It was hard to admit that a mental health crisis had crept up on me, just weeks after one of the happiest days of my life. I told myself that I was exaggerating my own symptoms, that I was just overtired. Many women have it worse, I thought. I could make it work. And yet, even as I was “making it work,” I was pierced by moments of breathtaking sadness. I was underwater before I saw the tide coming in.

I loved my baby more than it was possible to describe. I also had postpartum depression and anxiety. It was hard to square those facts.

Worry was a constant companion. It was especially present at certain times — when hooked up to a pump in the “mother’s room” at the office, typing out work emails while fretting that I was not producing enough milk. At night, I watched the baby asleep in the bassinet next to me, my brain too electrified to sleep. During my commute, I thought about how for nine months she had traveled with me on the train, in me, and how now leaving her felt like having a limb removed, only to be reattached each night when I returned home.

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I shared my feelings in an online group for working mothers. Within hours, I had more than 20 replies. “High functioning depression,” someone wrote, a term I learned for the first time. A mental health professional in the group wrote that she frequently saw patients discount their own suffering — that this itself was a symptom. Others mirrored the conflict I felt between loving parenthood and feeling lost within it. Later, I’d hear similar sentiments in conversations with friends.

And these, I would come to realize, were the other truths: Postpartum depression is not uncommon, and yet many parents are scared to talk about it.

Depression and anxiety affect approximately 15 percent of women in the postpartum period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The classic symptoms include depressed mood, trouble sleeping or sleeping too much, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, even thoughts of self-harm. Exhaustion, life stress, and lack of social support — all factors common to women who have recently given birth — can increase the risk of developing postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety.

My personal health history had put me at elevated risk, and I was monitored closely by my hospital midwives both before and after giving birth.

I took a test called the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale twice, with no signs of trouble. The third time, nearly four months after giving birth, there was no question that something had changed. The hazy exhaustion and ecstasy of new parenthood had given way to constant worry and declining mood.

I felt persistently nervous. I cried every night.

I was crushed by the anxiety of realizing that I was physically and financially responsible for my family; that I had a career I didn’t want to screw up; and that, simply put, I missed my baby — a child I loved desperately and felt incredibly fortunate to have.

At times I felt like multiple people inhabiting the same body. One Saturday, my husband and I spent the morning with friends and our kids. We had a nice lunch, good conversation. Just a few hours later, I was too mentally exhausted to make basic decisions — crippled by the thought of putting together a simple dinner or preparing a bath for my older daughter. I was consumed with the idea that my family would be better off without me. That I was damaging my children. The next morning, I woke up and felt more or less OK.

It would have been easy to not get help, and many new mothers don’t — or can’t. Of women struggling with postpartum depression, only an estimated 15 percent access treatment.

I asked Dr. Lisa Hollier, the president of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, why so few. Among the largest hurdles, she told me, was the inconsistent availability of mental health providers and social services.

This I understand.

I was able to obtain a one-time appointment with a psychiatric consultant. But doing so required weeks of back-and-forth phone calls, the ability to take a morning off work and to find care for my children during this time. It also required the will to physically get myself to a hospital two hours from my home.

I have advantages many women do not — good prenatal and postnatal care, 12 weeks of parental leave, family support. I have the flexibility to work from home when needed. I have good health insurance. I live in a city with some of the best hospitals in the world. And, still, finding help felt insurmountable at times.

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My baby is 6 months old now. I am just starting to come out of the fog with the help of some medication, better rest, and the good fortune of nearby childcare that allows me to spend more time with my daughter. I am lucky that these simple changes have made a difference. I will soon have my first appointment with a provider that can manage my care long term. But even with the help of a case manager, I went months without being able to find a clinician that accepted my health insurance and is accepting new clients.

Having a baby is an experience both extremely common and shockingly dramatic. It is a time you may learn that you are capable of both boundless love and the darkest kind of sadness — often at the very same time. Childbirth causes physical pain well beyond the hours, or days, of labor contractions. Women are left with both literal and emotional scars as well as all the anxieties and joys that come with parenthood.

