Are ‘High-Octane’ Women More Prone to Postpartum Depression?

woman on phone while holding babyPsychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter, PsyD, author of High-Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout, defines “high-octane women” as high achievers who are driven to excel. According to Dr. Carter, such women have boundless energy, big dreams, and enormous enthusiasm for what they do.

In essence, they enjoy the process of setting and achieving goals. They tend to perform well in almost every area of their lives, believe in a job well done, and expect a lot out of themselves and others. High-octane women live life full-on. They are great sprinters but are often poor long-distance runners. They operate like Superwoman, forgetting they are human.

In her book, Dr. Carter points out that this type of woman is susceptible to burnout. The same is true of postpartum depression. High-achieving women are more vulnerable to postpartum depression. Here’s why.

1. High-Octane Women Have High Standards

High-achieving women have high standards in almost every area of their lives. If they bother to do something, they believe in doing it very well (or the “right way”). For instance, a high-octane career woman may have a graduate degree and a history of frequent promotions. A high-octane homemaker may volunteer at the local school and have an organized freezer with color-coded labels.

Then comes baby! And many things go “wrong”: breastfeeding is hard, and babies cry, have reflux, or don’t sleep. And nothing gets done around the house. All of a sudden, the high-achieving woman has to forget about keeping up with the office; she doesn’t even have time to shower or eat!

Then, when the frenzy of a newborn begins to wane, high-octane women want to do mothering well. This might mean making their own organic baby food, taking their baby to mommy-and-me classes, or giving their little bundle of joy plenty of interactive play and loving comfort. At the same time, high-octane women do not lower their expectations in the other areas of their lives: they still expect to be top performers at work, see their friends, be good daughters and wives, keep their house clean, and continue their volunteer work.

When all that isn’t possible, their first thought isn’t, Wow, I think my expectations are unrealistic. Rather, it’s: What’s wrong with me that I can’t keep up anymore?

2. High-Octane Women Rarely Receive Help

The second reason high-achieving women are more vulnerable to postpartum depression is that they often don’t receive help. This happens for three reasons. First, high achievers don’t often ask for help; when they do, it tends to sound like an order (which makes others less inspired to help). They generally don’t say, “I feel so overwhelmed; I don’t know how I’ll manage to get the laundry done today.” Instead, they typically say, “Can you do the laundry? You’re sitting there doing nothing, and I’m doing everything.”

The second reason they rarely receive help is that they are generally so good at getting everything done that people around them don’t know they need help. My therapist said to me many years ago, “I’m not really sure why you’re coming to therapy. I don’t feel I’m very useful to you.” I was surprised by that comment. He was very helpful to me! How could he not know that? In time, I realized that I tend to give off a vibe that I don’t need help, so people don’t offer. This is typical of high-functioning women.

And finally, high-octane women like things done their way and to their standards. They tend to correct, redirect, or criticize when someone does take a task off their plate. Often, they do this under the belief that they are helping or teaching. But for the recipient, it feels like criticism and makes them less likely to help. And without help from others, caring for a baby is an overwhelming task.

3. High-Octane Women Don’t Know They Are ‘High-Octane’

One of the traits I’ve noticed in both men and women who tend to be driven and goal-oriented is that it’s hard for them to understand others who are not this way. They assume this is the “normal” way to be. But it isn’t. It’s an unusually high level of functioning. Don’t get me wrong; it has many advantages. Big results are accomplished by people who dream big and execute well. These folks build buildings and start companies. But having a baby changes that for a while—generally more so for women, but for any new parent who wants to be engaged and parent well.

High-octane women often have difficulty in the postpartum adjustment period because it’s likely the first time they are not able to meet their own standards. This comes as a surprise to many, and most women tend to respond by becoming self-critical. Healthy postpartum adjustment comes from realizing that it’s all right to do less for a while. In fact, I tell people in therapy that if you keep the baby alive in the first six months, you’re in pretty good shape! It’s a bit of an exaggeration, but it gets the point across.

When our baby was six weeks old, I remember telling my husband that I felt so inadequate because I couldn’t seem to get anything done. It made no sense to me that a woman who was always able to accomplish so much in the past now seemed unable to keep up. He said, “At this stage, I think if we do one thing a day, that’s pretty good. Today, we made it to the store to buy more diapers. It was a successful day.”

If you are a high-octane woman, you are likely to be taken by surprise by how few of your previous tasks you can accomplish after having a baby. In time, you will return to some normalcy. But for now, some days, your biggest achievement will be taking a shower or buying diapers. It’s totally normal and completely OK. You’re already a great mom; your caring and passionate personality will inspire your children. For now, just relax and enjoy these precious moments. They are your baby’s way of teaching you that being is just as valuable as doing.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, CAP, SAP, therapist in Plantation, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • EllisE

    July 3rd, 2014 at 11:48 AM

    Ugh I am a high octane woman and I admit to that. I don’t ever want to have to ask others to help me out and have this little rendency to want to do things on my own and on my own terms. I understand that for many this could be overwhelming but for me it gives me a sense of accomplishment and shows me just how strong that I can be when I need to be. I am not ashamed of this trait, I am proud of it and think that it pretty much translates into personal and professional life. Now whether that will lead to the blues after I have children, I have no idea, because I will probably go after that ninety miles a minute just like I pretty much do with everything else.

