***Warning*** If you are experiencing or have experienced depression or anxiety (whether you have had a baby or not), the content of this post and mothers’ stories may be triggering for you. Please seek help if you begin to have depressive or anxiety symptoms. If you experience a crisis after reading, I have also provided phone numbers to free 24/7 crisis lines below:
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
National Crisis Text Line – text “HOME” to 741741 for free crisis support
It’s been a little over a year now since our son, Israel (a.k.a Izzy), was born. He is so full of life, joy, and laughter, truly bringing a new level of love into our family’s lives that we had never known before. But, amidst all this joy, there has always been a little anxiety and sadness, almost like that cartoon of the ominous rain cloud following me around.
It started the day Israel was born. I remember right after his delivery, I got so overwhelmed. After 20 hours of labor and an hour and a half of pushing, he was born. While everyone else was jumping up and down in excitement, they move my newborn baby away from me to suck meconium out of his lungs while the doctor gave me stitches from tearing.
Then everything felt so loud. He was crying. More and more people were coming into the room. I was exhausted but attempted to breastfeed. Israel wasn’t latching. This was suppose to be easy and serene like in the movies and on television. The mother holds the baby while the father cuddles the mother.
On top of everything, I didn’t feel that instant love connection that other mothers describe. All I felt was exhaustion, terror, fear, and anxiety.
The whole first night in the hospital I did not sleep, because I had to know where he was at all times even when he was in the nursery under constant care. I was too anxious to rest and to breathe. After we left the hospital and were home, the next few months were even more stressful for me.
I barely slept from getting up all night nursing, and when I would sleep, I had this recurring dream that I had left Israel in the bed with me. He was being smothered in the covers like a person sinking down into quick sand. But I couldn’t ever find him.
I would wake up still looking for him in the blankets. Christian would sometimes have to ask me what I was doing to help me snap out of this nightmare. But Israel was always swaddled, safe, and in his bassinet.
I just always remember feeling on edge and being up and down in my moods after the baby. As the months went on, I started losing weight rapidly from not eating due to stress and anxiety. It was much faster than the normal postpartum weight loss.
Although I have gotten better, I still sometimes have those scaring unwanted thoughts that I know other mothers have too. What if my baby stops breathing? What if he falls off the bed? What if he dies? What if someone steals him?
To this day, I often ask myself, “How could I as the mother of this happy, beautiful boy feel so much fear and anxiety?”
But I then remember am not alone and what I am experiencing is very common.
During my first year of graduate school, I was blessed to learned a lot about postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA), specifically about how it impacts breastfeeding.
At the time, I did not know how helpful this information would be in the near future. The week after my first-year second semester finals, I found out I was pregnant due mid-February 2018. I was super excited about being pregnant, and despite all that I learned, I was unable to fully anticipate how different I would feel 9 months later.
About 50% to 80% of postpartum mothers experience the “baby blues,” in which mothers experience heightened emotional reactivity. These typically manifest as low to moderate depressive symptoms. The leading hypotheses as to why mothers experience the “blues” are related to hormonal shifts, such as changes in progesterone and estrogen, taking place within the body from pregnancy to postpartum and varying levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) (Miller, 2002).
50% to 80% of postpartum mothers experience the “baby blues”
However for some women, these moods persist beyond the first couple of days and weeks following birth and develop into a more serious mood disorder.
Approximately 15-20% of postpartum mothers experience postpartum depression (PPD) characterized by frequent sadness, irritability, anxiety, low energy, irregular eating and sleeping, difficulty with attention, thoughts about harming self or baby, and a loss of interest in activities you use to enjoy (American Psychological Association, 2019).
That’s 1 out of 5 moms experiencing PPD following birth. Postpartum anxiety is estimated to be even more common than PPD (Brand & Brennan, 2009). Additionally, women who also experience miscarriage and stillbirth are also at risk for developing postpartum depression and anxiety (Miller, 2002).
That’s 1 out of 5 moms experiencing PPD following birth
Postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety can also have negative impacts not only on a mother’s ability to take care of herself and her child, but also increases her risk for later depressive episodes, hospitalization, and suicide (Miller, 2002). PPD is actually the second leading cause of death for postpartum mothers.
Obviously, this is common and very harmful to the mother and baby, right? So why are we not talking about it?
Although in recent years, there has been a more open conversation about postpartum depression and other mood disorders following birth, I still have felt and sometimes still feel guilt and shame about my experience with postpartum anxiety.
To me, society has painted a picture for us about what motherhood should look. Through movies, television series, and even social media we see the family cuddling peacefully after birth, looking down at the baby. We see the new mom pushing her baby in the park on a sunny day, always smiling and showing off her new baby.
And when we do see the exhaustion, tears, and pain, it’s presented comically to us.
