Not long ago, a creative essay I wrote about my experience with postpartum depression was published by an online literary journal. It was a very candid story about my struggles adjusting to my role as a mother. I confessed my feelings of inadequacy and the insomnia that led to thoughts of hurting myself.
After my first son was born, I was frequently angry: I felt as if I had been lied to about the joys of motherhood. While I loved my son, I didn’t like who I was now that I was a mother. There were times — in the endless series of feedings and diaper changings and tears — that I felt like my life was over. On top of that, I felt guilty about not feeling joyful. It became a vicious cycle, and I suffered in silence for a long time.
When I shared my story on social media, I was taken aback by the number of women who commented or messaged me to tell me they had had similar experiences after childbirth. They thanked me for sharing my story, asked for advice on how to deal with ongoing symptoms, and generally expressed loving support.
I felt as if I had been lied to about the joys of motherhood.
I was surprised because I had been very nervous about sharing my story so publicly — I worried people would think less of me as a mother and a person. But the responses showed me that we — as women and mothers — need to talk more about the realities of childrearing, especially when it comes to the topic of postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety.
Here’s why we need to talk more about the postpartum experience:
There’s a Difference Between “Baby Blues” and Postpartum Depression
I’d heard that most women suffer from the “baby blues” after childbirth, but I didn’t actually understand the science behind it. During pregnancy, estrogen and progesterone hormones increase dramatically; following labor and delivery, these hormones plummet rapidly and significantly. According to the American Pregnancy Association, it’s believed that these hormonal changes likely cause the baby blues, which 70-80% of new mothers experience. In addition, exhaustion and adjusting to life with a new baby likely contribute to the symptoms of baby blues, which include mood fluctuations, random crying, insomnia, anxiety, and irritability. Usually, the baby blues occur within two to three days of giving birth and improve within two weeks.
While postpartum depression shares many of the same symptoms, they’re usually more severe and last longer. In my case, I experienced weepiness in the first month after my son was born. But while this symptom gradually improved, I began to suffer from more severe insomnia. I experienced racing, negative thoughts and was unable to fall asleep even when my son was sleeping. I also frequently had feelings of hopelessness and anger; I felt trapped, alone, and confused. These symptoms lasted for five months, until I sought treatment through medication and therapy. I think if I had understood that the baby blues go away after the first two weeks and don’t present as severely as I was experiencing, I would have sought treatment for my postpartum depression earlier.
Hormonal changes likely cause the baby blues, which 70-80% of new mothers experience.
It’s also important to note that while the baby blues are less severe than PPD, they’re still a real and difficult syndrome. Before having children, I heard people talk about the baby blues somewhat dismissively, as if they were almost laughable. While, yes, in retrospect, crying over the size of baby socks is pretty funny, that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the experiences of women who have just given birth. Following labor, women need support and encouragement, and their feelings shouldn’t be ignored or glossed over. I think if I had been better equipped to validate the blues I experienced immediately after birth, my PPD may have been less severe.
10% of Women Experience Postpartum Depression
According to womenshealth.gov, one out of every nine women experiences some kind of postpartum depression or anxiety. But that number only accounts for women who have been diagnosed; it doesn’t include women who suffer in silence, and I would argue that that number is significantly higher. I ultimately only sought help because I had a supportive partner who urged me to tell my doctor about my symptoms. Had I been alone — as many mothers are — I may have never sought treatment. This is because I subconsciously bought into the idea that good mothers never struggle. I felt guilty for not exclusively feeling joy with my new, cute baby, and ultimately believed the diagnosis of PPD would mean I was a bad mother.
I subconsciously bought into the idea that good mothers never struggle.
In retrospect, I know these feelings came from my lack of connection with other mothers in my same situation. By the time my second son was born, we had moved closer to family and I had become closer with other mothers of young children. I was surrounded by loving friends who encouraged me to share my actual feelings, whether of joy or frustration, and shared their own struggles with motherhood. While I did suffer from PPD with my second son, I sought treatment much earlier. I know I was more proactive not only because I knew what the symptoms looked like, but also because I didn’t feel alone in my symptoms. I knew that seeking help meant I was a good mother.
Talking about our postpartum experiences is an important step to ending the stigma that only bad mothers struggle. It also opens a door for women to rely on a community because raising a child is not a one-person job.
Postpartum Depression Is Different From Postpartum Psychosis
The depiction of PPD in popular culture also kept me from seeking treatment early. In films and books, women are often portrayed with extremely dramatic symptoms: conviction that they have the wrong baby, listless or erratic behavior, and active attempts to hurt themselves or their baby. While these symptoms can occur, they’re much rarer and are actually the result of what is called postpartum psychosis. About four of every 1,000 new mothers experience postpartum psychosis, according to womenshealth.gov, and frequently those mothers suffer from previous conditions like bipolar disorder.
I was slow to seek treatment because I didn’t think my lesser symptoms counted as dangerous.
Because my conception of PPD came from these more dramatic depictions, I was slow to seek treatment because I didn’t think my lesser symptoms counted as dangerous. When I experienced intrusive thoughts about hurting myself, I told myself I would never actually carry anything out, and thought that — because I had that sense of control — I wasn’t actually experiencing a diagnosable syndrome. When I started experiencing similar thoughts after my second son was born, I knew immediately that there was something wrong; once again, a deeper understanding of the postpartum experience would have helped me with my first son.
There Are Many Kinds of Treatment Available
Finally, talking more about our postpartum experiences can help us know the kinds of treatment available. For me, a combination of antidepressants and therapy has helped me recover. There’s also research that suggests that placenta encapsulation (ingesting the placenta after it has been turned into pills) can significantly help with postpartum mood disorders by balancing hormones and providing important vitamins and nutrients.
A combination of antidepressants and therapy helped me to recover.
If you’re wanting to breastfeed, a lactation consultant can also be helpful, since having difficulty breastfeeding can often lead to PPD. With my second son, a lactation consultant helped diagnose and find a correction for my son’s tongue tie, which made breastfeeding significantly easier than with my first. Ultimately, it’s important to know that there are options, and you can find a treatment that fits your lifestyle.
I know how difficult and overwhelming it can be to take the first step to find help. But knowing I wasn’t alone was one of the key components to my own recovery, which is why I firmly believe that we, as mothers, need to be honest about our feelings. Having a child is a beautiful experience, but it’s also life-altering in ways you can’t imagine until it happens. When we talk about it and support each other, we can find the strength to adapt and find real joy.