It’s a rainy Monday morning and a very pregnant woman arrives with her husband at the hospital. Today is the day she will welcome their new child into the world. She can hardly contain her excitement, but she also can’t hide her obvious worries. Despite all the birthing and breastfeeding classes, as a first-time mother she still has lots of questions. No matter how many times she was reassured her motherly instincts would kick in once the baby arrived, she felt no indication of it. All she could think about was experiencing childbirth. From the time she announced her pregnancy, every mom she knew shared their birthing horror story. All these thoughts swirled in her head as she was led back to her birthing suite.
The staff began checking her vital signs, asking questions and preparing for the forthcoming arrival. She was encouraged to walk the halls to help speed up labor and decided to peek into the nursery where they would bring the baby shortly after the birth. As she approached the window she gasped at what she saw — snakes. There were snakes in the nursery slithering inches from newborn infants. “What’s going on here?” she cried.
“It’s OK,” a nursed comforted. “We’ve had a snake infestation for years and we’ve never been able to completely eliminate the pests.”
“Why wasn’t I told of this ahead of time?” asked the now crying mother.
“No one ever talks about it, so we’ve learned to ignore the problem. Besides, who wants to hear that in birthing class, right?” she chuckled.
The mother stood stunned in front of the nursery window. The air escaped from her mouth when her husband turned to her and said, “It should be fine, just go back to the room.”
“Yes,” the nurse agreed, “very rarely will one of the snakes actually bite the newborns.”
The mother, now completely dismayed, wandered back to her room. She couldn’t understand what was happening. She certainly couldn’t have been the only one to notice the invaders. The new mom now had a choice: remain quiet or speak up. If she spoke, she wondered who would believe her and worried she would sound crazy. What if this was all in her head? So she decided to take her chances with the snakes.
This story itself may sound crazy — no one would allow snakes to roam freely in a nursery— but there is a very real problem that no one is talking about: postpartum depression (PPD). And it’s just as sly as any snake, waiting to strike and squeeze the life out of what should be a beautiful moment in a woman’s life, the birth of a child. It can strike so quickly it even interrupts the bonding experience between a mother and child. Yet, many people are still tight-lipped about PPD and some women don’t feel like they can be open about it. These women often feel brushed off, just like the mother in this story, and end up deciding to take unnecessary chances with an invader rather than speak up. This is why the discussion about PPD needs to happen. Turning a blind eye to PPD can no longer be acceptable.
I struggled with depression after my first son was born and anxiety with the subsequent three. I was fortunate to have a supportive husband and a knowledgeable family physician who worked with me when the hospital and gynecologist failed. After his birth, I had experienced unexpected complications, and by the time I was released from my six-day hospital stay on a mere couple hours sleep, I felt like I was falling apart. I couldn’t fathom taking care of a child when I felt like I couldn’t even take care of myself. I felt worthless as a mother and the overwhelming feelings of guilt and shame were crushing. My husband felt very alone as I deteriorated before him. He had no idea what he could do to help. I was a shell of myself and I couldn’t make it better.
Thankfully, I had a common sense family physician who removed me from the counterproductive medication I was given at the hospital. The physician assured me my feelings were common and in time I would feel like myself again. It took me weeks before I began to feel better. Getting the proper help and listening to my body was a must. I had to realize it was OK to open up and ask for help, but it wasn’t easy. Like many mothers, I didn’t want to admit I needed help because it felt like if I wasn’t able to care for my child, it meant I didn’t love him.
Over the years, I’ve personally witnessed other women struggle with PPD in various degrees, most more severe than my personal experience. The biggest issue I saw was the judgment these women faced. Comments like, “Shake it off,” and “You just have to get on with life,” invalidated their struggle and made them afraid to reach out. PPD has nothing to do with how strong a woman is anymore than someone dealing with physical pain. If a woman broke her leg on a icy sidewalk, she would be encouraged to seek medical care. The same woman suffering deep emotional distress cannot be asked to brush off her emotional pain and steer free of a qualified professional.
Pregnancy and childbirth are wonderful and natural, but they can also come with a price. Women experience very real hormonal and physical changes — before, during and after pregnancy — and the effects are real. With so much recognition of all the amazing things a woman’s body can do, why is there still a stigma around the emotional changes that happen during any of her body’s natural processes?
Real change about PPD needs to happen long before a women ever gets pregnant. Healthy conversations about how hormones can affect mood and cause depression need to couple with discussions explaining the physical processes of womanhood. Young women need to know they are supported and loved even when they are struggling with the real emotional effects of hormone fluctuations. So if the time comes, they can be honest and talk about how they feel.
PPD and depression are real and treatable. Seek help and discuss depression with your daughters (and sons). Please be aware of some signs of PPD:
– Feelings of anger or irritability
– Lack of interest in the baby
– Appetite and sleep disturbance
-Crying and sadness
-Feelings of guilt, shame or hopelessness
There is hope, but we have to start talking about it. We have to discuss it often and we have to support each other. When we fail to acknowledge the mere existence of PPD and depression, we are all failing.
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