Courtesy of Maureen Shaw

I Didn't Know I Had PPD

by Maureen Shaw

When my daughter was born nearly five years ago, I was overjoyed. She was perfect: healthy, rosy, and with large, inquiring eyes. My pregnancy was both planned and wanted, and I was beyond thrilled that my first child was a girl.

In the weeks leading up to her delivery, I'd sit in the nursery for long stretches, daydreaming about what she would look like and how she’d feel in my arms. I felt her kick and punch the walls of my stomach, and I couldn’t wait to meet the tiny human who had turned my belly into a boxing ring. My labor went smoothly, and within 48 hours of welcoming my daughter into the world, we were home.

Still, the fear that I might develop postpartum depression (PPD) was always in the back of my mind. I had a long history of depression, which I understood predisposed me to having PPD. Yet as we started settling into our new life as a family of three, my fears started to fade away. Yes, the physical recovery was tough and I would’ve traded a limb for a full night’s sleep, but I was content.

But, as the saying goes, don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Seemingly out of nowhere, postpartum depression and anxiety hit when my daughter was six weeks old. I literally became a different person overnight: one day I was doing chores with my baby strapped to my chest, thinking about how amazing my life was, and the next day I could barely function. Yet, when other people—namely my husband, best friend and mom—pointed out the obvious change in my disposition, I refused to admit there was something wrong with me.

Courtesy of Maureen Shaw

All of a sudden, it felt like the pleasure centers of my brain were experiencing a power outage. There was no more laughter, no more excitement, no more comfort in the small things. I was reduced to two moods: robotic or hysterical. I either numbly went about my motherly duties, or started sobbing uncontrollably for no rhyme or reason.

I stopped leaving the house except when necessary. Whereas months before I rocked away time in gleeful anticipation of giving birth, I now rocked myself in a dark bedroom and cried for hours on end, day after day after day. I still loved my baby and was able to take care of her, so I didn't think anything was truly wrong with me. But with the exception of my feelings for my daughter, everything else was a source of enormous sadness.

I didn’t want to face that fact that motherhood—this sacred, romanticized rite of passage—was not making me happy, as I had imagined it would.

Eventually, my sadness would inexplicably give way to anger. Because I didn’t want to take it out on my daughter, I’d find excuses to call my husband at work to scream at him. At first, he gave me a pass, chalking my mood up to sleep deprivation, but eventually, and understandably, it strained our relationship and he grew concerned about my well-being.

As the weeks passed, I was barely functional. I took good care of my daughter, but that was all I did. I stopped eating and showering regularly, and I began to suffer from debilitating insomnia. There were periods when I would go 36 hours without sleeping—not because I wanted to, but because I physically couldn’t. Even after my mother sent me an article detailing how insomnia is a clear sign of postpartum depression, I wouldn’t admit I was ill.

Courtesy of Maureen Shaw

My husband urged me to get help in whatever form I wanted: therapy, a mother’s helper, anything. I steadfastly refused. Every time he voiced his concerns for my mental health, I brushed them off and told him he was being melodramatic. I said that I was just tired, or hormonal, or simply dealing with the “baby blues.” I didn’t want to hear—let alone admit—that I was struggling.

Part of my resistance to getting help stemmed from my personality: I never want to feel like I’m being pushed into a decision. When someone asks me to do something, my knee-jerk reaction is to say no. But mostly, I didn’t want to face that fact that motherhood—this sacred, romanticized rite of passage—was not making me happy, as I had imagined it would. The external, social pressures I felt to love every moment of mothering ,combined with my internal drive for perfection, proved a toxic combination for my psyche.

My depression became untenable. One day, it escalated to hysteria and verbal threats of self-harm. My husband called my parents and begged them to come help. They drove 12 hours straight to get to us and the three of them staged what can best be described as an intervention. Finally, I relented and sought psychiatric help. To this day, I regret not getting treatment sooner.

I was my own biggest obstacle in obtaining the mental health help I desperately needed, and my family suffered for it.

I got help because I had a support system of loved ones who truly advocated for my wellbeing when I couldn’t—or wouldn’t—do so myself. Many women aren’t so lucky, especially when dealing with postpartum depression. The stigma associated with PPD helps cast it as a dirty little secret, which can hinder treatment. The reasons for this are manifold: mental health just isn’t taken as seriously as physical health, not to mention that PPD is a “woman’s issue,” which inherently means it’s devalued in our patriarchal society. When people do take PPD seriously, it's usually because of its potential effects on children, not because it affects women in general. There's a cultural refusal to acknowledge that women have roles beyond their status as wife and mother, and that they might need help.

I was my own biggest obstacle in obtaining the help I so desperately needed, and my family suffered for it. It took me a long time to come to that realization, but it was certainly a lesson best learned late than not at all. The next time I found myself staring down PPD (almost two years ago, with my son), I immediately got help. And we are all the better for it.

If you struggle with postpartum depression or anxiety, please seek professional help or contact Postpartum Support International (PSI) at 1-800-944-8766.