My dream is that with motherhood comes only empathy and connection, not judgment and shame. My dream is that all moms feel empowered to ask for help, receive it and realize that doing so doesn’t make them failures. My dream is that all moms realize that taking care of themselves and their needs isn’t selfish, but necessary. My dream is that all moms feel safe enough to be honest about their lives, even the scary parts. My dream is that all moms have access to affordable care for mental health issues such as postpartum depression and anxiety. My dream is that no mom ever feels alone as she struggles. My dream is that all moms recognize motherhood is not one-size-fits-all and no two journeys are the same. My dream is that all moms support each other’s choices and embrace each other’s differenes. My dream is that all moms lift one another up because they understand that we are all in this together.
When I was eight months pregnant, a friend asked me if I was worried at all about postpartum depression. I quickly shot her down. “Oh, that would never happen to me,” I said. “I’m so excited to be a mom.” As far as I was concerned, I was going to give birth to my son the old-fashioned way, fall deeply in love with him, breastfeed him for months like a champion, transform into the DIY domestic goddess I was always meant to be, and take him with me everywhere I went.
Instead, I was in labor for 24 hours, a process that led to two hours of pushing, followed by a C-section. Afterward, I found that I felt nothing toward my healthy new baby boy, became crippled by anxiety, quit breastfeeding after five days, decided I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mom, started taking antidepressants, and barely left the house for six months.
Maybe if I had received more education about postpartum depression, I would have been more aware of what was happening to me, less ashamed, and more prepared to seek help. There are so many things I wish I’d known about postpartum depression before I became a mom, and I want you to know them too.
Four years ago, when my son was born, and I battled severe postpartum depression, I felt so alone. I wanted—no—I desperately craved meeting another mom like me. Another mom who would put her hand on my arm, look me in the eye, and say, “I’ve been there. I get it.”
I didn’t find these moms until I got better almost a year later when I started sharing my journey from postpartum depression to healthy, happy mommy. And most of them I met virtually. I was amazed by how many moms would respond to my story with those powerful words, “I’ve been there. I get it.” Where were these moms when I was suffering? Most likely, they were also suffering and too ashamed to come forward just like I was.
It was then I realized the power of those two little sentences and their importance and necessity when it comes to the struggles of motherhood. Whether it’s depression, anxiety, body image, relationship issues or something else, we all struggle as moms and we want to know we aren’t the only ones. We don’t always want advice. We want to feel normal. We want to know there are others out there who get it. Who get us.
In the hospital, I thought I loved my baby. I thought I wanted to bring him home and be his mother. Then I got home and my thoughts drastically changed. I wanted nothing to do with my new son. I decided I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mother.
With these new, irrational thoughts came a feeling of heaviness on my chest as if an elephant had all of a sudden taken up residence there. I couldn’t breathe. The feeling creeped into my throat. It woke me up at three am every morning. It exhausted me to the point where all I wanted to do was sleep forever yet I could never fall asleep because the anxiety made my heart feel as if it would leap out of my chest.
What was happening to me? Why do I feel this way? Where did this overwhelming anxiety come from? Why won’t the tears stop? Why don’t I want to get out of my bed when there is a healthy, beautiful baby boy in the next room who needs his mother? How do I make it all stop?
The day after I arrived home with my new baby boy, I was hit with severe postpartum depression. I never thought it could happen to me and it came out of nowhere. I went from filling out all 1’s on the happy scale the hosptial gives you before sending you home to being at home thinking I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mother, and trying to figure out ways I could get sick or hurt so I could return to the hospital where everyone would have to take care of me and I never had to take care of a baby.
How do you tell your mom friends you feel this way when you have been led to believe the only normal feelings new moms experience after giving birth are magic, bliss, joy, love, and an intense attachment to your baby? How could I tell them the only thing I felt was paralyzing anxiety that made it difficult to do anything but cry ugly tears and lie in bed pleading for it to all go away so I could love my new baby boy and be a good mother too. How could I tell them I resented them for being so much better at motherhood than me? So much better at breastfeeding. So much better at simply wanting to spend time with their babies and leaving the house with them, something I was terrified to do.
I didn’t have any friends who had postpartum depression before me. I didn’t even know postpartum depression was what I had until I found the right therapist who diagnosed me. Now I didn’t only have postpartum depression. I had to go on antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicine to cope with motherhood. Again, what would my friends think? From what I knew of other moms (close friends and the ones on social media I didn’t know personally), motherhood was easy and came naturally. I thought of myself as a horrible mom and a failure. I failed at breastfeeding. I failed at Pinterest. I failed at wanting to be a mother. Would my friends judge me as harshly as I judged myself?
After battling and surviving postpartum depression, I have received the following question repeatedly: “Jen, I think my friend might be going through something like what you went through. I want to say something to her about it, but I don’t want to upset her. How do I bring up that she isn’t acting like herself lately?”
I wish I had a simple answer to this question, but it’s never simple when it comes to postpartum depression, which is not a one size fits all illness. Every mom’s experience with PPD is unique to her. Her risk factors, symptoms, feelings, and length of illness won’t look like that of any other mom suffering. Just like PPD, every mom is different and motherhood is also not one size fits all.
