Meeting your child for the first time, and the nine months leading up to that moment, are magical and unimaginably joyful … unless you suffer from postnatal depression, which I did.
Like most women, I was braced for the typical stresses of motherhood, but completely unprepared for depression. I had no idea how to handle it and didn’t talk about it to anyone other than my husband. These days, people are talking about it and the conversation is compelling.
The New York Times just published a groundbreaking two-part series on maternal mental illness, which revealed just how complex and prevalent the issue is. Many of the stories featured are extreme and heartbreaking (one involving the suicide of a mother), but the information is relevant for all us. We may be familiar with the phrase postnatal depression, but author Pam Belluck digs much deeper. She looks not just at the why, but the how and when. For starters, depression is not always postnatal but can occur during pregnancy or months after birth as it did with actress Courtney Cox. Nor does mental illness always surface as depression; it can appear as anxiety, bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive tendencies.
Perhaps most remarkably, the Times piece unfolds the stories of real women who were brave enough to share their experiences. Reading it forced me to rethink the depression I lived through seven years ago.
Prior to getting pregnant, I heard all about the rosy glow (shiny hair! dreamy skin!), the beauty of birthing, and the joy of growing from a couple into a family. My husband and I were ready for the fairytale and after two years of fertility treatments, I had a perfect pregnancy and gave birth to gorgeous twin boys. When they were four months old, I found myself pregnant again and nine months later, my daughter arrived. That’s when postnatal depression hit.
In the hospital recovering from my second C-Section in 14 months, I couldn’t sleep, didn’t want to be left alone, and felt strung-out and scared. I had awful thoughts of people being trapped and suffocated, and barely remember what it felt like to hold or breastfeed my daughter. Fortunately, I never had any visions of hurting myself or my children, but I felt terrified, hopeless, and helpless. When my babies started crying, I collapsed and cried as well.
I consider myself a strong person, but within two weeks I knew I couldn’t handle it on my own and made the decision to talk to my doctor. Her reaction couldn’t have been more perfect — no judgment, no drama. She suggested the anti-depressant Zoloft, but I did not want to go on drugs because I was breastfeeding. She looked me in the eye and said: “This is what the drugs are here for, to help you over this hurdle. We’re lucky we have this help.” After discovering there would be no side effects for my daughter, I went on Zoloft and stayed on it for several years until the stress of having three babies subsided.
I moved on with my life and never discussed the depression. Then as my children grew, I began to hear accounts from other mums who dealt with it either during or after their pregnancies. More stories began to emerge in the press as well as from celebrity mums including Brooke Shields, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Angelina Jolie. I admire each of them for opening up about something so many women go through.
No woman wants to admit anything less than euphoric joy and boundless love at the sight of her child. The same way we romanticize our walk down the aisle with Prince Charming, we idealize motherhood. Motherhood is magical, but it’s also mysterious. Feeling weak, being sad, needing help – those emotions are hard for new mothers to process because they aren't what we're led to expect. The more we talk about them, the easier it becomes for women experiencing depression to receive help… and then get on with the fairytale part of it — dirty nappys, sleepless nights, and all.