“It feels like dying, doesn’t it?” my father said gently, his eyes full of sympathy as I rocked my newborn baby with a dazed expression on my face. I nodded, unable to clear the lump in my throat enough to speak. The fact that he had just compared the early days of parenthood with dying was particularly significant, as he was entering the final months of his life with terminal cancer.
It took me a while to admit the unspoken implication of my father’s words: becoming a parent, and especially a mother, is a wonderful thing, but it can also be the end of your old life and identity as you once knew it. Some people find it harder than others to recover from the shock of such a big change. In my case, the experience was so utterly disorienting that I ended up struggling with pretty severe postnatal depression (PND) for more than a year.
Studies show that cases of postnatal depression in the United States are more common than breast cancer, cervical cancer, and strokes combined. The CDC has estimated that between 11 and 20 percent of women experience PND. However, with so many women like myself struggling with undiagnosed PND, stats are hard to pin down; an estimated 40 percent of cases go unreported, and that’s not even including depression triggered by stillbirths and miscarriages.
For me, the depression crept in slowly, and at first, it was hard to untangle it from normal anxiety around the pressures of new motherhood and being the breadwinner of the family, along with grief for my dying father. Most of the time, it wasn’t even like sadness — it felt more like a kind of numbness, as though there was a veil between me and my emotions that started while I was pregnant.
I remember looking over at my husband during the baby’s first scan and feeling surprised to see his face wet with tears of joy as he stared at her on the screen, because I felt so emotionally blank myself. I remember thinking, “Oh yes, that’s what I should be feeling right now…” — both then as well as right after the birth, when in reality, all I wanted to do was have a shower and be by myself for a while.
As the early months of motherhood went by, I felt more anxious than normal and would have regular panic attacks in the middle of the night or when I was by myself with the baby. A few times a week, I would have what I called a “dark day,” when I would feel totally overwhelmed by the weight of life and wish that I had never been born. These moments were quickly followed by a wave of self-loathing and despair.
I found it hard to take interest in anything or anyone; I lost my appetite, and even when the baby was sleeping peacefully, I would lie awake trying to calm my frantic mind. A few months after the baby was born, I got shingles — realizing it too late to get treatment — because I couldn’t distinguish the pain from other aches and pains in the body that I had grown so disconnected from. Images of dead babies and other disturbing things would regularly flash into my mind; I felt constantly haunted.
It’s only now that I have another baby that I can see clearly how far from “normal” my experience was. When you have a small baby, people often say things like, “Don’t wish away this precious time!” and “Doesn’t it just fly by?” After my first baby, I would stare at them blankly, or force myself to fake my agreement, when really what I was thinking was, “It’s going so slowly! Please make it go faster! I’m not sure how much longer I can hang on in here!”
Now, locking eyes with my 6-month-old, the right balance of hormones running through my sleep-deprived body, I finally understand what they meant. She’s growing so fast, and I wish I could press pause and hold her chubby little fingers in mine forever. “Is this what it is meant to be like?” I think to myself in relief.
So, why, surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends, was it so hard for me to admit what now seems glaringly obvious?
Depression is a complicated illness, and I was privileged to grow up in circumstances that never required me to understand it in any depth for myself. Blessed with a loving, emotionally intelligent, and incredibly supportive and close-knit family, optimism came naturally to me, and I had been well-equipped by my parents from an early age to talk about my feelings. In short, I never expected that I would get depressed, and if I did, I never thought I would find it hard to admit what was happening or to seek help (I’d never exactly been the stoic type, after all).
As a new, sleep-deprived mother going through what was an incredibly rough time by anyone’s standards, I blamed my altered state of mind on my father’s illness and death. And while I knew that postnatal depression was a common struggle for new mothers, I just couldn’t admit that I was one of them. “Everyone finds motherhood hard,” I told myself, grimly. “I just need to stop complaining and get on with it.” I also think that part of me was worried that if I admitted how bad things were, I would have a total breakdown and not be able to piece myself back together again afterward.
My whole life, I had been lucky enough to be able to get by without paying much attention to my mental health, and certainly without seeking any medical help for it. It took experiencing postnatal depression for me to realize that mental illness is as “real” as any other kind of illness and that you can’t fix it alone based on your strength of mind.
The fog of postnatal depression lifted almost instantly as soon as I stopped breastfeeding my daughter, a year and two months after she was born. It felt like a cloud lifting off my shoulders, and I realized retrospectively that a chemical imbalance had been dramatically altering the way that I felt day-to-day all that time. Yes, I was still incredibly sad about my father’s death, and our financial and career struggles were still there, but I felt like my normal self experiencing those hardships, rather than a total stranger in my own body.
Even though I didn’t seek help from medical professionals at the time, I did have an incredibly supportive family and community around me, who did everything from taking the baby so I could have some time alone or nap, to feeding me, to running me hot baths, to providing me and my family with a home when I could no longer make ends meet on my own. When I was ready to talk about it, they were there for me as I processed what had happened, and they helped me overcome my fears that it would happen again when I got pregnant with my second daughter almost four years later.
Hearing about other women’s struggles with postnatal depression was — and still is — the key to helping me come to terms with my own experience, especially from other Catholic women, like Sarah Norton who ran a podcast about postnatal depression called Mental. That’s why I feel so passionately about sharing my own experience with others; I know that the worst part of the experience is the guilt, the sense of loneliness, and the idea that you’re a bad mother for feeling that way.
I hope that my story can offer other women the relief of knowing that these feelings aren’t a reflection on how much we love our children or our worth as mothers, and I’m so grateful to the brave souls who made me feel that way by sharing their own experiences with the world.