When we were younger, we probably heard other women discuss how happy they were with their new baby and how much joy they had. For many generations, postpartum depression was taboo in our culture and stigmatized.
Moreover, the psychiatric community did not even recognize PPD until 1994 when the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was published.
For a long time, culture has taught us that pregnancy and postpartum are to be viewed as periods of joy and happiness. For some people, they may be, but at least for me, there were also days of anxiety and sadness. Personally, I felt guilty and sometimes still feel guilt for never measuring up to this fallacy of “the perfect mom.”
After talking with a friend of mine about our experiences, I felt compelled to ask other women about their experiences. I have not included names of the mothers or their children to respect their privacy, but here are some of their stories.
Mom # 1 – mom of a beautiful baby boy.
“I suffered from PPD, and it was actually the reason I chose to go back to work. I needed social interaction. The baby had a horrible time latching, which made me feel worse. I felt like a failure as a mother, because I couldn’t breastfeed no matter how hard I tried. I would stay up at night reading blogs and trying different positions.
Later, I found out he had a tongue tie that was causing his latch issue. We had already switched to formula, and my milk supply was gone. But once I switched to formula, I felt so much better, because I could see my baby was happy and full.
There was no more struggling for hours to latch. When I started getting out of the house more, it helped my PPD as well. I was definitely getting cabin fever. I think I still deal with it here and there, especially when I feel like I’m not doing a great job at being a mom. But thankfully, I have my husband to reassure me.”
Mom # 2 – mom of two loving boys
“I have this idea of what type of mom I like to think I am and what I want to be. On good days, I can confidently say I am that mom, but on bad days, its the opposite. I want nothing to do with anything, basically wanting to sit around all day, and be super irritated at everyone and everything. Then I feel guilty, because my kids are only doing what they know and it’s not their fault.
I feel very distant a lot. It’s gotten worse since my second baby. In some ways, it’s easier because their mental leaps are pretty close and they share the same interests. They are also able to play together a lot. My second baby is still nursing and the older boy is in his terrible 2’s where he wants to do everything on his own and does not know how. He also has had speech delays which is more stressful when trying to communicate with him.
During my pregnancies, I worked pretty much the whole time. I went back to work 8 weeks after the second baby was born which was nice to have that time away from home. But I still felt super guilty that my youngest son did not have me home more like my oldest son did. Now, I am at home, but sometimes it takes a mental toll, especially when we cannot get out of the house due to bad weather. Being stuck inside for several days triggers my depression even more.
During my low times, the dishes and clothes pile up. The kids end up eating whatever when normally I am cautious about what they eat. The kids read less and spend more time watching tv or playing with tablets. All of this increases my anxiety, because there’s this huge mess around me while I feel like I can’t do anything and my sons are bored without me paying attention to them.
I started going to therapy a couple of weeks ago which has helped me deal with my childhood trauma and learn skills to handle my emotions. But now I am trying other options like medications. I also battle with insomnia on top of the depression and anxiety. My lack of sleep makes the anxiety worse because I stay up and think all night.”
Mom # 3 mom of one beautiful girl expecting another
“I started working from home 2 weeks after my daughter was born, then 2 months later, I was back in the office. I will never do that again! Women in the U.S. are not guaranteed any paid maternity leave which is horrible. I felt a lot of pressure to go back to work, because we were on an insurance plan through my job, and it would have fallen through if I quit. “
I struggled to pump at work. I was walked in on so many times while pumping and told how gross my milk in the refrigerator was. I was also told by my supervisor that I seemed “different” after having a baby followed by “It must be the hormones…”
All these things combined with being overweight, sleep deprivation, and mom guilt led to my depression and anxiety. I was never formerly diagnosed, but I know I had it. At 8 months, I stopped breastfeeding, changed my diet, and lost weight. I also started a YouTube channel including my daughter, which helped take my mind off of work and gave me a way to be creative.
When my first daughter was 20 months old, I had a miscarriage at 6 weeks pregnant. After the pregnancy loss, I felt depressed, because I felt like my body had failed me. There is literally no explanation for what you are going through. I took a week off of work and just laid in bed and cried. I blamed myself a lot. It was just really emotional. I felt guilting for feeling sad about losing our second child, especially since we already had our first daughter.
Fortunately, a few weeks later, I found out I was pregnant! I could not believe it, because I hadn’t had my period in between. It was so quick! “
Mom # 4 mom of two wonderful boys
“I had a past history of anxiety and depression so when I became pregnant I expected to have some episodes postpartum with depression and anxiety. As a mom having children in her mid to late 30’s, I had all these expectations about breastfeeding and how it was suppose to go. My first son actually ended up having a tongue tie which made breastfeeding very difficult. I was constantly pumping and nursing to try to feed him.
