The other day I caught up with my buddy Lisa and we swapped news on all our mutual acquaintances — who got a promotion, who had a nightmare Internet date — and we got to talking about our friend Ellie who just had a baby.
I asked how she was getting along and Lisa told me, “I don’t know. She looked like she was struggling a bit, but she painted on a big smile like everything was fine and dandy.”
I sighed, because Ellie is doing what every new mother does. As a horde of friends and family descend to meet the new addition, the new mom buzzes around offering cake and smiling through gritted teeth, telling everyone that life is just perfect. Because that’s what you’re supposed to do, right? Because somehow if you admit that this new world you’ve been thrown into head-first is exhausting beyond imagination, at times mind-numbingly boring, and often wildly lonely, it makes you less of a mom. Less of a woman.
I know because I felt exactly the same, and it is all this pressure that we put on ourselves that I am certain contributes to postpartum depression.
I had postpartum depression after having both of my kids, but I was so reluctant to admit it. Not only because I felt like in doing so I had “failed” as a mom, but also because the first time it happened, my son was 11-months-old — almost a year after I actually gave birth. I can only describe the experience as feeling so numb, I could barely get out of bed. I felt like I was drowning, unable to feel anything, unable to communicate. Like the joy had been sucked out of my life. I was scared to open up about it, because how can a mom admit that life with her newborn isn’t anything but wonderful?
This is why I am so grateful when new moms, like Nashville actress Hayden Panettiere, admit to having postpartum depression on national TV. Stopping by Live with Kelly and Michael, she admitted she could relate to having postpartum depression after having her daughter, Kaya, in December 2014:
“I can very much relate. It’s something a lot of women experience. When [you’re told] about postpartum depression you think it’s ‘I feel negative feelings towards my child, I want to injure or hurt my child’ — I’ve never, ever had those feelings. Some women do. But you don’t realize how broad of a spectrum you can really experience that on. It’s something that needs to be talked about. Women need to know that they’re not alone.”
The problem with being a new mom, of course, is that you are often isolated from your work colleagues, your old friends, and only have the other new moms met at baby classes to rely on for advice and opinions. For me, these baby classes were an environment rife with competition and any that I attended only served to make me feel worse about myself because I didn’t make organic food all day and I hated baby swim classes …
— hayden panettiere (@haydenpanettier) July 14, 2016
It took me a long time to realize that I was depressed. To admit to myself that I wasn’t coping as well as I had hoped, and that there was no shame in that. Panettiere felt the same way, saying:
“There’s a lot of misunderstanding — there’s a lot of people out there that think that it’s not real, that it’s not true, that it’s something that’s made up in their minds, that ‘oh, it’s hormones.’ They brush it off. It’s something that’s completely uncontrollable. It’s really painful and it’s really scary and women need a lot of support.”
In the UK, midwives visit you until your baby is 10 days old and after that, you are encouraged to attend baby-weighing clinics, but essentially you are left to your own devices. I didn’t have any family nearby, was the first of my friends in London to have a baby, and didn’t have anyone to turn to. I’m in total agreement with Panettiere that women need more support.
Sure, we’re told about the baby blues, but those are expected to pass. We’re meant to take to motherhood like a duck to water, because surely it is the most natural thing in the world, right? Which made me feel completely “unnatural” when I didn’t love it as much as everyone else seemed to. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my children — I was crazy about them — but something in my head wasn’t quite working. I ended up going on antidepressants and within 12 hours of starting them, I remember feeling like the black hole inside me had been filled up. Nothing had changed in my life one iota, but I felt able to cope.
Women are so hard on themselves: we set incredibly high standards for ourselves and then beat ourselves up if life doesn’t turn out that way. While the official figures show 10 to 15% of all women will suffer from postpartum depression, that percentage only represents those who have reported suffering. Imagine what the real figure might be.
According to Postpartum Progress, more women will suffer from postpartum depression and related illnesses this year than the combined number of new cases for men and women of tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and epilepsy.
So I think back to my chat with Lisa about how Ellie is getting on with her new daughter. More than anything I want to pick up the phone and tell Ellie that it’s okay to find it overwhelming and difficult. It’s okay to admit to missing your old life and old wardrobe. That motherhood isn’t always what we expect, but that she will get through it. I know, because I did. Just like Hayden.