I loved my son from the very first moment I knew I was pregnant. Before I found out, really. Primary infertility meant that I was elated to find myself pregnant, finally, even while being terrified of all the things that could possibly go wrong. And while my bout with infertility had left me sad and depressed, with my pregnancy I finally felt like my emotions were balanced. The birth of my first child was difficult and scary, but that all seemed to fade away once he was in my arms.
Unfortunately, the elation and joy I felt was soon overshadowed. Illness, difficulty breastfeeding and a fussy baby all contributed to the ever-darkening cloud that I felt like I was living under. None of those things caused my postpartum depression, but they did wear down my ability to cope.
Depression and anxiety were my companions after the birth of my second child too. Once a person has been diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder once, their likelihood of a relapse with subsequent births is drastically increased. Even now, years after the birth of my second baby, I see a therapist regularly, take my medications and maintain all of the self-care and lifestyle changes that help me to keep my equilibrium.
The first time I mentioned my concerns to my doctor, I was told I "probably just had a little postpartum." In hindsight, there were so many things wrong with those six short words, but I didn't see it at the time.
Unfortunately, postpartum mood disorders, are often dismissed as "just." As a society, maternal mental health is dismissed just as quickly as most women's mental health concerns. New parents are told that it is "hormones" or "sleep deprivation." And while both of those things can contribute to postpartum depression, they are not the whole story by any means. And never mind that "postpartum" refers to a period of time: the months after giving birth, not an illness or diagnosis.
The language around postpartum mood disorders is dismissive at best, and downright callous at worst.
When mothers are told they "just" have postpartum depression, there is an underlying implication that their concerns, feelings and happiness is something small and insignificant. As a doula, I have seen a number of new parents told they would be fine if they just tried harder to be happy.
The word "just" is used a lot to minimize maternal mental health. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word can mean "by a very small margin," "only, simply" and "possibly." None of that sounds supportive, decisive or proactive when applied to mental health. And that's the problem. Language matters, and the language around postpartum mood disorders is dismissive at best, and downright callous at worst.
A helping hand
I remember always being afraid of being "that mom." The hot mess mom. The one in public who so clearly didn't have it together. I dreaded going out with my infants, because what if people judged me? It was even worse after my diagnosis; would everyone be able to see that there was something wrong with me?
Luckily for me I had an incredible support system that showed me I wasn't a hot mess, but an amazing mom. The kindness shown to me in those early weeks and months was so important, and remains something positive from a time of darkness.
As a doula I see many new parents who are struggling to adjust and cope after the birth of a new baby. Many of these new parents do not have family nearby or large circles of friends. Their opportunities for kindness are fewer than mine. For those new parents, the smile from the cashier at the grocery store while their baby melts down, the neighbour who drops off a healthy meal and the health care providers who listen when that new parent finds the courage to bring up their concerns, are vital. Those moments of kindness, compassion and belief are what help so many new parents to reach out for the resources we have available.
Everyone is looking at me
Almost everyone has had that terrible dream where you stand up to give a presentation, only to realize you never prepared and don't even know what you are supposed to be speaking about. Or you look down and you aren't wearing anything. And everyone in the room is staring at you. Mental illness can feel like that. When you leave the doctor's office with a diagnosis and maybe a prescription clutched in your hand, you worry that it is suddenly tattooed to your forehead and you are convinced that everyone is staring.
The stigma around mental illness, the fear that not only will people know, but that they will treat you differently, is very real. For new parents, there can be an added layer of fear that someone will take their child(ren) away if they admit they need help. But with estimates as high as one in four or one in five, postpartum mood disorders (depression, anxiety, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and more) are far from rare.
For new parents, it does get better. There are resources and support. You are not alone, you are not broken and it won't always be this hard. There is nothing "just" about a postpartum mood disorder, it is very real. It is not a failing on your part that this is happening.
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My history and my job are part of why events like Bell Let's Talk are so important to me. Anything that raises awareness, and reduces the stigma, of mental illness and mental health support, will always have my backing.
This year the emphasis is on real Canadians telling their stories. It is okay to be proud of your story. Our culture celebrates those who overcome other adversities and it is time we started to celebrate the incredible strength of those who live, work and parent with mental illness.
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