It's called Postpartum Depression, or PPD for those of us (too much) in the know. I've done a fair amount of research on this subject, both in the professional sense and in the Reality Bites sense. PPD is a subtype of depression which is not to be confused with the "baby blues," which virtually every new mother has for a few days or so. PPD is to the "baby blues" what a tsunami is to an ocean breaker. It makes you want to die, and this in spite of the fact that you have a new life to nurture and cherish. That's one of the worst things about it, in fact--that it happens at a time in your life when there is so much cause for joy. And that is also why so many women suffer it in silence, white-knuckle their way through the first year or so of motherhood: they are ashamed to be feeling so shitty when everyone expects them to be happy. Shame on top of depression is a lethal mix.
Here are just a few quotes from some of the women I interviewed for my book, The Ghost in the House (HarperCollins, 2006), who talked about this subject:
“I was afraid of her and ashamed of myself. I used to watch [my baby] sleeping and wonder with pride at how beautiful and perfect she looked. Then I would cry because I felt so sorry for her for her having such a screwup for a mother.”
“I lost me. I never knew me. And if I had a gun in the house, there wouldn’t be a me.”
Depression is a disease of recurrence; once those toxic neural pathways in the brain are ignited, they catch fire much easier the next time, and the time after that. That means any woman suffering from PPD is at risk of being on her way to a lifetime struggle with a disease that is the leading cause of disability in the world, according to the World Health Organization. And PPD, like maternal depression in general, is a disease that has a unique ability to spread the damage to the next generation. Research by Sherryl Goodman of Emory University, who co-authored the survey on which much of my book was based, has found that women who suffer from depression, especially women who suffer from depression during pregnancy, are more likely to have babies who are fussy, hard to soothe, colicky. The result, when the baby is born, is a vicious spiral: an unhappy baby who unknowingly creates more anguish for an unhappy mom, who then has trouble caring for this unhappy baby, who...That's what happened to this mom:
“My daughter cried for 8 weeks constantly. Finally, I was crying too. She barely slept. I barely slept…Finally, I stopped my life. I spent the entire morning deciding if I should give her up for adoption. It was that bad.”
Older cultures were a lot smarter about PPD than we are, and some still are. Some cultures routinely seclude a new mother for 40 days following delivery, a time in which she has nothing to do but rest, recuperate and care for her baby. Even in Elizabethan times, this was the case. Today, our "enlightened culture" ships new moms out of the hospital in 48 hours or less (even those who had C-sections); mothers who work for small employers (50 employees or fewer) are entitled to zero maternity leave. Zero. Is it surprising that doctors in this country aren't particularly attuned to this problem, and miss the diagnosis even when it's staring them in the face?
Here's a quote from a mother who is a physician, who suffered from PPD after the birth of her own daughter:
"The mother has to be pretty bad before someone picks it (PPD) up. In my experience, the physicians weren’t asking—the pediatrician, the obstetrician, the specialist. I didn’t see my internist, but I doubt she would have asked either—it’s not something we are trained to ask about.”
Today is Blog Day for the MOTHERS Act (S. 1375 ), otherwise known as The Moms Opportunity to Access Help, Education, Research and Support for Postpartum Depression Act, or MOTHERS Act. This proposed legislation, sponsored by Senators Menendez and Durbin, would ensure that new mothers and their families are educated about postpartum depression, screened for symptoms and provided with essential services. In addition, it would authorize money to be awarded as federal grants to researchers who are exploring the causes, diagnoses and treatments for PPD.
I end with one last quote--this one from an older mother who raised all her kids while struggling with depression, at immense cost to her and them.
"Depression is the parent with the most power."
Think about that for a minute. And then, when you're done, call or e-mail your senator.