Before giving birth to my son, everyone and everything told me to watch out for the red flags of postpartum depression in the first three months. I felt prepared: look for the dramatic and serious emotions, like not wanting to hold my baby, or thoughts of hurting my child, crying all day long, being unable to get out of bed, feeling like a terrible parent—you know, textbook stuff.
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But I didn’t experience any of that. I cried a lot, but ultimately survived maternity leave. Eventually I could take walks and get back to yoga, which made me feel more like myself. I returned to work and found an awesome daycare provider. I also had the support of friends and family, as well as an incredible partner, to navigate all these transitions. I was lucky. I had nothing to complain about. However, after a few months, anxiety slowly crept in, which turned into full-fledged depression.
Turns out I’m not alone—postpartum depression and anxiety affects 1 in 7 women. And with more celebrities Chrissy Teigen, Hayden Panettiere, Tamera Mowry, Adele, (and many more) speaking openly and publicly about their experiences, the stigma of postpartum depression is slowly disappearing. Here are 5 things you need to know about this completely normal condition.
1. It’s More Than “Baby Blues”
I remember thinking one day, “I can’t have postpartum because I only feel down, like, 80% of the time.” (Um. Hello.) But never did I feel the urge to harm myself or my son. Most of my negative thoughts were fleeting, followed my feelings of joy or happiness. I thought it was just a phase, and that I was simply having trouble adjusting to motherhood.
However, depression after giving birth can range in severity and occur within a few days or months later. Symptoms are usually more intense than the so-called “baby blues” of adjustment to life with a little one, and they typically last longer as well. Some common signs of potential postpartum include insomnia, severe mood swings, loss of appetite, withdrawal from people and activities, panic attacks, low concentration, fatigue and anger. (And in some rare instances, life-threatening thoughts or behaviors such as disorientation, obsession, hallucinations or paranoia, which require immediate treatment.)
The bottom line? There’s no qualifying level where depression “counts.” If you don’t feel like yourself, then something is probably up—so talk about it with loved ones and ask for help.
2. Hormones Are Cray Cray
Most of my anxiety centered around the shift to and from breastfeeding, but in general, your hormones go haywire after you give birth. Remembering this fact helped remind me that the emotional and physical aspects of postpartum depression, too, were related to the fact that I grew another human with my body—a major experience that required a great deal of recovery time. There remains a societal expectation that women “bounce back” on all levels from pregnancy, which is unfair in general, but also contributes to the belief that any negative emotions post-baby are controllable.
As Teigen points out in her essay, “Postpartum does not discriminate. I couldn’t control it. And that’s part of the reason it took me so long to speak up: I felt selfish, icky, and weird saying aloud that I’m struggling. Sometimes I still do.” Postpartum depression happens to millions of women, and you can’t predict how your body, mind and spirit will react to the highs and lows of parenthood. Give yourself grace, and know it is not your fault.
3. Dads Are at Risk, Too
Despite increased visibility and awareness for moms struggling with postpartum depression, we often forget that fathers are susceptible, too. No, their bodies don’t go through the wild ride of pregnancy, delivery and healing for months after birth, but a recent study shows more than 4% of new dads experience increased symptoms of depression as well. What does that mean? When you combine a significant life shift, lack of sleep and heightened stress, all parents are at risk for poor mental, physical emotional health.
4. You’re Not a Bad Mother
During my postpartum period, I felt extremely sensitive and defensive all the time, like I was missing a layer of myself for protection. I couldn’t sleep. I had no appetite, no interest in sex and no desire to talk to anyone or go anywhere. Waves of rage, irritability and resentment would wash over me unexpectedly throughout the day, and then I wanted to sob with guilt. Why couldn’t I handle my life, as good as I had it? Why wasn’t I a better wife, employee, friend and mother? I felt like I didn’t deserve to be sad or scared or stressed.
Postpartum depression can lead to feelings of shame or worthlessness, like you’re not good enough to parent your child and your kid would be better off without you. As Teigen points out, it doesn’t help that so many representations of postpartum depression are stories of women harming their babies—which is scary, and encourages mothers to keep quiet for fear of being labeled “crazy” or “bad mothers.” That’s why her story, and thousands of others like it, are so important; they help other mothers going through something similar feel less alone and encourage them to seek treatment.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Ask for Help
It took me months to ask for help, and admit I needed it. Even at the pediatrician’s office, when I filled out the little form that asks if you’ve been feeling down lately, I checked the “no” box. Why? I was embarrassed, and frankly, felt a little silly. I thought I could power through it on my own, which ultimately delayed my recovery, and I wish I had requested help sooner.
For many women, treatment can be as simple as more sleep, exercise and a babysitter once in a while—but it can also involve therapy and antidepressants. No matter what you need to heal, be sure to do what’s right for your body and mind because that’s what’s ultimately best for you, your baby and your family.