Dealing with mom-shaming is taxing, especially when it’s for things like breastfeeding in public, being on our phone at the park, sleep routines, and other harmless things that just point to differences in parenting style. But when you're a Black mom with postpartum depression (PPD), mom-shaming goes from being taxing to toxic and, in many cases, potentially dangerous.
Whenever I go anywhere, even the hospital or a therapist’s office, I’m never just a patient. I’m never just a mom seeking help. I’m a Black person navigating a racist system who happens to have a child. And since moms with PPD are already shamed and harshly judged in general, the fact that I’m Black adds layers of fear to an already scary situation. I’m queer, I’m not rich, I have hair that is deemed “unprofessional,” and I’m Black. With PPD.
As a new mom, I initially tried to focus on how lucky I was. I tried to focus on how, after an emergency transfer to the hospital following over 20 hours of laboring at home, multiple rounds of blood transfusions, and a traumatic labor, I was lucky me and my baby were alive. I tried to fixate on how privileged I was to have a supportive partner by my side the entire time. But I couldn’t stop feeling guilt, shame, fear, helplessness, and a suffocating sadness. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. All I felt was pain and disappointment as I slowly started to hate myself for failing to deliver my baby as planned.
When we returned home from the hospital, I decided to wait and see if I felt better. I’ve battled depression and other mental illnesses for two decades, so this wasn't new. And even if it was PPD, or another type of perinatal mood and anxiety disorder, I felt as though I could handle it. Hell, I had to handle it. After all, I had so much to feel thankful for. My baby had no issues with latching, my partner was on paid paternity leave and prioritized my needs, my birth doula was also my postpartum doula and brought us food and helped us clean the apartment from time to time, I was alive, and we had a roof over our heads. Who the f*ck was I to complain? What kind of assh*le could look at a life like the one I was living and cry? What kind of mother could have so much to be thankful for still be depressed?
Only white people need therapists, I was told. Black people? Well, Black people just need God. That's what I was raised to believe.
Days went by. Weeks went by. Months went by. I was still having trouble walking, I felt like a terrible mother, a terrible wife, a horrible friend, and a waste of space. I never figured out how to sleep when the baby slept. I felt constantly judged. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of nothingness. Darkness. Numbness. Worry. Fear. Failure. But even as a nonbinary femme, I felt the need to be a Strong Black Woman.
I still felt the need to remain silent.
In 2018, the Black Women’s Health Imperative reported that while 20% of moms will develop a postpartum mood disorder, Black women’s risk is twice as high. And since barriers like systemic and institutional racism impact access to care, Black moms struggle to find culturally-competent, affordable treatment. It doesn’t help that the mental health stigma in the Black community, and tropes like the Strong Black Woman remain pop culture staples, continues to make it hard for us to speak up.
Growing up, I was taught that crying was a sign of weakness and depression was a fancy of saying lazy. Only white people need therapists, I was told. Black people? Well, Black people just need God. That's what I was raised to believe.
Living with PPD can feel isolating and overwhelming in ways that I wasn’t prepared for at all. Even on my "good days," I constantly worry about what would happen to me, and my family, if the symptoms related to PPD landed me in the hospital. Thankfully, my symptoms are well-managed and I am not in a place where I feel worried about harming myself or others. But this isn’t the case for everyone. And I still have fears associated with the illness because I'm a Black mom.
Make no mistake, coping with PPD isn’t easy for anyone. It’s a day to day, moment to moment struggle that can feel like a constant battle between you, yourself, your mind, your body, and the healthy version of yourself you imagine you'll one day be. But when you're also a Black person, you’re forced to deal with the ever-tightening grip of structural violence and systemic racism; a history of anti-Blackness and sexism that unite to create the perfect recipe for a cycle that keeps moms like me suffering in silence.
If you or someone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety during pregnancy, or in the postpartum period, contact the Postpartum Health Alliance warmline at (888) 724-7240, or Postpartum Support International at (800) 944-4773. If you are thinking of harming yourself or your baby, get help right away by calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or dialing 911. For more resources, you can visit Postpartum Support International.