Before you confront a mom and suggest she might be suffering from PPD, here are some factors I think you should consider: How will she react? How receptive would she be to the idea of needing and asking for help? I think you should also ask yourself, “Am I the best person for this conversation or is there someone else that should be having this conversation?”
I have very strong feelings about breastfeeding. It’s not because I’m anti-breastfeeding or anti-formula. In fact, I’m the opposite…I’m pro- women should choose what works best for them and their mental health and sanity during what might be the biggest transition of their lives…motherhood. And no woman should ever be made to feel like she is a failure or a terrible mother because she chooses formula over breastfeeding or even supplements breast milk with formula.
Now I know there are the people who believe that becoming a parent is all about sacrifice. We sacrifice for the well-being of our children and therefore moms should breastfeed no matter what. Well I’m here to call bullshit…because at the end of the day, giving your baby a happy, healthy mommy is just as if not more important than giving your baby breastmilk at the expense of your well-being. What about women who don’t produce enough milk? What about exclusively breastfed babies who don’t gain enough weight? No mom should ever be made to feel bad about how she nourishes her children.
Social media is filled with celebrities promoting breastfeeding. Celebrities not so subtly telling you that breast is best…the only proper way to feed your baby. And it’s not just celebrities…regular women like you and me love to judge and shame moms who choose not to breastfeed. Doctors and lactation consultants lay the guilt on thick for new moms who struggle with the decision between breast milk and formula. None of this is fair to new mothers. Plenty of studies show breastfeeding to be the better option and the same number of studies claim that these studies have no merit…which brings me back to my main point…choose what works for you…because your baby will be fine… and fuck the haters and everyone else.
Here is my breastfeeding story: It’s not a fairly tale.
In the last several years, more and more celebrity moms have opened up about their struggles with postpartum depression. They are women who look like they have it all. They are women we assume live perfect lives as they travel on private planes with their personal chefs and glam squads. They are women we would never think could have any problems because why would they? They are beautiful, famous, and wealthy enough to afford anything they want, including teams of baby nurses, nannies, and other child-care services that make a mom’s life easier.
They are also women you didn’t know struggled with mental health issues in their first year of motherhood because they kept it secret. They are women who became moms and had no clue that motherhood didn’t always come easy. Moms who didn’t know what was happening to them when they didn’t experience the magic of motherhood portrayed by the movies and TV shows they act in. Moms who didn’t admit they suffered from postpartum depression until after they made it through to the other side. Most importantly, they are moms who can teach all of us some valuable lessons about maternal mental health and why we must keep the conversation about this very serious, even life-threatening issue going.
Four years ago, I gave birth to a healthy baby boy. A few days after taking him home from the hospital, I became convinced I didn’t want to be his mother. I had made a terrible mistake by having a baby. I had no idea what was wrong with me. All I wanted was to be the perfect mother madly in love with my son. Two weeks later I was diagnosed with postpartum depression.
I don’t remember writing during that year while I was sick, but I recently came across an unlabeled composition notebook, and when I opened it, what I found inside broke my heart.
I wrote the following on May 27, 2013, two months after my son was born.
Yesterday, my son Mason turned 2 months old. Yes, I have a son and I wish I didn’t. I also have postpartum depression, which is apparently the reason I don’t want him. I now take anti-anxiety medicine and antidepressants. I see a psychiatrist every couple of weeks and a therapist twice a week.
When I had postpartum depression, I could barely leave the house. I rarely left the house with my new baby for almost six months. I was lucky if I could get out of bed and get dressed, let alone do the things that used to snap me out of a horrible mood. Getting my nails painted with the latest gel color wasn’t going to fix anything. Exercising just made me more tired and meant I had to be around people. Girls’ night was the last place I wanted to be. Showing up on my yoga mat wasn’t going to happen. Retail therapy wasn’t therapeutic at all. And the last thing I wanted to do was talk about what I was going through.
Postpartum depression is so much more than just being “moody.” It’s not an exaggerated form of that time of the month. It’s going to last longer than those two weeks of “baby blues.” It’s a serious mental illness that can present itself in so many different forms and requires medical treatment. Each woman’s journey and struggle will be unique to her, her symptoms, and her risk factors. As a result, many new moms don’t even recognize they have postpartum depression. They find themselves flooded with guilt, wondering how they could feel so miserable during what they thought would be the most magical time in their lives. They feel too ashamed to tell anyone because they don’t realize that one in seven women have some form of what they have. And like me, they don’t find any solace in the activities that used bring them joy.
Postpartum depression is not a one size fits all illness, which makes it difficult for outsiders to process. While every mom will get better with treatment, there is no formula that predicts when. Some women suffer for a few months. Some for much longer. I struggled for a year. Husbands, family members and friends want to help, but don’t always know how. They don’t always understand what mom is going through. What should they do? What should they say? Other moms might not get it if they didn’t have postpartum depression when their babies were born. Sometimes knowing what not to say is just as important when it comes to offering your support.