My mother and I also had difficulty navigating our relationship and its boundaries during this time. There were a lot of hurt feelings and tears. She wanted to share all this knowledge with me, and I wanted to do everything myself. But in reality, we were both just trying to help. We are in a much better place now with our roles as mom and grandma.
In hindsight, I was able to see how severe my anxiety was after my first pregnancy when I looked at all the data I had recorded during that time. I recorded all this information about my son’s eating, which breast I had finished nursing with, and his naps on apps on my phone. I even recorded every time he would have a dirty diaper. At the time, it made sense and I was trying to manage being a new mom. But it was so exhausting. Because of this rigidity about his routine, I also had difficulty trusting anyone to watch my son.
With my second son, I found I was a lot more forgiving with myself. I was more relaxed about my expectations on breastfeeding and motherhood. I learned a lot from my first pregnancy experience that helped me manage depressive and anxiety-like symptoms with my second baby. When my second baby had difficulty nursing around 4 months, I just started pumping and was fine with having a pumping relationship.”
Mom # 5 mom of a joyful boy
***Warning*** In this story, the mother discusses suicidal thoughts and suicide. The content may be triggering for others who have experienced suicidal thoughts, have had past attempts, or know/ heard about another person committing suicide/ attempting suicide.
Again please contact these free 24/7 crisis hotlines if you are in crisis:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255
National Crisis Text Line – text “HOME” to 741741 for free crisis support
“I had severe PPD and PPA. I really felt like it was from having a traumatic birth and experiencing a lack of control. I thought that I was safe from having studied psychology in undergrad and graduate school. However, becoming a mother isn’t easy. I never had plans to have a all natural, well-thought through delivery. I wanted modern medicine with an epidural and doctors (not midwives).
At 33 weeks, I was diagnosed with preeclampsia. Then at 36 weeks, I was told I could not receive an epidural, because of my bleeding issue. The doctor then told me I was would be induced at 37 weeks, but my induction was unsuccessful. They could not maintain IV access due to my preeclampsia causing so much fluid retention. I had gained 40 pounds of fluid.
I was fully medicated but still in pain. For 3 days, I was receiving piton (the hormone they use for induction) before having to have an emergency c-section. They decided on a c-section, because there was a possibility I would die during childbirth due to my bleeding risk. I told my family goodbye before this surgery in case I did not make it.
I woke up in the ICU, and although nothing was wrong with my baby, I could not be with my son. I begged to breastfeed. Finally, 9 hours later, they brought him to me. But then he was quickly taken away from my breast after only latching for 5 minutes.
The next morning, he was brought to me. The pediatrician marched in the room and took him from me again. She scolded me that he wasn’t fed every two hours after reviewing his eating chart. Had I not already felt enough guilt?
After being moved out of ICU, I was able to feed my son, which was the best feeling ever. But he ended up getting jaundice and spent the entire night under bilirubin lights. By the time I went home, I felt invalidated as a mother. My own body betrayed me and failed me during labor. Finally, my milk was not able to clear my son’s jaundice.
On top of everything, my son had issues with the formula that the hospital required. It made him even more sick. He wouldn’t sleep. He had bloody stools and projectile vomit. He developed “failure to thrive.” When I talked to the pediatrician, she dismissed my concerns. I continued to feed him and he continued to lose weight. It was a constant struggle. I stopped eating and did not take care of myself.
After 3 weeks, I began to have terrible thoughts about horrible things that could happen to my son. I had horrific images of his body buried. At one point, I had to stop myself from running into a busy highway, because I felt he would have a better chance at life if I were dead.
I recognized the symptoms and sought help. It was the hardest thing to open up to my husband about how I was feeling. I did not want to verbalize it, because admitting it to another person made it concrete somehow.
Now my son is 20 months old. He is my greatest joy. I was prescribed a few antidepressants and anxiety medications, and I underwent therapy. Now I am much better but still feel guilty for my initial thoughts. My PPD started to slowly go away after six months of treatment and returning to work. My anxiety lasted longer. It stopped after being back at work for six months. During that time, I was close to suicide. It was the most foreign feeling and oddest experience ever. “
Mom # 6 mother of a precious little boy
“For me, PPD is this feeling of hopelessness in the midst of what should be bringing me immense happiness. It’s like grasping for a ledge and only finding air. I love my son more than anything in the world, but I struggle every day. Thankfully, since opening up to my fiancé and some close friends, I have a great support system. People who love me and tell me that I am enough and that my son loves me.
I think what makes it so much more difficult for me is that I was still trying to find who I was supposed to be in this world. I didn’t have a firm grasp on what I wanted from life, then I was given this blessing.
I can’t help, but fear that I am not enough to be a good mother, wife, friend, student, worker. I don’t feel like I have an identity. I just am.