  • Hal

    July 4th, 2014 at 6:31 AM

    It’s those high standards that can get anyone in trouble.

    Those of us who think like this, it is hard to not do something and be a success. If we feel like we are giving our all and are still coming up short when it comes to being a success, then that can be very disheartening.

    It is easy to see how those who have set the bar so high for themselves can wind up disappointed in what they have achieved, even when it is fine. They are not wanting to be fine, they want to be great and anything less than that will feel like failure.

  • Aida

    July 6th, 2014 at 5:24 AM

    Let’s be honest and realistic about this.
    It isn’t that these supposed high octane women don’t receive as much help. They don’t get it because they don’t ask for it. You can’t tell me that they don’t have the same kind of people in their lives who would be more than willing to help them out but they refuse to take it because nothing will live up to their standards. And after so many attempts and tries and then being rebuffed, then yeah, people will eventually stop offering to help them.
    So okay they could have this issue but you can’t say it is because they didn’t receive it- it was probably offered and they choose not to take it.

  • dawn

    July 6th, 2014 at 8:39 AM

    yeah I think so because they are always looking for ways to do things even better and there comes a point in time in motherhood that you have to look and accept that you are doing as much as you can as well as you can at this time and stop stressing over it as much.

  • Rebecca

    July 7th, 2014 at 10:45 AM

    I feel like this described me perfectly. To Aida- I’ll be honest with you. I had help from family, but even their help could not help my brain. As a society, we must acknowledge and educate eachother about maternal mental illness. It’s real! Once I realized I needed professional help, I was brushed off by doctors for 5 months. It wasn’t until I said some “mental health magic words” 11 months postpartum that anyone took me seriously. I know now that I was suffering with antenatal depression, anxiety and OCD. So, almost 2 full years of suffering before getting appropriate care. Knowledge is power, and judging gets us no where.

  • Aida

    July 8th, 2014 at 4:24 PM

    I don’t believe that I am being judgemental, it is in my experience that these are the women who are less inclined to ask for help. I think that they have done everything successfully for so long they don’t understand that this is a whole new ballgame that you are dealing with. This is babies, and hormones and all kinds of things that we don’t understand and so there comes a time when you have to be strong enough to admit that the time has come to have others pitch in and help out a little.

  • Jessie C.

    July 11th, 2014 at 2:39 PM

    It doesn’t matter if you are high octane or not… depression is depression and we should never look at it as this happened to you because you are this or that. We should look at it in a humanitarian way and do what feels right, which is helping out those who are in need. I would hope that someone would extend that kind of kindness to me if ever I was in need.

  • Dr. Chantal

    July 12th, 2014 at 2:24 PM

    Thanks for your comment Ellise. Yes, after you have children it’s generally exhausting to maintain this personality style 100%. You’ll still likely be able to be driven and achieve goals, but children help teach us to let go and relax more. And that’s a good thing! Husbands enjoy more relaxed wives too :)

    Top athletes build rest periods into their regular routines because 90 miles a hour is not a sustainable pace indefinitely, and eventually it becomes counterproductive. Hopefully, when you have children, you will give yourself permission to adjust your pace as needed.

  • Dr. Chantal

    July 12th, 2014 at 2:28 PM

    Hal,
    Thanks for taking the time to read my article. You’re right; it’s a tough challenge for a “perfectionist” to lower their standards a bit. When they do though, it makes them more relatable and can deepen their connection with others. Like a lot of things in life, balance is key. Striving for excellence is wonderful, but it’s best balanced by giving ourselves a little grace every now and then.

  • Dr. Chantal

    July 12th, 2014 at 2:33 PM

    Aida,
    Thank you for your feedback. In my experience as a therapist and relationship coach, I’ve seen it both ways. Sometimes the help is offered, but other times people either feel intimidated to offer or get the impression that the “high octane” woman would rather do it herself, so they don’t offer. In either case, the result is the same: the new mom feels exhausted and a little perplexed about her difficulty adjusting.

  • Dr. Chantal

    July 12th, 2014 at 2:34 PM

    That’s exactly right Dawn!

  • Vanessa

    July 12th, 2014 at 4:45 PM

    I think that this school of thought comes from those who believe at their core that women really can’t have it all. They are totally offended by the fact that there are rich and successful women who are also mothers so they try to put all of these fears out there that you have to choose- career or motherhood, your job or your sanity. I am sorry but I think that that is totally wrong and goes against everything that I believe as a female.

    I have a great job as well as a great family. I make both a priority and I have been able to balance all of that just fine, and I am surrounded by other equally successful women who have been able to do the same. Try telling any of them that if they do this then they will get the baby blues and they will laugh at you. None of us have time for that and if we did feel that way then I would hope that most of us would be smart enough to recognize that we needed help and would solicit that from a good therapist. I think that you can have it all, whether you are on the go or not, and this is a choice that a lot of mothers are making without regret.

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