Recognizing the signs of postpartum depression

I knew all about postpartum depression, but surely I didn’t have it. I just needed to smile more. Try harder. That didn’t work.

Illustration: Erin McPhee

I remember it was a sunny Thursday morning. My partner, Michael, left for work as usual—just before 7 a.m. As the door closed, my chest tightened. My breathing grew shallow. I counted how many hours it would be until he’d be home: nine and a half. I collapsed into a ball on the living room floor and started to sob. How would I make it through? My five-month-old son, Thomas, who was on the carpet beside me, stopped babbling and stared at me. I’ll never forget the look of concern on his tiny face: It only made me cry harder.

Michael and I were both head over heels in love with our son. I’d had a wonderful pregnancy; my cravings for watermelon and spicy Sri Lankan curry indulged our fantasy of a having a food-loving baby. I treated those nine months like a training program and aced it: doing squats every night to help delivery, putting money from each paycheque into a savings account. When my son came gracefully into the world, we knew the toughest work was still ahead, but I felt entirely ready.

A week after his birth, having dinner with my family while he dozed in his bassinet, I couldn’t stop crying. The Indian food we’d ordered in tasted like mush, and my insides felt tied up in rubber bands. My brother lovingly assured me, “It’s OK—all parents worry themselves silly.” The baby blues, I decided. All normal.

Weeks went on, and Thomas was thriving. He grabbed at toys and our fingers. He smiled a fleeting but intoxicating smile for the first time. I loved how he got excited when I’d turn the pages of a book for him and the way he locked his gorgeous blue eyes on me while nursing, but I was wound up so tightly that I couldn’t enjoy it.

I could feel it: The daily slog of diapers and feedings, the boredom and loneliness of being at home, the total absence of time to do anything at all for myself—even eat—was getting progressively harder. Thomas was only sleeping 20 minutes at a time during the day and started waking up more through the night.

Over and over, I’d rationalize it. Motherhood is hard. You can do this. It’ll be better once he’s a bit older and sleeps a bit more. I found myself despairing, thinking I was doing everything wrong and damaging my child somehow—the other new moms in my life seemed to have it all together. I wasn’t myself. I couldn’t bear loud conversations or the TV. I drank more than I should have, and I was on the verge of tears all the time. Even when the baby was asleep, I couldn’t sleep. I’d stare at the ceiling and worry.

I knew all about postpartum depression but never once considered myself a candidate. I’m a smart, capable professional woman and have always prided myself on my ability to figure out a solution to any problem. So why couldn’t I figure this baby thing out? I’d remind myself not to whine—motherhood was what I wanted. I searched for moms’ groups in my neighbourhood, sat endlessly on hold with the city’s Public Health for new moms program and I even looked into meditation classes. You just have to smile more, I told myself. Go for more walks. Try harder.

Things only got worse. I obsessed over his naps and refused to do anything that would prevent him from sleeping in his own crib every two hours. I was trapped.

Finally, that awful Thursday, I texted my best friend (and fellow new mom). “Call me,” she wrote. “Can’t. Crying too hard. What’s wrong with me?” I texted back. She told me to ask my partner to come home immediately and to book an appointment with my doctor. Then she wrote, “Don’t be mad at me for asking, but do you think you might hurt yourself or the baby?” I quickly answered “no way,” but I knew right away what she was thinking, and it made me—for the first time—consider that I might have depression.

Later that day, I wept in my family doctor’s office as she gently asked me a series of questions, starting with “Have you been able to laugh much recently?” and ending with “What would you say if I told you it’s postpartum depression?” I cried harder.

It can’t be, I said. I’m better than that, stronger than that.

Nonsense. She explained to me that progesterone inhibits seratonin, simple as that: Pregnancy and breastfeeding were throwing a chemical fog over my happiness and energy. And I was a classic case: insomnia, tearfulness, despair, inertia, weight loss. She sent me home to consider ideas for treatment (therapy, drugs, exercise) and asked me to return in three days to craft a plan.

Just days later, I could breathe more easily, as if having the words to frame my sorrow helped start the healing. A month later, I had been taking a mild antidepressant long enough for it to kick in, and I had found a local moms’ group. I scheduled a babysitter to come for a few hours every week so I could go to the gym. Michael sent me to a hotel for my first night away from the baby, and I slept like a champ. The daily slog was still tough, but I was easier on myself. Instead of over-analyzing and criticizing my parenting, I slowly acknowledged that babies are a ton of work—and really boring—and there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. I relaxed enough to make some new friends at my moms’ group, and the little daily victories all helped me feel like myself again.

Now I’m a preacher: I compulsively slip notes to soon-to-be moms, begging them not to rationalize away feelings of sadness and hopelessness, inviting phone calls and texts at any time of the day or night. I still can’t think about my first six months of motherhood without the tightness returning to my chest. The shame and delusion, however, is entirely gone, and now I’m a joyful mom to a charming three-year-old. I’m proud to say I got help and I’m proud to tell my story. I hope it will help someone.

A version of the article appeared in our January 2016 issue with the headline, “Why can’t I stop crying?,” p. 36.

Read more:
Parenting through severe postpartum depression>
Antidepressants during pregnancy: Support not stigma>
What postpartum depression looks like: One mom’s story>

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