How motherhood myths impacted my struggle with postpartum depression and anxiety

I gave birth to my first baby, but he brought visitors that didn’t want to leave. The first was Guilt, the mean-spirited one. Then came Panic, the one that never let me out of the house. The last to creep in was Sadness, the most loyal of the crew. All three battled daily for control over my mind as I settled into a bad dream—the one where I thought I wanted to be a mom.  

Nothing felt easy or natural after giving birth. Breastfeeding was painful every time, but I forced myself to endure it because “breast is best” looped endlessly in my head. The profound sadness of failing at the one thing my body was made to do—feed a baby—was crushing. The baby was losing weight. I was losing weight. Pumping every two hours to build supply wasn’t working. The visitors watched as I struggled within this panic-guilt-sadness cycle, as if to say, “Taking care of a baby is now your most important job. Get used to it.”

But who takes care of the mother?   

Related: Postpartum doulas are the support system all new mothers need 

A mother’s mental health had never been part of the discussion when I was growing up and contemplating a family of my own. The conversation was always about self-sacrifice. A mother should be willing to do anything for her baby, and that includes suffering. Perhaps that is why my postpartum depression and anxiety went untreated for so long after my first baby. 

When I became a mother for the first time, I did not understand what was happening to me.  Once I was diagnosed with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety a few months later, it provided clarity and helped me to find a way forward. 

I remember one night pacing my apartment at 4:30 a.m., baby and husband fast asleep, my heart wildly pumping and the tears unending. I woke my husband and begged him to tell me it was okay to stop nursing. He gently encouraged me to keep going since it was on my list of motherhood goals.  

Fast forward to nearly six years later after the birth of our second baby. This time, it was my husband begging me to stop nursing. I was stuck in the postpartum depression/anxiety loop again. The visitors were back, but this time, my husband and I were wiser. When he begged me to stop nursing, I listened. 

When I became a mother for the first time, I did not understand what was happening to me. Once I was diagnosed with postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA) a few months later, it provided clarity and helped me find a way forward. I joined my first postpartum support group and learned that for many women, including me, medication and therapy were necessary. That feeding your baby should never come at the expense of your mental health. Remember the advice about oxygen masks on an airplane? A parent should secure their own oxygen first. The kids come second. Therapy and postpartum support groups taught me never to ignore my mental health needs. Once I began making decisions that prioritized my mental health, I not only enjoyed being a mother more, but I was better at it. 

According to the Maternal Mental Health Leadership Alliance, women are at a higher risk for maternal mental health conditions when they have a personal or family history of a mental health condition, lack social support (especially from their partner), experienced a traumatic birth or previous trauma in their lives, or have a baby in the neonatal intensive care unit. Depression and anxiety ran in my family, but I did not know this placed me at a higher risk for maternal mental health conditions. The risk factors associated with perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs) are information that should be widely shared with women as they prepare to grow their families. 

I was one of the lucky ones who had support in taking care of my baby. It took many years to understand that supporting a mother also means helping her unload the guilt-inducing expectations that keep her from prioritizing her own mental health. The visitors from my postpartum depression and anxiety were closely aligned with the myths of motherhood I had been sold my entire life. A mother sacrifices and feeds her baby breast milk at any cost. A mother only has time to take care of her baby. A mother should love and connect with her baby immediately. If there are any deviations, get ready for the visitors. 

Related: You’re not alone: Postpartum depression is common and can last longer than a year, says study 

Guilt, panic and sadness delayed me from getting the support I needed for a long time after my first baby. But by the time I was pregnant with the second, I knew I could not ignore my mental health again. I wanted to set a good example for my five-year-old. I wrote a children’s picture book about a mom experiencing postpartum depression to normalize conversations between family members on mental health struggles. “The Little Blue Rocket Ship: A Story About Postpartum Depression” was written for the one in seven women that will be impacted by postpartum depression. 

I see you. Your family sees you.  Don’t ignore the visitors.  

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