You’re a new mother. You’ve found the greatest love in your life. You’re sore and tired and unbelievably happy. You’re adjusting, you’re fine, your baby is absolutely beautiful… And nobody is talking about post-partum depression.
Yes, maybe you found some paragraphs about it here and there in that sea of information that kept coming to you like the waves on the beach since the moment you became pregnant. You kind of know what post-partum depression is, but what is it really?
What is post-partum depression? I mean exactly, not vaguely, not in a general knowledge kind of way. What is it? How does it feel? How will you know if you’re in it or not?
I think the first important clarification about post-partum depression should be to note that “post-partum” could mean anything from the first months to the first years of your baby’s life. There is no exact time when it could happen, and the specific reasons for it will be rarely easy to identify. Also, if you happen to experience this kind of depression for some time and it fades away, there is no guarantee that it won’t come back.
In my experience, the first two months of my baby’s life were day after day of stunning bliss and expanding love. I was totally engulfed in the feeling of great awe that my baby’s beauty inspired in me. I’m sure I had some low points, but overall I was so happy I couldn’t believe there could be anything real about post-partum depression or other motherly feelings of inadequacy that I read about.
Time went by quickly and soon the six weeks of the first transition after childbirth were over. A couple more weeks and then that’s when it happened for me. Without warning or preamble my mood started to plummet down into the depth of an unknown sadness. Within days I’d gone from ecstasy to gloom. I was inexplicably sad and prone to burst into tears for no apparent reason. I couldn’t find my own mind, I couldn’t think. One afternoon, I was flipping through the pages of my husband’s old photo album and I stopped at the page where all his girlfriends from back in the day had a place. There were so many pictures, so many girls. The more I looked the more beautiful the girls seemed to be, and what started as average pictures of average young girls turned into depictions of superhuman and incomparable beauty and sexual prowess. I wailed like a baby for hours, taken over by an intense sense of my inferiority to those women. I felt hopelessly jealous and insecure, the ugly duckling link in a long chain of goddesses. What’s most amazing is that my distorted perception stayed distorted for at least three days. It doesn’t sound as much, but three full days of wailing like the ghost of a haunted house, because some high school girl in my husband’s past was prettier than me…
It’s just plain crazy. I’d gone crazy.
The rough patch passed and my tears dried. I dug the pictures out of the garbage bin, where my terrified husband had put them. I looked again and the girls were just girls. All was good and my first encounter with the totally irrational was through.
However, that is not the end of the story. Post-partum depression has more than one face, more than one season, and more than one way to bring you down and terrify your loved ones. I never again fell into that kind of great sadness that seemed to have no reason to be, but I did have to face more complex types of depression that came along with my initiation into motherhood. Which brings me to the second important clarification about post-partum depression: Post-partum depression is still depression.
The fact that it can be linked to hormonal changes and oversized readjustments doesn’t mean that your feelings are less real or less serious or less of a message from within about your wants and needs. I actually don’t think that it is childbirth itself what makes a woman prone to become depressed in the months or years after the birth. I think what happens to a woman when she’s gone through the life-changing processes of pregnancy and birth, and then childrearing is that she becomes more sensitive to the issues of womanhood. Being a new mother is likely to alter the previously egalitarian relationships you might have. You’re likely to leave your work and stay at home. Then you will be face to face with the realities of house chores and the conventional gender roles that have pushed women to be no more than housewives for generations. You will feel the invisible forces of history pull you and push you into those very conventions you detest. You will stay at home, you will wash the dishes, you will cook dinner, miss out on all the parties, gain weight, and learn to nag. You will not get all the recognition and encouragement you deserve. You will not get paid for your incredibly hard work. You will care for your baby 24 hours a day, suffer from sleep deprivation, learn to hold in your pee and hold back your hunger. You will be surviving on five percent your usual vitality, and it will all be expected to be so. It will be normal. I assure you, you will have a new and richer appreciation of not only your own mom, but all the mothers that you can think of. Perhaps you’ll find yourself thinking about single mothers, mothers of five children, and all the women in the world who still won’t get a chance to do anything different from that hard hard thing that it is to be a housekeeper, wife, homemaker, and mother.
Is it really a wonder for women to be more depressed in their post-partum lives? It is only natural, it is sensible.
If you find yourself lost in the throes and woes of post-partum depression, I hope that you can do more than dismiss your feelings thinking they’re no more than your mad hormones talking. They’re not. Your feelings in the midst of depression, and especially in post-partum depression, are most likely telling you about your deepest convictions and conflicts related to being a woman. Your depressed mind is reviewing all of those patriarchal values that you’ve internalized, values that might leave you feeling, well, undervalued. Listen to all that. This could be a golden opportunity for you to become aware of how much you can bring yourself and other women down by failing to appreciate the true worth of a mother’s efforts and hard work. In a society that rarely appreciates unpaid work, subtle work, domestic work; it can be easy to feel dissatisfied with a life of staying at home. Post-partum depression can move you to reevaluate your beliefs about all this, about life, about family, about marriage, and about what’s worthy.
Let your body do its thing, and your mind do its thing; please be patient and take courage, for amongst all the dead flowers you will also find treasures you would have never stopped to see before.