Moms share what it's like to feel blindsided by postpartum depression: 'You think you are a bad human being'

·10-min read
Postpartum depression affects almost 1 in 8 U.S. women, but many say they felt unprepared for, and unable to pinpoint, what they were experiencing. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)
Postpartum depression affects almost 1 in 8 U.S. women, but many say they felt unprepared for, and unable to pinpoint, what they were experiencing. (Photo: Getty Creative stock photo)

After experiencing preeclampsia, Naomi — who asked to not disclose her last name — delivered her son five weeks early in an emergency C-section. The newborn spent 10 days in the NICU, getting round-the-clock care from a team of nurses. During that time, the California-based mom's focus was on her son's health, not her own, and so it wasn't until she and her husband were finally able to take the baby home that she started to feel the symptoms of what she's since identified as postpartum depression.

"In the hospital, the nurses were there, [so] I didn't feel, like, the burden or anything, because the nurses were helping me out," she tells Yahoo Life. "It was more like, 'Oh, I want my baby to be healthy.' But the moment we got home, after a few days, it was a lot to handle."

Naomi, a content creator who posts about her family life with husband Kameron and their now-5-month-old son, felt especially unprepared for the lack of sleep and the physical and mental toll she experienced while breastfeeding. She struggled to adjust to the unrelenting routine of caring for a baby 24/7, one in which taking 20 minutes to leave the house for a walk or even sitting down to quietly eat a hot meal felt "impossible."

"[When you're pregnant], you're like, 'it's beautiful, it's nice, I can't wait to have my baby,'" the TikToker says of her expectations of what motherhood would look like. "And then all of a sudden everything changes and it strikes so hard. You think you are dreaming. I'm like, am I dreaming? Am I going to wake up and my life is going to be normal? Like, you love your baby, but it's a different thing — a whole different experience. I remember standing in the kitchen and crying. I was telling my sister, 'I think my world has ended.'"

Naomi has since come to realize that she was experiencing postpartum depression, something she "didn't even think about" during her pregnancy or even recognize until her husband suggested she was showing symptoms. She recalls filling out a form about her mental health during a postnatal visit, but her doctor never raised the issue. Ultimately, it was opening up to loved ones and sharing her story on social media — where she connected with moms going through the same thing — that led to her putting a name to her feelings and getting help.

Research from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that, in the United States, about 1 in 8 women with a recent live birth show symptoms of postpartum depression, defined as a longer-lasting, more intense depression than the so-called "baby blues" mothers may experience for a few days after giving birth. Yet many women have shared Naomi's sense of being blindsided by experiencing postpartum depression, something she says "no one prepared me" for. High-profile moms ranging from Voice alum Jordan Pruitt to Chrissy Teigen have spoken out about their own struggles to name their low moods and anxious feelings.

Speaking to Access Hollywood in 2020, country singer Maren Morris opened up about being diagnosed after the birth of her son Hayes. Morris admitted "lacking material and conversations about postpartum depression," crediting her therapist with spotting the symptoms.

"When you’re in that fog of being a new mom and breastfeeding and pumping and no sleep, you’re not really connected to your body’s signals as much because it’s just all, you’re in the bubble,” Morris shared.

Even medical professionals can miss those signals. Despite her own training as a mental health therapist, Christina Furnival was taken aback when she gave birth to her first child six years ago. Though Furnival was familiar with postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety — typically associated with racing thoughts, feelings of dread and intense worry — as clinical concepts, her own new mom fog made it difficult for her to distinguish her symptoms from those any sleep-deprived first-time parent suddenly tasked with keeping a delicate infant alive might experience.

"Even as a mental health professional, I did not recognize what I was going through until I started to come out of it," she says. Speaking with other parents helped her realize that she was going through something more extreme and "uncontrollable" than just the typical growing pains that come with adjusting to life with a newborn.

"I was so exhausted," Furnival adds. "All I wanted to do was nap. But when I had help to come over to be with my daughter so that I could take a nap, I would get in the bed and I couldn't stop my mind. I couldn't fall asleep. I felt guilt when I was with her about wanting a break. And then as soon as I got the break, I felt guilt about having the break. And it's those sorts of things, where you feel like you're not functioning, or you're having intrusive thoughts and they're really alarming and they're disturbing and you don't know what to do with them — and they just keep popping into your mind."

Given her own experience, Furnival, author of Fear Not! How to Face Your Fear and Anxiety Head-On, says it's "understandable" that so many new moms seem to be uninformed and unprepared about what postpartum depression looks like. She attributes the "nobody warned me" reaction to a few factors, the first being that they were warned, but couldn't fully grasp the reality of experiencing postpartum depression first-hand. It's a bit like describing labor pains to someone who's never had them.

