How did you cope with all of this and having a newborn at the same time?
I went back to work and was the director of marketing at Coca Cola, but I was not OK. I was just going through the motions. I think that’s what most moms do. It’s really just a fight for survival every day. There’s nothing heroic about it. The fight wasn’t pretty. I wasn’t like I’m just going to motor through this. There were days I cried my eyes out, but I continued to paste on a fake smile. It’s all an act. Women with mental illnesses are really good at that.
Did others understand what you were going through?
They really didn’t. You’re having a thought like, what if I drown my son in the bathtub–there’s no way to explain that and make it seem OK. In your head, you’re already thinking you’re a horrible human being. I kept crying and telling my husband that something was wrong with me, but he had no idea what I was talking about. He kept saying, “What is wrong with you? Our son is fine. What is your problem?”
The first time I told anyone what my intrusive thoughts were was with my therapist. I thought she would call the police. But she didn’t. She said it was PPD and we can take care of that. She was very open. I took meds and did therapy for over a year. After a few months, I started to see improvement, but I was still miserable. It wasn’t until after my son turned one that I could see a light at the end of the tunnel.
How do you think postpartum depression is different than other depressions?
That’s an excellent question. With regular depression, there’s not a baby involved. You’re depressed, but it’s just you and it’s not affecting the health and life of another human being. Research shows maternal depression during the first year of life has more impact on the child than other time of his or her life. There is just so much cognitive and behavioral development happening during that first year. It’s so important. But if the mother is not well, this child’s life can be seriously impacted. And yet, no one looks at it as a very serious emergency. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of women and children who are not getting treated for this. To me, it’s a major health epidemic.
Do you think there is still a stigma around postpartum depression? And if so, why?
I think there are a lot of myths about motherhood. If you think about America, it’s motherhood, baseball and apple pie. We talk about moms that way but we don’t treat them that way (like how many companies really offer flexible work schedules?). We hold them up as the be-all-end-all who should adore motherhood and teach our children how to speak before the age of one and how to read Chinese when they’re two. So the idea that a mother who is fortunate enough to have this new life, but without massive love and complete delight is unacceptable. People can’t connect to that at all. Women get the stigma that this is how mothers should be and the way you are being if you have PPD is not OK.
How prevalent is this?
Between 750,000-1 million women get PPD every year. But, only 15% ever get treated. There is a complete lack of education and awareness around it and a lack of a systematic identification and treatment system across the country. Women with PPD don’t belong to any specific professional industry–not obstetricians, not pediatricians–there’s really nobody who’s been fully trained to take care of this issue. In addition, there are a lot of moms who don’t even recognize they have this and don’t know those symptoms are related to PPD. They also don’t know the long-term health problems that can happen to them and their children.
Where do we go from here to support more women and help remove that stigma?
One of the important things is education–the more we talk about it and bring it into the light, the better. There are a lot more women who are feeling more comfortable talking about PPD because they don’t want to see other women suffer like they have. Women in general–all women–need to care about this issue. Because even if you haven’t had it, there is a good chance that your daughter, your friend or someone you know will get it. We also need to require and demand that obstetricians and pediatricians get better training to help moms.
What else do you want women to know?
PPD is so common. If you get it, it’s not a character flaw. You didn’t do anything to get it and you don’t deserve it. It’s an illness and fully treatable. Don’t let it take your soul and convince you that you’re a bad person and bad mother. That’s just the illness talking.
Photo: courtesy of Katherine Stone