, that was a sample of Le Labo Neroli 36. Just catching a whiff of that spicy, citrusy scent on my wrist perked me up and made me feel like a vital, vibrant person instead of a walking, diaper-changing, lactating gland, if only for a second.

I know, I know. New moms find it difficult to find time to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom, let alone put on makeup. When you’re struggling to keep a tiny scrap of humanity alive, even thinking about makeup can seem almost criminally negligent.

But it’s not. Granted, it’s a lot easier to remember this the second time around. But it’s impossible for you to be as loving and responsive a parent as you can be if you feel depleted and invisible. Any book on PPD will tell you (trust me, I’ve read most of them) that to care about your appearance, even just a little, is a little subliminal signal to yourself that you matter, too.

If you’re struggling with this — and I feel you, you’re not alone — don’t feel guilty about anything that helps you get out the door and back to us here on Planet Earth. Your baby lives here too, you know.