I have pushed myself to acknowledge how I actually feel with friends and family rather than cover it up. More often than not, people respond by revealing their own struggles. But the stigma of these conditions is overwhelming — and the shame keeps us quiet.

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  • To all new mothers : give yourselves a break, you are miracle-women, look for 1 positive thing daily and celebrate that. Try to refrain from medication – get a boost from a friend, wine, a walk, a little event just for YOU. When you’re back to your normal self : pursue your governments for decent parental leave (like a year, in Canada), and your employers for less harsh work-or-else attitudes. Good luck, you all deserve it.

    • Thank you for telling moms to give themselves a break. It’s needed. Medication is not the answer for everyone, that’s true. But sometimes a mother needs it. Please refer to my other comment. Sometimes talking works well. Sometimes it doesn’t.

      But recommending wine? That can be used as a medication as well with horrible outcomes.

      It would wonderful if a walk, a talk and a friend would cure PPMDs. It doesn’t work for everyone. We do need better postpartum care laws for families and definately need to work and push for it. Your intention is well meant.

    • Chris, as Mandi said far more kindly than I could below, this is not helpful. Parental leave does not cancel out the risk for PPD – just ask the thousands of women in the UK and Canada who suffer from it. It’s important not to conflate “the baby blues” with the mental health disorder of postpartum depression and/or anxiety, or its terrifying sister, postpartum psychosis. Taking a walk, a break, a glass of wine… these are things that can help with the normal stressors of new parenthood. But these “stress relief” suggestions are about as helpful as telling someone with asthma to take a slow, deep breath when an attack begins. PPD is a disease, and most often it does take medication (even if only in the short-term) to treat it, or at the very least, intense therapy.

  • It’s relieving to know that I’m not the only one out there that went through this. My son is 4 months old now and I have 2 daughters also. I went through this with all three of my kids but this last time seemed like it was worse. I was surrounded by my family but felt so alone. I cried constantly for no reason. I worried myself sick if I thought there may be something wrong with the baby (gas, reflux). It took me almost 2 months to start feeling like myself again. I never let anyone in on how I was feeling and never told my doctor or the baby’s doctor when asked to fill out the postpartum questionnaires. I just dealt with it alone and eventually got past it. It was such a miserable way to feel during what should be a joyful time in your life. I would suggest to any new mom feeling like this to seek help and talk to someone about it.

  • I honestly only read the article to find out if you’ve been prescribed “medication “. And just as I figured, you’ve become another big pharma victim. Those pills will haunt you. Guaranteed. Good luck.

    • First, are you male or female? I ask because of your name. Not all women who experience PPMDs need medication. I have had some mothers in my classes that needed meds for a sort time. They are not “haunted” by those pills.
      Many mothers do, and there is absolutely no shame in that. Is it better to have a mother that is unable to care for her family in the best way she can and not be on medication (as you say not be a victim of big pharma) or a mother able to care for them?
      PPMDs not only effects the mother but the whole family. It can effect generations.

  • It is no coincidence that they are slamming through a new dubious pharmaceutical treatment for this disorder. No doubt this poor woman was misled by social media, and has no idea she is being used to market a new expensive pharmaceutical, with little proof of effectiveness.

  • Wow, thank you so much for sharing this. It took me nearly a year to realize that I was in a similar fog. I chalked it up to what others here have said…this is just what it must feel like to be a mom. Though more often than not, I just blamed myself for not being as great/strong/cheerful/energetic as I had imagined I’d be.

  • Very powerful statement, and it resonates with me–and many other women–very strongly. From my own experiences, though, with both of my postpartum periods, it wasn’t shame (as the author cites) but ignorance. I thought this is how being a mom is: overprotective, anxious, intermittently unbearably sad, and helpless. Luckily, she had a supportive online community that identified her condition quickly. I was isolated and waited 6 mos before seeking treatment. There’s also a self-imposed pressure to “do it all,” not quite shame but the feeling that one shouldn’t ask for help or show weakness because “everyone else” is so capable except oneself (hardly true, of course!). I’m very grateful the author shared her story, as it was so well put and reminded me of a very difficult time that is not insurmountable.

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