"We wouldn't enter into pregnancy and parenthood knowingly or willingly if we expected it to be earth-shatteringly hard," she points out. "We expect [parenting] to be life-changing, but not earth-shattering. And I think people find out more about postpartum depression and anxiety when they're doing their own Googling during nursing sessions in the middle of the night, once they're already in it, because then that's when the reality sets in of like, OK, is this normal? Is this not right? Beforehand, I think you have expectations and you have potential fears of how things might go, but I think there's just no comprehension. I don't believe you really could comprehend ahead of time what may or may not happen or what it may or may not feel like until you're in it, in the same way."

The fog of new motherhood can make it difficult to differentiate depression and anxiety from the
The fog of new motherhood can make it difficult to differentiate depression and anxiety from the "baby blues," according to therapist Christina Furnival. (Photo: Getty Creative stock image)

While having no prior history of anxiety, depression or other mental health concerns theoretically makes a person at a lower risk of developing a postpartum mood disorder, Furnival notes that it may also make them less likely to heed any warnings, because they think, "that's not me." Such a person may also be less familiar with what symptoms to pay attention to.

Having gone through postpartum depression and anxiety twice — she experienced milder symptoms after welcoming a son four years ago — Furnival has taken it upon herself to share her experience with pregnant friends so they can better understand what signs to look out for. But she acknowledges that other moms may be more reluctant to speak candidly about what they went through, which in turn contributes to the sense that these conditions are taboo topics.

"I think a lot of people don't want to share the sad parts of their motherhood with anybody else because they feel guilty that they even went through that," she suggests. "It makes them feel really bad to remember that they missed out on what could have been really joyous moments in early parenthood. [Or] they don't want to bring down these pregnant parents and say, 'It could be really terrible.' It's just not a nice thing to say."

A new mom who is experiencing sadness and fatigue may also clam up about how she's feeling, for fear of being judged. Naomi recalls getting comments like "you should be grateful — you have a beautiful baby, you have a good husband, you shouldn't be feeling this way" when she tried to express herself.

"You're scared to talk about what you're feeling," she says. "No one's talking about it, so you think you are a bad human being. You are not normal. How can you feel this way?"

How to find help

It was talking to the right people — her husband and supportive peers in her social media circle — that paved the way for Naomi to get help. As Furnival has seen with both herself and her clients, getting that help also requires having an honest conversation with yourself. Check in and ask: Do you feel off? Do you have the sense that's something wrong?

"The image of, oh, well I'm not depressed because I'm not crying all the time or I'm not depressed because I don't have thoughts to harm or actually I'm not even sad, so I can't be depressed isn't true, because there are so many layers and levels," she notes. "There are other symptoms: It could be brain fog, it could be irritability, restlessness. But the thing that I hear most of my clients say is, 'I just feel like something's off. I don't feel like myself. I feel like something's wrong. I love my baby. I'm enjoying them. They're so cute, but something's not right.' And that for me is a big red flag just to go ahead and make an appointment with a therapist."

Furnival, who recommends Postpartum.net for its directory of mental health providers, hopes that more open dialogue about the postpartum experience will usher in more resources and less stigma — and not just for birthing parents. Actress Jamie Chung, who welcomed twins via a surrogate, has spoken about her battle with postpartum depression, while Furnival notes that fathers, adoptive parents and other non-birthing parents have reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. Ideally, she says, medical professionals like OB-GYNs would be proactively "assessing" someone's mental health throughout the pregnancy and beyond. If someone experiences perinatal depression or anxiety during their pregnancy, they're more likely to suffer postpartum, she notes.

"Unfortunately, I think there's this image that pregnancy is beautiful and you glow, and then you have a baby and yeah, you're gonna have your mom bun, but you're still going to look really good and you're going to bounce back and you're going to, like, take selfies with your baby and look like you have it all together," the therapist says. "And I think that imagery needs to shift. The reality is that not everyone enjoys pregnancy. Pregnancy is really hard for a lot of people, and medical providers need to be checking in all along the way."

What should those medical providers be asking? "Are you having inclusive thoughts? Do you even know what those are and what they look like? Have you had any thoughts of regret about being pregnant? How's your partnership going?" Furnival suggests. "Catching mental health needs in pregnancy will prevent a lot of people from having a long duration of mental health needs postpartum. It doesn't mean that they'll stop it entirely, but those people will be more aware. They will already be being monitored by their professionals. And that will just make a world of difference."

Having loved ones around to "keep their eyes open" for any signs of trouble or just be a supportive sounding board is also helpful.

"[With] the whole system — friends, family supports, a medical team — we can make a big difference if we start to change some things right now," says Furnival.

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