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‘Black-ish’ Just Boldly Went Where Few Sitcoms Have Gone Before: Postpartum Depression

Editor’s Note: Babble and ABC Television are both a part of the Walt Disney Company. This post contains spoilers from Season 4, Episode 2 of Black-ish.

'Black-ish' actress Tracee Ellis Ross ("Bow") sits on a bed, looking melancholy.
Image Source: ABC

Black-ish, the innovative ABC sitcom about the Johnsons, a successful, upper-middle-class black family living in America, has never been one to shy away from tough topics. Rather than keep silent about race like so many sitcoms of its kind have done in the past, Black-ish tackles it head-on, with show topics ranging from racial identity to black assimilation to police brutality.

As a family-centered show, Black-ish has also bravely faced the complex and sometime thorny issues that are universal in parenting, like sibling rivalry, bullying, and even spanking — all with a healthy dose of humor, of course. And as last season ended, the show dealt with something else sitcoms almost never tackle: it took an honest, no-flinching look at high-risk pregnancy, premature babies, and the trauma of emergency deliveries.

In Season 3 of the series, family matriarch Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (played by Tracee Ellis Ross), is pregnant at 40 with her fifth child. At her baby shower, Bow begins to experience some troubling headache symptoms, and when she gets them checked out, she learns that she’s suffering from preeclampsia, a potentially life-threatening pregnancy condition characterized by high blood pressure, protein in the urine, and swelling.

In the heart-wrenching season finale, baby DeVante is delivered 8 weeks early via emergency C-section, and is rushed off to the NICU. The whole experience understandably leaves Bow rattled and frightened, and watching her lay on the operating table in those final scenes — sobbing and overwhelmed with emotion — is a moment any mom who’s been through a traumatic pregnancy or delivery can wholeheartedly relate to.

Thankfully, both DeVante and Bow ended up pulling through. But now, in the fourth season of the show, the trauma of that whole experience seems to have lingered, and in last night’s moving episode, we began to see signs of postpartum depression emerge.

Postpartum depression — which affects as many as 1 in 7 women in the United States — is another topic that has largely gone unexplored in the sitcom world, especially in any kind of realistic or meaningful way. And that’s precisely why last night’s episode of Black-ish was a breath of fresh air, portraying the disorder in a relatable light.

‘Dre, I don’t have postpartum,’ Bow tells her husband in one scene. ‘I’m a doctor, and I would know.’
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For most of the episode, we saw Bow with a blank expression on her face. She can’t participate in her normal activities, and even seems distanced from baby DeVante. In one powerful moment, her husband Dre (played Anthony Anderson), is presenting baby DeVante with his first itty bitty pair of Jordan’s. Yet while everyone in the family is giddy over the adorable moment, Bow’s mind is noticeably distracted. She can hardly muster up a smile.

It’s in that moment that Dre finally begins to take notice of what’s really happening.

“Something was off with Bow and it was starting to make me nervous,” Dre confesses in a voiceover. “It was starting to make us all nervous.”

Soon after, the Johnson kids sweetly bond together, pledging to each help Bow deal with her depression, and be sure to lift some of the burden off of Dre — or, as Andre (played by Marcus Scribner) jokingly puts it, “We can’t let dad be DeVante’s sole provider.”

But one of the moments that resonated so deeply for me was when DeVante seemed to be in stark denial about her PPD. As Dre sits her down to discuss what he thinks going on, his wife, who’s a successful anesthesiologist, says, “Dre, I don’t have postpartum. I’m a doctor, and I would know.”

I can still remember when I was in the throes on postpartum anxiety after my first child was born, like it was yesterday. I spent a lot of time convincing myself that despite my racing heartbeat and obsessive thoughts about my child dying, there was probably nothing wrong at all. I was just a typical “anxious mommy,” I told myself. It wasn’t until my son was 2½ and the anxiety was making it difficult for me to function that I actually sought help.

I can’t tell you how important it is that a mainstream family show like Black-ish is portraying such a relatable aspects of having a postpartum mood disorder — not just how it feels or looks like from the outside, but also the stigma behind it, and how hard it is to admit that you’re having issues at all, even if just to yourself. So many moms out there are just like Bow, and want to believe that they are too smart or well prepared to have PPD. But the truth is, PPD can strike anyone — even a seasoned mom like Bow who’s on her fifth baby.

So kudos to Black-ish for going where so few shows have gone before, and presenting the issue of PPD in an easy-to-digest, relatable, and yes, even humorous way (because we could all use a laugh, even about the most serious issues in life). Let’s hope that the show continues to explore this facet of Bow’s motherhood experience even further, and that the character soon finds the healing and strength she needs to move forward.

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