Some days I feel like I’m on top of the world, managing being in school with devoting my entire days to my son and still being able to be intimate with my fiancé. Other days, I am barely breathing. Drowning in my own tears, feeling guilty for not feeling happy. Trying to smile and play with my son so he doesn’t see me cry, but as soon, as he goes down for a nap I break.
This is something a lot more women go through, but we hide it so we aren’t judged. I know that’s why it took me so long to accept my reality and ask for help.
Every day is a battle, but seeing my son happy makes it worth fighting.”
Mom # 7 mother of a sweet boy
“I definitely experienced some postpartum anxiety. I actually was diagnosed with anxiety before I became pregnant. When I first became pregnant, my anxiety went away. After having my baby, I was just really angry and not doing much or getting out of the house much because, I was anxious about staying on a schedule and doing everything a certain way.
My significant other and I were fighting a lot, because I would get worked up over small things. I couldn’t take it any more, because I felt bad and realized I kept getting angry. I finally went to the doctor. I was prescribed medications but it made me and my son very sleepy. So I stopped taking it after three days. Sometimes, I wonder if I am doing the right thing and begin to worry. To cope with my anxiety and worries, I have really begun to lean on God and just do what works for me.
I stayed home and am still staying home, but for the first 4 to 5 months, it was really hard. I would just cry or feel alone. But I turned my perspective around, really thanking God for this opportunity and doing what feels right.
If I need a nap, I take a nap. Yes, as a mom who breastfeeds, you get less sleep but I don’t think anyone should just have to deal with the exhaustion and truck through it. If you have someone who can help, ask, because sleep loss increases anxiety symptoms alone, and can mess up your hormones.
I think the biggest part about managing postpartum is being self-aware. It’s normal to feel sad, anxious, and worried, but feeling this way every day is not normal. I think if you are having those questions, it’s best to go see someone and talk or journal about how you feel to see a pattern. I know not everyone is going to lean on God, but other people should definitely try to get their significant others involved and have them pay attention. These people can support them emotionally and help out with other things that may be the root of the problem.
But when you do have faith in God, you can realize it’s just a season you are in and a role you are in. Staying at home may not be easy, but it is a blessing.”
I am so grateful to these brave, strong women who shared their stories about their experiences with PPD and PPA. It is not always easy to open up and express difficult emotions or past experiences.
As a whole, I noticed a lot of the women, including myself, mentioned how our expectations about the way we thought we were “suppose to be” as mothers or how we anticipate motherhood going impacted their anxiety and depression, especially when things did not turn out the way that we thought they would. Dealing with disappointment and discouragement in this way definitely would take a mental toll even on the most resilient person.
Perhaps, we can change our perspectives, that have shaped by cultural pressures, preconceived notions, and unachievable expectations, and be more forgiving of ourselves and other women and understanding that becoming a mother is a difficult process, and we are all on a journey.
Personally for me, and a couple other women also mentioned this as well, that our faith in God helped us transition and cope with our anxiety and depression. If I did not have God during those dark moments, I do not know how I would have made it. I know that not everyone is religious, but a support system is also key to reducing PPD/PPA symptoms.
Many of these women mentioned how important support was with dealing with their PPA/PPD. It can be exceptionally difficult to share our feelings, sometimes even with people we love and are closest to us. If you are experiencing PPD/ PPA, I encourage you to open up to your partner or a close friend. Another form of support can also be through seeking help from a mental health clinician and talking to your primary care doctor.
In my own life, I have enjoyed talking to a counselor during times where I really needed to work through painful emotions and experiences. I found the therapy sessions to be a cathartic healing experience. Cognitive-behavioral therapies, counseling, and other forms of talk therapy have demonstrated to greatly improve the lives of many people.
In addition, the treatment for postpartum depression and anxiety may also include medications, such as antidepressants and anxiolytics. Please do not feel embarrassed for taking these medications. As a society, we stigmatize mental illness differently than how we treat physical ailments, but they should be viewed the same. We take medications, when they are necessary, to get better.
We should all be working together to build more awareness around this topic and reduce stigmatization of not only postpartum health but for women’s health as a whole.
Thanks for reading!
How can you help reduce stigma of mental health issues?
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American Psychological Association. (2019). Postpartum depression. American Psychological Association. Received on 18 February 2019 from https://www.apa.org/pi/women/resources/reports/postpartum-depression.
Brand, S.R., & Brennan, P. (2009). Impacts of antenatal and postpartum maternal mental illness: How are the children? Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology, 52 (3) 441-445. doi: 10.1097/GRF.0b013e3181b52930
Miller, L.J. (2002). Postpartum depression. JAMA, 287 (6), 762-765. doi:10.1001/jama.287.6.762