What It Feels Like to Have Postpartum Depression
True stories of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders show how these common conditions can feel different than you expect
When most women leave the hospital after having a baby, they receive a brochure about postpartum depression (PPD) that may feature a photo of a woman looking bereft, sad, and turned inward. Although someone with postpartum depression may appear – and feel – that way, the actual experience is wide ranging and can include everything from obsessive anxiety to a sense of disconnect to unremitting rage.
It's great that awareness of postpartum depression is growing and starting to include perinatal mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs), such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and panic disorder. But without a complete picture of what these conditions can look like, women sometimes find themselves smack dab in the middle of a PMAD without knowing they are there.
"It was like standing at the bottom of a well, looking up at the circle of light where people were having normal, happy lives, and I couldn't climb out," says Lynne, a 38-year-old mother of two from Boston, Massachusetts. "There was always that invisible wall there."
To break down those invisible walls, I reached out to women across the country and asked them to share their experiences so that their stories might benefit not only other women who have a PMAD, but also their friends and family members who love them.
A horrible sense of dread
Many women describe an ominous feeling that things are not right. "Six days postpartum I woke up having this horrible sense of dread in the pit of my stomach, like something terrible was about to happen," recalls Stephanie, a 31-year-old mother in New York City. "Over the course of a week, those feelings evolved to feelings of helplessness, feeling lonely even though I had people around me, and feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my own skin."
When depression and anxiety peaked around 4 PM for Jessica, a 27-year-old first-time mom from Arlington, Massachusetts, she felt "like the weight of the world was on my chest." At those times, she begged her husband "to come sit by me and put his hand on me to help ground me."
A physically debilitating experience
Many mothers experienced physical sensations as part of their PMAD. "I felt drained and exhausted and was extremely nauseous, so I hardly ate," says Stephanie.
"It felt like a fog that descended on me, and I thought it would never leave," remembers Amanda, a 30-year-old mother of two in West Lafayette, Indiana.
"The emotional pain feels physical, like the empty feeling of having the wind knocked out of me, but in my gut instead of my lungs," says Monica, 32, a mother who is currently battling postpartum depression with the help of medication and therapy.
Disconnect from the world, the baby, and motherhood
Some mothers were able to carry out daily tasks, but they experienced a startling sense of disconnection from their babies and from the expectation they had of what it would be like to be a mom. "'I never had an overwhelming feeling of 'mommy,'" explains Alexa, a 34-year-old mother of two in Columbus, Ohio. "I made sure she was fed and warm and cuddled, but it didn't feel right."
"It felt maddening, frustrating, and yet, 'blah,'" says Tara, 37, who experienced PPD when her second son was born last year. "I felt like I was inadequate as a mother, and I was sometimes too numb to feel sad."
Lynne, the mom of two from Boston, felt an unbearable emptiness. "For the most part, I did what needed to be done. But the joy wasn't there. Sometimes even the extreme darkness of negativity wasn't there – it was just nothingness."
"On the outside, I tried to keep it together, but it felt like he was someone's kid I was babysitting," explains Jonelle, 43, from Berkeley, California, who had her first child last year after years of fertility treatments. "I wouldn't have allowed anything bad to happen to him, but I wished his parents would hurry back and pick him up. And I kept thinking maybe this was why I was infertile – because I was missing whatever it took to be a mom."
"I hated being a mother," admits 22-year-old Addison from Norman, Oklahoma. "It was all I had ever wanted, but I wasn't cut out for it, and I didn't want my baby...I loved her, but I didn't really like her. I had these thoughts, but I didn't want them. They weren't my own. I would have given anything to just want my baby and my new life."
Rage and resentment
As writer JD Bailey has described, rage can be the "scariest symptom of postpartum depression." Amanda experienced PPD again after the birth of her second daughter. But this time, she felt "straight up rage – rage about how intrusive my workplace was while I was on leave, rage about the expectations others had of me, rage about how I felt I was failing at everything, rage at how I missed out on so much time with my oldest."
And for Stephanie, those initial feelings of dread evolved into "feelings of resentment towards my newborn and my husband."
Wanting to run away
Another common experience among the moms I spoke with was the feeling of wishing there was a way to go back to pre-baby life. Brittany, a 31-year-old mother of one in Phoenix, Arizona, describes how she wanted to "pack up my belongings and my dog and move back to Tucson," where she'd gone to college.
"I resented my child. I thought we had made a terrible decision. I wanted to go back," says Addison. "I remember thinking while in the shower that if I could convince my husband to give the baby up for adoption that I would."
"The defining part of it was guilt," says Monica, 28, from Madison, Wisconsin. "I felt guilty for not feeling bonded right away, for only having rare glimpses of that supposed all-encompassing gushing love. I felt guilty for doing things for myself, or even for wanting to…I even felt guilty for feeling guilty."
For Susan, a mother of a 2-year-old in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, her feelings of guilt and inadequacy centered on her "failure" to breastfeed. "I remember feelings of worthlessness, shame, and fear. I felt defective and deformed due to having IGT (insufficient glandular tissue). I couldn't physically provide for my baby...I couldn't even manage to be happy. How could anyone love me?"
Needing to hide the struggle
"I am an introvert and a perfectionist, so it was difficult for me to admit to myself or anyone that I had PPD," explains Anastasia, a 37-year-old mother of a 9-month-old from Madison, Wisconsin. "I remember being at a dinner party with other parents, and everyone was laughing. I heard the most fake laughter coming out of my mouth. Despite feeling like I was coming apart, I had this intense need to pretend I was fine and everything was ok because it would be too embarrassing to admit otherwise."
"I don't think anyone even knew I was suffering," says Jonelle. "I'd gone through so much to have my son, so I felt stupid and selfish admitting how miserable I was once he was born."
Coming out of the darkness
Most women I spoke with finally got help by speaking up. "I was ashamed to even let myself think that this was PPD," says Alexa. "When I finally said something and was put on medication, my entire life changed."
"I had a lot of support from friends and family, but support alone doesn't typically make depression go away," explains Tara. "I recognized that what I was experiencing was probably postpartum depression, and when I filled out the screening questionnaire at one of my son's well-child visits, I almost started laughing. With the exception of suicidal thoughts – which I fortunately didn't have – I met every part of the criteria. By that point, I had already contacted my ob-gyn office and set up an appointment with them, which eventually led to recommendations for a therapist and adjustments to a medication I had already been taking for anxiety."
Finding relief from PPD symptoms can also involve making lifestyle changes. In Addison's case, she discovered that her depression was linked to her breastfeeding difficulties. She switched to formula and felt relief immediately. "A few days later we were driving as the sun came up to try and get our little one to sleep, and I felt happiness. For the first time since my baby was born, I felt joy."
Feeling validated and heard is the one of the most powerful weapons in the fight against PPD. Sharing our stories and our voices not only helps us heal but also helps others feel less alone. "Everyone expects that having a child is the most joyous time in your life. To turn round and say, 'Well actually, I feel bloody awful when I feel anything at all, is so difficult,'" says Lynne. "But I realize that only by sharing, by raising awareness, will things ever change."
If you think that you or someone you love may be experiencing a perinatal mood or anxiety disorder such as PPD, please read "The Difference Between Baby Blues and Postpartum Depression."
Here are tips on how to talk to your doctor, how to bring it up with your partner, and how partners can provide support. You can also reach out directly to a mental health professional who understands what you are experiencing and can give you the tools you need for your recovery (Postpartum Support International hosts a “warm line,” which will connect you to local resources and Postpartum Progress maintains and up-to-date list of perinatal mental health professionals). With the right support and treatment, you will feel better.