The Stigma of Postpartum Depression



Despite the passage of sixteen years, I have a very clear memory of sitting in my obstetrician’s office for my six-week checkup after giving birth to my lovely daughter. Clad in sweatpants and a tee shirt with baby spit-up on the shoulder, my hair in a sloppy, greasy ponytail, my hands were shaking that he would see that I was a horrible mother. He walked in, took one look at me and said, “Postpartum Depression. I can help.” I immediately burst into tears, and we had a long discussion regarding the problem.

Postpartum Depression (PPD) affects fifteen to twenty percent of all new mothers. Some refer to it as the “Baby Blues,” but that is incorrect. There is a significant difference, as the Baby Blues begin within a few days of giving birth and pass fairly quickly. PPD can begin anytime in the first year after birth, and the symptoms are much more severe. These symptoms vary, but can include difficulties with eating and sleeping, fatigue, guilt, feelings of worthlessness, lack of interest in the baby, excessive sadness and crying, weight fluctuations, anxiety, thoughts of death or suicide, and even physical pain.

As far back as 700 B.C., there were writings by Hippocrates regarding the suffering from emotional difficulties of women during the postpartum period. Despite this, it wasn’t recognized as an actual disorder until the 1850s. Unfortunately, these women were called “neurotic” and subjected to unusual and frightening treatments, such as electroshock therapy. A century later, women were given valium and “nerve pills.” Having PPD was considered shameful and was not talked about openly. It was treated as a dirty little secret of insanity.

Certainly by now, things have changed, right? Well, somewhat. Sadly, there is still a stigma regarding this illness, despite the steps taken in society and the medical community. I experienced some of this during my bout with PPD. The most hurtful thing ever said to me was from a friend in whom I had confided about my problems. Another friend of ours had suffered a miscarriage and while discussing the possibility of taking her some meals while she recovered, my friend said, “It is a shame that she lost her baby when she wanted one so badly, and you aren’t even happy after having yours.” I was hurt to my core. First of all, that was absolutely untrue and unfair. I knew I loved my baby, more than my own life. I was in the grips of a common illness and yet made to feel guilty like I did something wrong.

And truly, everything did feel wrong. I was prepared for diapers and sleepless nights. I was not prepared for the overwhelming darkness of my days. I could not eat without vomiting, eventually losing forty pounds in one month. Every morning, I woke up and cried because I could not imagine making it through one more day. I experienced scary dreams of accidentally hurting my daughter. I felt vulnerable, disconnected. It was the most painfully debilitating time of my life. Yet, through it all, I knew I loved my child beyond reason and SHOULD be happy.

If you are experiencing PPD, there are three important things to remember. First of all, a medical condition is not a choice! You did not choose this, and there are things to help. Secondly, this WILL go away! It takes time, but you will return to yourself. Last of all…and perhaps most important, you are not alone! Mothers have been dealt this nasty blow since the dawn of time, and they rally and make it through.

So what can be done? Plenty! First, take care of yourself. Get as much rest as possible, take breaks, and even pamper yourself with a bubble bath. With a new baby, time management is an issue, which is why you should not be afraid to ask for help! Eat healthy, exercise slowly and try to get out in the sunshine. Do not be afraid to share your feelings with your loved ones and your doctor. There are many treatments available, from herbal remedies and hormone therapy to counseling and antidepressants.

Dr. Katherine Wisner once stated, “This is an illness that takes away a woman’s ability to access joy…right at the time she needs it most.” We have to remember that when a baby is born, so is a mother. It is a process both physical and emotional, with many ramifications. Motherhood is both fierce and gentle, humbling and uplifting, frightening and encouraging…and worth every moment!