This week, the United States Preventative Services Task Force recommended screening for depression in pregnant and postpartum woman, saying that, “maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought; that many cases of what has been called postpartum depression start in pregnancy and that left untreated these mood disorders can be detrimental to the well-being of children.”
I’m happy to see postpartum depression finally get the attention it deserves.
It’s been so long I can almost forget the details of the postpartum depression which completely sandbagged me 24 years ago after the birth of my first son. The details of that time are somewhat grainy, but I will never forget the pain, the panic, and the omnipresent sense of doom that filled my days. I remember the phantom baby cries I heard everywhere, including the shower, and the anxiety and inability to sleep even when the baby slept.
My baby was much-wanted, and I had a model pregnancy followed by an uncomplicated birth. I was ready in every way to become a mom, and my husband was excited to be a dad. Yet almost as soon as our son was born I was completely overwhelmed with the weight of responsibility. The thought that I was now responsible for this new life made me feel tethered and suffocated. Toss in a little isolation, difficulty nursing, and feelings of incompetency, and there you have it: a recipe for deep unhappiness.
At the time, I told my obstetrician about my symptoms and he patted me on the knee in an outrageously paternalistic and chauvinistic way, declaring that I was experiencing the “baby blues” and that there was nothing to be done. These unwelcome feelings would go away in time, “honey,” he assured me. My mother confirmed my doctor’s diagnosis. She said that I was suffering the baby blues, that she had suffered from them also and in time the symptoms would retreat. “But you wanted children,” was her refrain to my near constant weeping, as if wanting a child in some way invalidated the way I was feeling.
I was ashamed of admitting how profoundly sad I was. How would it look if I complained after being blessed with a healthy baby? Could I have been wrong about wanting a child? I looked out the window and watched people going by unfettered by a baby, and I was convinced that I had taken my perfect life and ruined it. I had taken a picture that was painted perfectly and I had added that stroke, the one that utterly destroys the painting.
24 years ago the Internet as we now know it didn’t exist, so I reached out to others the way we did back then—by calling and getting together with other new moms. I made headway in piercing my isolation, and over the course of the first year of my son’s life, the depression lifted bit by bit. I began to feel more capable and less alone, and I don’t remember exactly when the depression lifted but at some point it just did, and I started to understand what others loved about motherhood.
While pregnant with my second son, I worried a lot about the depression returning. I hired someone to help me a few days a week, hoping that that might ease the feeling of being overwhelmed. It did and, surprisingly, although I was exhausted and occasionally weepy, the depression did not return.
But after my third son was born I once again started to feel a crushing darkness descend. Fortunately, those feelings were much more fleeting then the first time.
Through three births, these are some of the things I learned about the postpartum depression:
1. PPD is stealthy and unpredictable. It strikes with no regard to socioeconomic class or how wanted your baby is, and you can be depressed after one birth and completely fine with the next.
2. The more support you have the better. Say yes to offers of help. Ask family and friends to fill in for you occasionally. You will not get a medal for doing this all by yourself, all the time.
3. Silence is the enemy of healing. Don’t bottle up your feelings; they are valid and they need to be aired. Talk and talk and talk to anyone who will listen, but if the way you feel is affecting your life or if you feel like you’re sad all of the time, seek out a professional. There is help out there. You don’t need to suffer.
4. If you feel lousy and your doctor smiles and tells you it’s just the blues, don’t listen. You know yourself best. Go get anther opinion.
5. There is no shame in any of this and there is nothing to be embarrassed about. You are not failing; you are struggling. Everyone struggles with something at some point in their lives.
Take heart—there is blue sky on the horizon. When these feelings pass, and they will, the world will become more focused and polychromatic again. You will look at your baby and you will know that you did not ruin the painting at all. You made it even more beautiful.