As someone with a Master's degree in maternal and child health, a lactation counseling certification, and experience with serving new mothers, I thought I had maternal care figured out. Then I underwent a training in recognizing the symptoms of postpartum mood disorders and it all started to sound eerily familiar....
I had experienced depression before. It came and went while I studied Exercise Science at Ithaca College, always becoming acutely more evident during the cold, windy, gray winter months in upstate NY. The worst was the year I lived in The Netherlands with my partner while he did his postdoc. I was socially isolated, employed very part-time at a job that made me feel undervalued, and I think we experienced about eight days of sun during that entire year. It felt exactly like you might have heard it described: a downward spiral. I would start to feel a little down, a little restless, and that feeling would intensify. As it worsened, I found myself withdrawing and refusing to leave the house. The isolation and lack of fresh air or sunlight would make it even worse, and I would curl up into a ball and sob. Sometimes crying helped relieve the feeling enough that I could get outside and snap out of it for a time.
Over time, I learned how to cope with the seasonal aspect of my depression. I made sure I got outside in as much daylight as possible during the winter. Meeting my partner helped, too; the calm of a solid, consistent, loving relationship grounded me. We enjoy similar outdoor activities, so my exercise became more consistent, as did healthy eating. I still experienced bad days here and there, as we all do, but they were infrequent and not as intense as they had been in the past.
Fast forward to the summer of 2013, between semesters of grad school. I had just had a baby and I was unbelievably overjoyed. I couldn't stop looking at her. My neck ached from hours of breastfeeding because I always had my neck craned to study that beautiful, chubby little face, those dimpled fingers, those amazingly minuscule toes. My partner was impressively helpful, cooking, bringing me food, and helping around the house. I knew logically that he was doing his best to care for us, but somehow I found myself becoming increasingly irritated with him. Don't even get me started on our poor dog, who I used to call my "baby"; one of the first two-word sentences my daughter learned was "MOO dog!" ("move dog!"). I had read from blogs and books that the first year with a new baby is a real test on relationships, so I assumed that it would improve soon.
Some days I felt paralyzed by exhaustion and anxiety. Usually I "hit the wall," as I referred to it to my husband, around 3 or 4pm. Other days it was more like noon. Those were the days when I would only leave the house as necessary to walk the dog and then I would find myself racing back home, hoping I wouldn't run into neighbors and have to chitchat while my heart raced and my skin crawled. I had many moment so joy as I watched my daughter learn new skills and snuggled her as she fell asleep at the breast. Those moments helped to balance out the exhaustion and remind me how much I love to be a mom. It really wasn't all bad-- I was so grateful to have my wonderful child-- but it was just so darn HARD. I never once thought that I had posptartum depression because I wasn't sad. It felt nothing like my experience of depression in the past. Eventually these feelings just became the new normal and on the really bad days, I chalked it up to sleep deprivation.
A few months after my daughter turned two, we moved out of the city (Boston) and into a smaller town on the North Shore (Ipswich). The calmer pace of a more rural neighborhood helped a lot. I didn't have to worry as much about my daughter getting hit by a car or listen to angry people laying on their car horns. I was able to get outside more and exercise more consistently. Slowly, I started to feel as though a fog was lifting. As the "skies" cleared, that was when I knew that my postpartum experience was not what it should have been. I really did not need to suffer the way I did and I wished I had sought help sooner.
Women need to know that postpartum mood disorders can look very different to different people. Postpartum depression can also look different than general depression. If your life feels unbearably difficult on a regular basis, don't suffer through it. Don't be afraid to seek help. And please, please, please, don't feel like less of a person, less of a mother, for feeling the way you do. I was silent for a long time because I worried that admitting to having a postpartum mood disorder somehow compromised my credibility as a postpartum professional. But what better person to help support new mothers' emotional health than someone who has gone through it? Who better to challenge the stigma of perinatal mental health issues than a perinatal professional? This is why I refuse to be silent about my experience.
It is estimated that as many as 1 in 5 new mothers experience a postpartum mood disorder. It is the most common complication in new mothers. It's time to break the silence. It's time to challenge the stigma.
For more information on postpartum mood disorders, please visit the following resources:
- Postpartum Progress: http://postpartumprogress.org/
- Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project (MCPAP) for moms: https://www.mcpapformoms.org/Default.aspx
- Postpartum Support International: http://www.postpartum.net/
- The North Shore Postpartum Depression Task Force: http://www.northshorepostpartumhelp.org/
- Massachusetts Postpartum Support International WARMLINE: (866) 472-1897
If you are experiencing a mental health emergency, please call the MA Emergency Services Program: (877) 382-1609