Gwyneth Paltrow has been a vocal advocate for Postpartum Depression awareness since shortly after the birth of her son Moses. At the time, she acknowledged her own experience, but didn’t go into much detail. Then a few months ago, her newsletter, GOOP, featured a detailed account of her friend and fellow actor, Bryce Dallas Howard’s postpartum depression. In this month’s issue of Good Housekeeping, Gwyneth talked about how she actually felt in the months after her son’s birth. The interesting thing is that her description doesn’t sound like most of what you hear about postpartum depression.
Which is why Gwyneth herself didn’t really see it that way at the time. She wasn’t crying, she wasn’t incapacitated. What she felt was disconnected. “I couldn’t access my heart. I couldn’t access my emotions. I couldn’t connect. It was terrible. It was the exact opposite of what had happened when Apple was born. With her, I was on cloud nine. I couldn’t believe it wasn’t the same [after Moses was born]. I just thought it meant I was a terrible mother and a terrible person.”
But does not feeling immediately connected to your baby make you a terrible mother? Or for that matter, a depressed one?
I read this story and felt a pang of recognition. When I had my babies, I expected the instant wash of love I had read about in, oh, every single book about having babies (except the ones about postpartum depression). After my first was born, what I got was a sort of not-unpleasant confusion, set against a backdrop of mild but ever-present anxiety. Granted, mild but ever-present anxiety is pretty much my normal state and has been since childhood.
I felt incredibly protective of my son, drawn to him and happy he was here. But did I feel “connected” to him? Sort of, and sort of not. I couldn’t even really see how I could be connected to him at this point, by any means I could measure. There were only about ten to twenty minutes a day where he was even looking at me. I’d heard that nursing was supposed to be this huge bonding experience with deep soulful eye contact. But this kid was all business at the breast. I can count the times he looked up at me on one hand, and he nursed for well over a year and a half.
I think I actually came to count on our physical connections to fortify our bond. He nursed frequently, slept with me, and until he was about 10 months old, spent most of his time on my body. I felt closer to him than I ever had to anyone but didn’t feel the boundless joy I heard other mothers talking about when they described their newborns.
Was I depressed? At the time, I didn’t think so, and neither did my shrink. I was in therapy before I got pregnant and continued throughout. According to my therapist, the feelings of disconnection I was experiencing were normal, or normal for my aforementioned anxious self. But when I read Gwyneth’s description, I wondered. Was there something I could have done to feel more connected sooner? Did I have PPD—missed by both me and my fancy New York shrink?
“The hardest part for me was acknowledging the problem,” Gwyneth says. “I thought postpartum depression meant you were sobbing every single day and incapable of looking after a child. But there are different shades of it and depths of it, which is why I think it’s so important for women to talk about.”
In the past five or so years, the doors have been flung open on postpartum depression, and this is clearly a good thing. Women need to be able to be open about their postpartum feelings, and most importantly, to get help if they need it. But this story brings up a question I have long wondered about. In general, I think the continuum theory applies to psychological states. So if you accept that there is a range of feelings in the postpartum period, at what point do we consider these feelings something to worry about? I don’t mean to normalize unhappiness, and undiagnosed postpartum depression is scary for all concerned. But I also think the postpartum period can be difficult—period—and the idea that people who are feeling less than blissful in the early months might automatically assume themselves to have a mood disorder is disturbing to me. Especially if they feel they have to treat themselves with medication to feel the way they are “supposed to.” Gwyneth apparently handled her situation with therapy and exercise. She credits trainer Tracy Anderson with making her postpartum body better than it was before she had kids. I kept talking about how I felt. And eventually I stopped worrying so much about whether I was feeling the way I was supposed to and started to just enjoy my son.
[via Good Housekeeping]