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It’s hard to remember the draining, exuberant emotional fog that rolled in after my son was born. I was exhausted. I was in love. He was huge and always hungry, but my milk supply was low. Or I held him wrong. Or I was a failure.
Throughout my pregnancy, I’d stressed over BPA plastics, took my folic acid, avoided caffeine, and would stand over my husband’s glass of beer, smelling it wantonly, but never sipping. I’d absorbed the litany of contradictory measures good mothers adhere to, so why couldn’t I feed my baby?
Grasping my cracked and angry breast like a Big Mac—such helpful instructions from a lactation consultant to a vegetarian—I shoved it into his screaming mouth. He chomped.
And that first time my son fed without me in agonizing pain, I did experience all the hormonal rapture promised by the La Leche ladies. Milk came easily, and I felt truly maternal—not in some animalistic way, but like the cheerful poster of a radiant mom that you might see at your obstetrician’s office. Even my slick of unshowered skin seemed to take on a fresh glow.
As I felt some of my inadequacies melt away, I really saw my son—small, serious, beautiful, mine. I wept cheerfully, gloriously. It was the unbearable lightness of being, maybe, or that peculiar realization that I’d not only created life, I could nurture it, too. It was a moment so precious I felt myself holding onto it for posterity, even as it slipped away.
But I didn’t know my mother-in-law was standing outside the door listening. I’d find out later that, hearing and misinterpreting my sobs of joy, she had warned my husband to keep an eye on me. It could be (she whispered) postpartum depression. She didn’t utter the name Andrea Yates, but when he reported back, I assumed that’s what she was thinking.
Her worry tainted my memory of that moment. It became a two-sided recollection—one where I experienced the beauty of life and was doubted as a mother all at once.
And to me, it came to signify much of what it means to be a mother.
I didn’t suffer postpartum depression or anxiety (or at least I was never diagnosed), but was deeply ashamed that motherhood didn’t unfold automatically for me. I even sought out therapy because I became convinced that my yo-yo between pure bliss and agonizing what-the-hell-am-I-doing worry must be abnormal. It isn’t.
But let’s say I had a bit more trouble than I did, and was diagnosed. Let’s say breastfeeding had continued to be a struggle—a study out of the University of Kansas demonstrates that those troubles (on top of societal pressures to breastfeed) would have exacerbated any perinatal mental health disorder (PMHD).
I had a job (though not with maternity leave), and financial worries had begun to weigh on me at the same time as I tried to force my milk to let down. But fortunately, we were a solidly middle-class family. A University of Iowa study has shown that women living with a household income of less than $20,000 are more than three times as likely as their middle class counterparts to suffer significant clinical postpartum depression.
Had my therapist decided my less-than-perfect experiences and conflicted emotions were serious enough to constitute clinical depression or anxiety, I know I would have floundered further still. Of course if I had PMHD, diagnosis would have been the first step toward treatment. But it also would have meant bearing a label that would have left me broken.
Tragically, horribly, I feared the stigma around postpartum depression more than the disorder itself, which was a backward and unhelpful reaction. But I feared those words because they would have confirmed the failings I thought my mother-in-law (and most anyone else) saw in me.
Earlier this month in The Daily Beast, Jean Kim, a psychiatrist and writer, explained how a patient of hers with severe postpartum depression committed suicide. It was complicated—her patient had a stew of near-psychotic ruminations, anxiety, and crushing responsibility. But Kim wrote, “my gut also tells me that her paralyzing guilt was magnified by social expectations: the insinuations from traditional cultural family expectations and from legal court expectations…that she needed to grow up and deal and be supermom, no matter what. Even though her brain was broken.”
Mothers dealing with postpartum depression or anxiety can’t be helped if the pressure to be perfect keeps them from seeking treatment in the first place, or if those same pressures worsen their conditions. Even the everyday experience of motherhood is degraded by a culture that lumps mothers into two camps: cheerful, hard-working, milk-gushing caricatures—or monsters.
The only cure for stigma is humanity and empathy. Had my mother-in-law come to me instead of whispering her concerns to others—had simply asked, “How are you feeling?”—we could have shared my first, most special moment of motherhood. When I ask my friends a few weeks after the birth of their babies how they’re doing and they respond with a chipper, “Great!” I congratulate them, then tell them how I sought therapy because new motherhood was so difficult for me. And then they tell me how they’re really doing.
We can keep bemoaning the insane pressures placed on mothers—and we should until the Supermom bullshit fades—but in the meantime, we can help alleviate the stigma surrounding PMHD by listening to mothers’ requests for help with compassion instead of judgment.
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
Illustration by Tyler Hoehne
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