In the cloud of emotions that followed the birth of my first child, I'll never forget a message I received from my cousin on Facebook. This cousin was already a mom to two kids, and while we hadn't spoken frequently, she sent me this message when my son was just two days old:
Your son is beautiful. The first couple weeks are pretty mind-boggling, but if your photos are any indication, you look pretty darn good. Let me know if you need anything. Babies are wonderful, but it can be rough sometimes. I'm always here if you need to vent.
I can't say enough how much her message helped me. I was in the midst of smiles, cheers, congratulations, and compliments. I felt this enormous pressure to be blissfully happy. But mostly, I felt tired and weepy and overwhelmed. My cousin's note talking about postpartum depression and anxiety was the first time someone said to me, "You might be feeling rough. That's OK."
I didn't know at the time that I was beginning a long, confusing struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety. It's hard to know when things are the "baby blues" that you hear so much about, or if you're just tired and sore from birth and breastfeeding, or if it's something more. It was vital to me that someone was talking about how new motherhood isn't all sunshine and rainbows. If my cousin hadn't reached out, I would have felt so alone. For that reason, I feel like it's vital to talk about postpartum depression.
Certainly we've come a long way culturally in terms of addressing postpartum depression, even if we still have miles and miles to go. Most doctors and midwives will go over signs and symptoms of postpartum depression with a mother and her family before the baby is born. There are more and more celebrities openly talking about their own struggles. There are organizations whose missions are to battle the stigma around mental illness or about postpartum depression in particular. But my depression and anxiety didn't look like what my midwife had described. I felt incredibly bonded to my baby. Life with him was going fairly smoothly. He was sleeping pretty well, eating great, and not too fussy. I had a great support system with my partner and my mom, my friends and my extended family. But because my anxiety was manifesting totally differently than my past struggles with panic disorder and agoraphobia, I didn't realize any of what I was experiencing was atypical or treatable.
Every single person on this earth has a mother who went through childbirth, and yet, somehow, when I was a new mother, I felt like I was perhaps the only person who had ever felt like this. Intellectually, I must have known that wasn't true, but the isolation I felt was very real.
Being told by my cousin that I might be miserable and, if I was, that it would get better really helped me. And so now, when I talk to my friends who are new moms, I always try to say something similar. I can't help but gush over their baby, but then I always try to ask how they're feeling. I let them know that I felt pretty terrible when my son was born. I couldn't enjoy him because I was hyper-vigilant about making sure he was breathing. I couldn't stand to hear him cry and insisted on doing all of his care-taking myself. I cried at the drop of a hat. I just felt sad. I've had friends relate to this. One friend in particular once said, "So this is why you get presents after you have a baby, because being a new mom is so awful." Hearing her say that, I knew exactly how she felt. And I think both of us felt less alone because we could be honest with each other.
I have a lot of hopes and dreams about how women and mothers can come together to help each other. Every single person on this earth has a mother who went through childbirth, and yet, somehow, when I was a new mother, I felt like I was perhaps the only person who had ever felt like this. Intellectually, I must have known that wasn't true, but the isolation I felt was very real.
Hearing celebrities recount their stories and reading brochures at doctors' offices only gets you so far. I think that by talking about postpartum depression with friends and family is crucial. It's easy to paint a rosy picture on new motherhood. You can post pictures of your adorable baby and share their milestones, but none of those sunshiny social media posts necessarily tell you much about how a mother is doing.
Talking about my postpartum depression and anxiety made me feel so much less alone. And if talking about my own experience makes anyone else feel seen and heard, then sharing my story again and again and again is worth it to me.
Talking about my postpartum depression helped my family and loved ones because they didn't immediately realize I was struggling. And even when they did, they didn't exactly know how to react. Everything takes a backseat to the baby's wellbeing. By talking about it, however, I made it clear that I still had needs too. I'm not a clinician, and I'm not going to start diagnosing my friends, but what I can do is listen and share that I struggled and eventually got help and got much better. I can tell other friends that it's OK not to be blissful. I can help them process their own feelings by letting them talk about them. I can tell them that just because they might not be enjoying motherhood as much as they had hoped, it means nothing about how well they're doing or about how much they love their child.
I believe in the power of sharing our stories and feelings. Talking about things is healing. Hearing stories that are similar to your own makes you feel so much less isolated. Talking about my postpartum depression and anxiety made me feel so much less alone. And if talking about my own experience makes anyone else feel seen and heard, then sharing my story again and again and again is worth it to me.
I was a new mom once, and there were days when I felt like shit. You have a sore butt and leaky breasts and a baby who cries nonstop. But I got through it, and I credit talking about how I felt with that. I know not every woman struggling with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety is going to be "cured" or feel better by being honest about what she's going through, and I know I can only speak to what worked best for me. But for me, talking really helped. So much. It made me feel so much less alone. And now, whenever I meet another new mom or a friend has a baby, I make an effort to talk about how my postpartum experience didn't match the picture-perfect image I'd created in my head. At the very least, they'll know they're not alone.