My Story: The Importance of Perinatal Mental Health

Postpartum Mental Health

I will never forget the long, hot summer my son was born. We lived in a small, two bedroom side by side duplex off the freeway, the lawn left overgrown and full of weeds all summer as we fumbled through the early days of parenting. The place was once half business, half residence, and the remnants of a storefront still remained, though it had been painted over with the deepest shade of green I had ever seen. I’m almost certain the paint wasn’t truly meant for the outside of a home, or perhaps it just hadn’t been applied right because little bits of paint melted off in the hot sun, curling into these little annoying bits scattered all over my car windshield, and plastered to the bottom of my shoes.  

Who would pick such an ugly shade of green to paint a home? I wondered to myself one morning as I spotted more specks of fallen green paint on the windshield of my car and scattered along the gravel driveway. I struggled with getting the car seat into the back of my two door Chevy, feeling the sun beating down on both of us, I swore I could almost smell the paint in the air. I finally heard that click that meant the car seat was in place and while I buckled myself in and hurried down the driveway, my mind continued to wander. I wonder when this place was painted last. The landlord is pretty cheap, what if there’s lead in this paint? I’d better get a lead test. What if the baby has already had paint fall into his carseat? What kind of mother lets her baby get covered in lead paint? What are the symptoms of lead poisoning? Would I even know if he’d already been affected by the lead? I should make sure to look that up later. It could be one of those silent killer things where he wouldn’t get any symptoms and all of a sudden he’d just be – My thoughts were interrupted by my son’s angry wails coming from the back seat. We were at a stop light just long enough to interrupt his slumber and he wanted to make sure I knew about it. He wailed the rest of the way to the doctor’s office as I tried to shush him from the front seat, my futile attempts at reaching back to pop a pacifier back into his mouth a few times offered only moments of reprieve from the screams. 

Parenting Advice … Welcomed (or Not)

I parked my car under a tree, hoping the shade would prevent the car from reaching actual boiling point by time we returned. I folded down my seat and reached into the back to wrestle the car seat back out again, pausing only momentarily to wipe the beads of sweat from my brow. Even with my back turned, I could feel the hovering presence of someone behind me. As I turned to close the car door, diaper bag over my shoulder, and car seat tucked across my forearm, I stood inches away from a woman peering eagerly into the car seat I was holding. She pushed her tight white curls back from her face as she gingerly placed the glasses that hung from her neck onto her ear lobes, peering through the thick lenses, a smile spread across her face. “How old?” she inquired.  “Oh, just five weeks,” I replied, hoping that was the end of the exchange, but knowing that wasn’t likely to be the case. “Is he a good baby? Does he let Mommy sleep?” she asked earnestly, as if any baby that entered the world five weeks ago lets its parent sleep. I gave a half sigh, half chuckle, and started my way towards the building. “I have nine grandchildren,” the woman continued. I nodded politely in response, “that’s nice.” She furrowed her brow, reached out and squeezed my son’s big toe as she muttered “Tell your mommy you need some socks on!” I quickly pulled the baby towards me “for chrissakes, it’s ninety-fucking-four degrees, he does NOT need socks!” I hissed. We stood there for a brief moment, gazing at each other with reciprocal judgment. I don’t know who was more surprised by my outburst – her or me. 

When will I Start to Feel More Like Myself?

I felt hurried through the appointment. Everything looks good, the doctor had said. The baby’s gaining weight to their satisfaction, and doing all the things a baby should do. “Good job Mom,” the doctor said, as she patted my back. I muttered a quick “thanks” before asking, “When will I start to feel more like myself?” She threw her head back in laughter, “I don’t know, NEVER!” she exclaimed. I looked up at the nurse who chuckled and nodded in unison, “Right, welcome to motherhood,” she said. They passed me a stack of handouts about vaccinations, safe sleep, tylenol dosages and formula, and then hurried out the door just as rapidly as they’d hurried in. I felt confused and a little embarrassed; it seemed they thought I was silly for even asking such a question. But I felt so foreign inside my body, and even more with my thoughts. Maybe this really is, just how things are, I wondered. I really hoped it wasn’t truly forever though. A single tear rolled down my cheek at the thought. I quickly wiped it away, collected my things, and headed out the door. 

“That’s not how you feel … right?”

As I neared my exit off the freeway, swirling colors of flashing red and blue, and the scream of their accompanying sirens filled the air. I had to get off at another exit and find a detour home. That must have been a really serious car accident, I had thought to myself and I hoped everyone was okay. I soon learned it was not a car accident at all. A woman had jumped off the bridge onto the freeway, ending her life. She lived up the street from us, and had just had a baby herself a few months prior. My husband had gotten home from work that evening and shared the tragic news with me, its gravity hanging between us like a boulder. “How could she do that?” he wondered aloud. I just shook my head in disbelief, swaying side to side with our son in my arms, I inhaled the top of his sweet little head. My husband studied us in silence, the distance and confusion we’d both felt in the last several weeks was present as ever. I could hear the sound of him swallowing hard before he dared to ask cautiously “that’s not how you feel, right?” I quickly shut that down, “No, no, no,” I said, wagging my head side to side for emphasis. I wasn’t lying. I didn’t want to end my life. I just felt sad and overwhelmed, and sometimes, if I’m being honest, a hot, raging anger that I’d never known before in my life. And scared, so damn scared. 

The Varied Symptoms of Postpartum Depression and Anxiety

All summer long, I’d push the stroller with my son inside across that bridge and think of that mother, wondering how big her baby was now, and who was pushing her stroller and counting her milestones, and kissing her little face as she slept. I felt really grateful that I wasn’t afflicted with postpartum depression, as the newspaper called it, like she was. Meanwhile, my own intrusive thoughts and anxiety were growing by the day, and that rage – the symptom I’d never seen listed anywhere as being a part of postpartum depression – was stealing joy from so many moments and hurting my relationships with my loved ones. 

The Importance of Mental Health During Postpartum Recovery

For many more months, that’s what I thought of when I heard the words postpartum depression, the mother who jumped to her own death just down the street from my home when my son was five weeks old. It would be years before I really understood the full spectrum of postpartum mood disorders and how important mental health is for postpartum women, let alone come to terms with my own experience.  My son will be 17 this June, and I have made a career out of supporting families in the postpartum period. I still think of that woman every July, and other moments in between when I’m passing my old neighborhood on the freeway, or I’m thinking of the daughter and husband she left behind. She should be here, I always think to myself. I wish that she was. And as far as we have come in these 17 years, we still have further to go so that we can quit losing mothers to postpartum mental health disorders. 

Are you or someone you love expecting a baby? Being aware, resolving the stigma around mental health during postpartum, and gaining the right tools can help you prepare. Listen to our webinar about mental health for new parents