My postpartum depression did not make me a bad mom

“I don’t want to feel like this, I’m so sorry.”
“I don’t want to feel like this, I’m so sorry.”
Image: Fanqiao Wang
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Three years ago, I became a mother for the first time. After an easy pregnancy and a smooth, uncomplicated delivery, I was blessed with a beautiful, healthy daughter who immediately captivated me. Everything about her—from her little button nose to her ridiculously tiny fingernails—was absolute perfection. I was smitten.

Admittedly, the following six weeks weren’t nearly as magical as those first few moments in the delivery room. Indeed, they were more akin to torture: zero sleep, a stitched up vagina, sore nipples and no mental capacity to do anything more complicated than brushing my teeth.

Everyone kept telling me how motherhood was “totally worth it,” but the day-in, day-out ritual was hell. For one thing, life had become mind-numbingly monotonous: Feed the baby. Change the baby. Soothe her crying. Rinse and repeat. Parenting was, at that time, very much a one-way transactional relationship that left me feeling both physically and emotionally bankrupt.

But I soldiered on through those first, grueling weeks, holding onto the hope that it would get better. Unfortunately, right as I began to finally find my new mother footing, postpartum depression blind-sided me.

I’m not talking about the “baby blues,” or mood changes brought on by normal postpartum hormonal fluctuations. I’m talking about life-sucking, head-under-water, cant-see-the-light depression. The kind that made me not want to be a mother and resent the drastic 180-degree direction my previously carefree life had taken.

It’s difficult to articulate those dark feelings; they were all-consuming and terrifyingly invasive. I spent countless hours sobbing, couldn’t eat, and suffered from debilitating insomnia. I was convinced my life was over, as knocks on the door went unanswered and phone calls were sent directly to voice mail. As I sat rocking my sweet, chubby baby, I cried so hard I nearly threw up. “I don’t want to feel like this, I’m so sorry” I kept repeating out loud to her, wishing she could understand what I was saying. But she just cooed at me, blowing little bubbles of spit between her perfectly bowed lips, which only made me feel worse.

I felt like a terrible mother; despite having a happy and healthy little human—who was very much wanted and planned—I couldn’t stop crying or screaming at my husband long enough to appreciate my good fortune. I was crumbling on the inside. But at the same time it felt like I was having an out-of-body experience: I could see myself pushing loved ones away in the midst of uncontrollable outbursts, but felt powerless to stop.

This went on for months. Finally, driven by desperation and a fear that I might hurt myself, my husband called my parents, who drove 12 straight hours to get to us. Together, they staged an intervention of sorts, begging me to seek professional help. I reluctantly (combatively, really) agreed, even though I was in complete denial that what I was experiencing was, in fact, postpartum depression.

I’m not crazy, I thought. I just need time to embrace the changes. It’s probably because I’m overtired—I don’t function well when I’m this tired. I didn’t want to talk to my parents, and certainly didn’t want to talk to a psychologist. Pills were out of the question because I was worried they would force me to stop breastfeeding.

I had a litany of excuses. But three years and another child later, I know the reason I waited was actually quite simple: stigma. Women are supposed to love motherhood and embrace it with unbridled enthusiasm. So what, I thought at the time, was wrong with me?

I’ve spent way too much time pulling at that thread. In doing so, I’ve come to the realization that the stigma associated with postpartum depression is not unlike that associated with other so-called “women’s” issues, from rape to abortion and domestic violence. Each of these issues involves complex emotions and circumstances, and they are, statistically speaking, widely shared experiences. In the case of postpartum depression, up to an estimated 19% of women—nearly 1/5 of mothers—experience it.

While the decision to self-disclose about private experiences is an individual one, the dangers of communal silence can’t be underestimated: By suffering quietly, we validate the very stigma that renders us voiceless. As women and as mothers, we are just as deserving of self-care, love and respect as those we are charged with caring for.

The feminist community has long rallied on behalf of silenced and pilloried individuals. And as part of the reproductive health spectrum (one of the feminist movement’s main objectives), PPD ought to fall squarely within the feminist agenda. And yet when it comes to helping eliminate the stigma associated with postpartum depression, there is a striking lack of feminist advocacy.

By its very definition, postpartum depression is entwined with motherhood, which itself is extremely politicized and scrutinized: from a woman’s decision to become—or not become—a mother, to how and where she gives birth, to whether and how long she breastfeeds, to her decision to stay at home or work. Women find themselves under a microscope and are judged every step along their reproductive journey.

In return, feminist activists have banded together to combat this scrutiny. Legislatively, we have lobbied for comprehensive reproductive health care, paid family leave, the right to breastfeed in public and reasonable accommodations for expectant moms. Culturally, we have worked tirelessly to eliminate stigma associated with abortion, build support for post-baby body positivity, and shatter silence surrounding miscarriage. It only seems logical that we should also work together to decimate the stigma surrounding postpartum depression. All women, regardless of where they fall in their reproductive timeline, deserve to lead stigma- and shame-free lives.

When my son was born in June, I vowed I would be more vigilant. And then one day as I sat on the couch cradling my 4-week-old son, tears began to roll down my cheeks. Sure enough, I could feel the familiar set of dark feelings creeping back—the very same ones that had prevented me from enjoying my daughter’s infancy. But this time, I knew what to do.

As Audre Lorde said, self-care “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Feminist activists and allies, we need to start taking this advice to heart. I’m beyond grateful that I didn’t delay treatment for my postpartum depression this time. I’m a better mother and a much happier person for it, as are my kids. It’s ironic that I suffered in silence precisely because I didn’t want to be labeled a bad mother. In fact, I realize now that admitting I struggle with postpartum depression doesn’t make me a bad mom; denying myself the care I need does.