What I Didn't Expect When I Was Expecting

mother and newbornby Jane Healey

Every night before she goes to bed, I tell my oldest daughter that the day I gave birth to her was one of the happiest days of my life. What I don’t tell her is that the days following her birth were decidedly not my happiest. After a brutal labor and delivery that lasted more than 27 hours, I was elated to have my 8 1/2 pound, baby girl in my arms. Only … I wasn’t.

While I was definitely relieved that my baby and I were OK, the elation I kept waiting to feel never came. What arrived in its place were feelings of sadness, anxiety and despair that I knew in my head weren’t rational. But knowing that didn’t keep me from feelings those feelings any less.

I had trouble sleeping, even during those precious times when my newborn was sound asleep. I remember anxiously staring at the bedroom ceiling at 3 a.m., worrying that I would do something absurd like leave the baby in the car while I was grocery shopping. I didn’t want to go out and socialize and show the world my new baby. I didn’t want to go out, period. And I cried at the drop of a bottle.

Days passed into weeks, and I wasn’t getting any better. These “baby blues” weren’t going away like friends assured me they would. The overwhelming despair that I felt became a lens in which I viewed life and it started getting harder and harder to get out of bed every day. I was scared that one morning I would wake up and not want to get out of bed at all.

It took my husband and my doctor some time to get me to admit to myself that I was suffering from postpartum depression. With their support, I finally realized that I had to get help because the way I was living was not really living at all. And – of course – I worried about the way it was affecting my baby. I eventually found a therapist who specializes in postpartum depression. With time and treatment, I slowly started to feel like myself again. And I soon realized how much better off my family and I would have been if I’d gotten help sooner.
The farther I get from those dark days, the more comfortable I feel talking about postpartum depression (PPD) with other mothers. What continues to surprise me is that once you open up about PPD, you realize that you’re far from alone. If a mother I talk to hasn’t experienced PPD herself, she certainly knows of one – or several – who have experienced it.

Common and Treatable

Postpartum depression is actually the most common complication associated with pregnancy and childbirth. It is more common than preterm labor, pre-clampsia, high blood pressure and diabetes.

The hard thing about diagnosing PPD is that a lot of the symptoms are similar to those that all new parents experience when they first bring home their new baby. “Fatigue, appetite changes, sleep disturbances and poor concentration are symptoms of PPD, but they also happen with many new moms,” says Kimberly Pearson, M.D., a psychiatrist specializing in women’s perinatal health. “So [in diagnosing PPD] we rely more on symptoms such as disinterest in the baby, feeling hopeless about the future and having no interest in seeing friends or family.”

Anxiety is another very common symptom of PPD. “Anxiety symptoms are extremely common in PPD,” says Rebecca Lundquist, M.D., director of the Women’s Mental Health Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. “We think it has to do with the hormonal changes in the brain that are helping mother bond with baby. The mother is extremely focused on her baby, so her brain goes a little haywire and she has worries like ‘What if I put the baby in the microwave?’ These types of worries can be extremely upsetting and uncomfortable for women.”

What should you do if you suspect you might have PPD? The most important thing is to reach out for support via family and friends and to be persistent in finding a health provider – a doctor or therapist who can help determine the best course of treatment for you.
“Women often tell me they feel that taking the time to get treatment is selfish, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Lundquist. “Study after study shows that maternal depression can be harmful for babies and even older children.”

I distinctly remember feeling both selfish and embarrassed about seeking help, which is why it took me so long to get it. I hope that sharing my own experience will help other mothers realize that PPD is very real, common and, most importantly, treatable.

“It is important to not try to tough it out, or feel embarrassed or ashamed about getting help,” says Gerri Koppenaal, a behavioral health specialist who specializes in PPD.  “Let your loved ones and medical providers know you are having a hard time as soon as possible. Postpartum depression, once identified, is very treatable and no one should have to suffer.”

Jane Healey is a freelance writer and mother in Winchester.