Toxic Positivity Kept Me From Speaking Up About My Perinatal Mood Disorder
When I was pregnant with my first child, I honestly believed motherhood would be simple for me. I’m not sure I thought it would be easy. I wasn’t that naive. I did believe I had the grit and the basic skills to pull off the day-to-day care of raising a child. Things didn’t go as planned (are you surprised?), motherhood was so much more complicated than I expected. My first year of being a parent was honestly really hard.
Looking back now, I wish I had known that my experience wasn’t a flaw in me, it was a flaw in the culture of motherhood. I was entrenched in a world that made motherhood look like magic. I was surfing the social media feeds of countless beautiful mothers with their perfectly dressed children, watching them brush off difficulty and gush about their life. Honestly, toxic positivity kept me from speaking up about my perinatal mood disorder, making motherhood harder than it needed to be.
When my first daughter joined our world, bright red with a head full of dark curls, I found myself face-to-face with the truth that I didn’t really know what I was doing. From that first moment of skin-to-skin, when the nurse awkwardly tried to help my daughter latch to my breast, I could feel my security in my capability as a mother crumbling around me.
More alarming than anything else was the fact that I wasn’t prepared for what my mind might do after birth, rushed with hormones, assaulted with exhaustion, and genetically predisposed to anxiety and depression.
Twenty-four hours into this new gig, I called my nurse into my hospital room to talk.
“When I try to go to sleep, dreams of me accidentally dropping my daughter down our stairs at home wake me. I’m just so anxious.”
She was kind and she was chipper. What I didn’t realize at the time was that she was also super dismissive. She told me anxiety is totally normal for first-time moms, I’d be fine after I got some sleep and was back at home. She even made a point to tell me she felt much more comfortable sending me home with a baby than she did a lot of her patients.
I believed her. Why wouldn’t I? She was the expert, I was the new mom. If she said this was just exhaustion than it must just be exhaustion. If she said it was new mom nerves, they would alleviate with time. If she said I could handle this, then I was going to handle this.
What neither of us realized at the time was those dreams were the start of an anxious fixation for me. Some nights at home I would get so anxious about this particular fear — accidentally dropping my daughter down the stairs — I would walk a special path that kept me as far as possible from the top of the stairs, while still getting me and my daughter to the kitchen and living room in our home.
I didn’t see a doctor about my anxiety, I didn’t talk to friends about my frustration and depression.
On top of my debilitating anxiety, I was struggling with nearly every other aspect of being a mom. Breastfeeding made me cry daily. I was struggling to sleep, even when my daughter slept. I was angered by how hard being a mom was and how hard it was to be married and be a new parent. I was filled with shame by my anger.
I never spoke up. I didn’t see a doctor about my anxiety, I didn’t talk to friends about my frustration and depression. I kept digging in my heals, believing that any moment motherhood would be as a magical as I heard it would be.
Six years out, with two more young children in our home, it is easier to see what that problem was.
As a first-time mom, I didn’t have the gift of having voices in my life who truly spoke the truth about their experience. I knew moms who seemed so good at what they were doing and who talked about the joys of being a mom, but who rarely shared the dark moments with me. The only “real talk” moms in my life were posting memes about drinking too much wine at the end of the day, and that wasn’t exactly what I was looking for either. I was looking for a mom who was struggling but surviving because she was getting the help she needed. I knew postpartum depression and anxiety was a thing, but I didn’t know anyone sharing about their experience.
As a result, I felt really alone in my shame. I felt like if I spoke up, I would be the only one struggling with being a new mom like I was. I felt like I had to buckle down and make myself believe I was OK and that my daughter was OK.
Maybe the real issue is that we think about life as something so black and white. Motherhood is magical. There is nothing quite like it, like that chance to care for someone, to love someone unconditionally, to watch them become their own person. And, mixed up in all those special moments and magic, are a ton of really difficult things. Motherhood is incredibly hard, harder for some than others, and it is painful. Sometimes motherhood robs you of your mental health, it shakes up your security in your capabilities, your body, and your support system.
I felt like if I spoke up, I would be the only one struggling with being a new mom like I was.
Toxic positivity, the desire to silence complaints and always see the bright side, to assure struggling mothers everything is OK, it silences the truth about motherhood. The only way forward is to find a way to acknowledge both sides of being a mom. It is a gift to care for children, a gift that is also so freaking hard. It changes you, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. We have to learn to be OK with motherhood being complicated if we are going to give mothers the chance to speak up.
I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like for me if I had felt I had permission to be honest about my anxiety. I think I may have enjoyed that first year more. Instead of feeling stuck in the turmoil of silence, I could have gotten some help — as I did after the birth of my second baby — maybe started medication, and moved forward with more support as I learned how to be a mom.
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.