What they didn’t tell me about postpartum depression
They tell you a lot of things when you’re pregnant. And by ‘they’ I mean family, books, websites, friends who’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to show it. They tell you what to eat and what not to eat. How to exercise and how much to exercise. What to wear, what to avoid, what medicines to take, what procedures to pass up. They tell you a lot of things. But they don’t say a single word about postpartum depression.
A few days after I delivered my baby (‘normal’ delivery, episiotomy, ouch, ouch, ouch), I discovered I wasn’t producing enough milk for her. Then, we discovered that she has colic. A connection between the two was suggested and denied. Cures – both for her and my ‘condition’ - were sought, tried and discarded as useless. I was told to make peace with the fact that my baby would cry for seven hours straight at night, that there was no known cure for this and that it would stop when she turned three months old. I was told that not making enough milk was not my fault, that baby formula was just as good as mother’s milk, that perhaps the reason I was not able to breastfeed was because I didn’t “want it enough” and that a low milk supply was seen mostly in educated women, because they “thought too much about it.” This last, by the way, was from a renowned, elderly pediatrician. Male, predictably.
I was told a lot of things. But I wasn’t told that it was okay to be utterly crushed by all this. That it was okay to feel utterly and completely overwhelmed by vaginal surgery, physical exhaustion, a colicky baby and an all-encompassing feeling of inadequacy, all coming one after the other like contestants in the world’s most twisted beauty pageant.
So, I felt guilty too. About not being happy that I had a relatively uncomplicated delivery. About not feeling unbridled joy when I held my crying daughter in my arms. About not being grateful that I had my parents to help out. About not having answers. About feeling helpless, dejected, exhausted and utterly spent every moment of every day. Because you see, I was led to believe – by family, friends and books – that unadulterated joy is what I was supposed to feel after having a baby. Feeling anything less, that too, good God, sorrow and indignation? There must be something wrong with me.
The fact that that “something wrong” could be postpartum depression did not even occur to me once, by the way. I had read all about it in the baby books. But it couldn’t happen to me, right? I mean, I did everything right. I ate the right stuff, did my prenatal yoga, was active till the day of my delivery, avoided all the things I was supposed to. I was golden. Besides, was I actually depressed? Or was I just feeling a little down? Because that, apparently, is normal.
Baby books and websites tell us that feeling “a little blue” after childbirth is normal, because all the feel-good hormones your body produced during pregnancy ebb after the baby comes out of you. I like how vague that phrase is. A little blue. Like, “Gee, I don’t think I’ll go to the mall today. I think I’ll just sit here and eat a cupcake because I’m feeling a little blue.” Well, in terms of scale, if I had to describe what I felt like during those dark months, it would be something like, “OH MY GOD, I CAN’T TAKE THIS ANYMORE, I’M A HORRIBLE MOTHER AND I WANT TO FORCEFEED MYSELF PAPAYAS!” (You should probably know that I was asked to eat lots of papayas to increase my milk production. You should also know that I detest papayas. Now, more so than ever.)
I honestly don’t know if I had postpartum depression back then. My husband tells me I was not easy to live with those early months. I believe him. I was there, remember? I also believe that if I did have postpartum depression, I got off easy. I never once felt any resentment towards my daughter. I never once wished her harm. And yet, that too is common among women who suffer from intense postpartum depression. It must be horrifying to the mother more than anyone else. Now add to that, societal pressure to regain your pre-pregnancy body, unpaid maternity leave, shameless enquiries from various people about when you’re planning to have your next baby…
Should I go on?
Well then, as someone who has barely dipped her toe in the murky shallows of postpartum depression, I strongly advocate prenatal counseling for expectant parents. Yes, fathers too deserve to be equipped for this. It may not prevent women from sinking into depression, but hopefully, it will save them from drowning in it.
(This piece was written for the White Swan Foundation.)