This week I watched a documentary that every mother and person who lives with a mother should watch (available on Netflix). The film, When the Bough Breaks: A Documentary About PostpartumDepression (2017), explores the all too misunderstood world of postpartum depression and postpartum psychosis, the many layers and
complexities, and the unfortunate toll they can take on both women and families who suffer. More specifically, the film follows the story of Lindsay Gerszt, who has fought her own trying battle with postpartum depression for over six years, who is desperately in search of recovery, and who is dedicated to helping both herself and others shed light on the severity of this often overlooked illness. As we journey with her, fellow producer Tanya Newbould and director Jamielyn Lippman, we get an in depth look at the rawness of postpartum depression and psychosis, and how they so greatly differ from the far-more-accepted “baby blues.” We meet other women who have suffered, and we meet doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, activists, husbands, and children who have all been impacted by the many facets of this disease. And most harrowing of all, we meet mothers who have been so taken by this illness they go to the greatest extremes, and commit the most shocking acts one can imagine. In the end, we learn that while most mothers can relate to some degree of the baby blues after birth, postpartum depression and psychosis are a different beast – one that can take hold and fight to the death. And as someone who did not suffer from PPD, this film resonated with me in ways I did not expect. I’ve been left with the questions of Why? How? What makes this so invisible? How can something so beautiful as motherhood be accompanied by something so ugly and evil, and seemingly so out of our control?
Being a mother, in the most basic and biological sense, is not unique or special in and of itself. Nearly half the population are or will be mothers, everyone is born from a mother, and without their ability to grow, birth and nurture babies with their bodies, the future of our world would be greatly compromised. However, motherhood, as an emotional an life changing investment, is very unique and special for each individual woman who gets to experience it. One can never predict how she will react when transforming into a mother for the very first time, or even each time thereafter. When I was pregnant with my first, unaware of what to expect in the period just after birth, a friend once said to me “you’ll cry a lot, you’ll probably think some pretty bad thoughts, but this too shall pass.” She was, in every way, reassuring me that these feelings would be normal, and simply due to the crazy hormonal, emotional and physical changes that occur in the earliest days of motherhood. I did cry a lot. In fact, I cried on the way home from the hospital, as I strapped my son safely into his carseat for the first time, and atleast once a day for several days after. In the days and weeks to follow, I slept very little, I ate very little. It hurt to pee, it hurt to walk, it hurt to nurse. I could barely get out of bed, and then felt guilty for not getting out of bed. I was happy and unhappy. But I was in love. And in all the ups and downs of this adjustment, I never once had any of those “bad thoughts.” By all accounts, my friend’s experience was postpartum depression, and mine was not. But I could not have called out that label at the time, and I’m not sure she could have either. Now that I am a mother, I want to say “it takes one to know one” but I don’t find that to be quite appropriate here, as that would suggest every mother has the same experience. What I do understand by becoming a mother, however, is that I can feel the pain of other mothers in a way I could not before. Even if their pain is vastly different from my own.
As a mother, I know well the emotional rollercoaster of learning your new identity,
bonding with your baby, and navigating new household and family dynamics as something that feels like no less than an unexpected blizzard in the middle of summer. But I also know the innate love and obsession I felt with each of my children – something that could not be broken, something that could not be replaced, something that no shadow of emotion could threaten. I consider myself one of the lucky ones to have never suffered from postpartum depression. But my bouts with the “Baby Blues” were still very real, and only with the passing of time, and greater distance between the mother I am now and the mother I was then, can I objectively see how crazy even the slightest hormonal imbalances can be. Only in retrospect can I understand that my irritability and heightened frustrations with my husband, my envy of other mothers and women having seemingly better postpartum lives than I am, and my insecurities about myself, my body and my abilities as a mother of 2, all stemmed from some level of hormonal imbalance in my postpartum recovery. And while these waves of doubt and moments of anxiety were slight and few and far between, to me, in the moment, they just seemed like a natural part of the journey. So my question is, if having the “baby blues” is widely understood as “normal and expected,” then where is the recognizable line of something more serious? In theory, I believe that I know myself well enough to recognize a depression, and would know how to seek the appropriate help and support if and when needed. However, as I begin to find my breath beyond the newborn fog, a fog which was not muddied or colored by PPD, I feel like a new person only after allowing the time for expected postpartum healing and recovery to pass. I can only imagine, for someone who experiences greater and more serious postpartum lows, how they can manifest before one is even aware of the dangers or repercussions. And this, I believe, is what makes postpartum depression particularly invisible, as something deemed normal until it’s not; something shamed as taboo until it’s too late; something misunderstood until consequences hit.
Now, I am not one to do much of anything “in solidarity,” or join communal movements or causes. And to that end, I am not sure I even have the right to discuss a topic such as this, because I cannot speak to it form first hand experience. However, I am a mother, and by default I am part of this community – this club that we all join when we go through the undeniably transformative experience of childbirth and motherhood. I am physically pained by the idea that a woman could take her own life, let alone her child’s, at the mercy of postpartum psychosis. Or that she could isolate herself so much that she is beyond reach, even if she is physically there. But while there is not a fiber in my being that understands how this happens, I understand why it does. I am saddened for the mother, the child, and those who love her, because all are held hostage to this unforgiving mental state. And for this cause I feel I owe it to my fellow mothers to stand in solidarity with them. This is something greater than ourselves, and something that deserves proper recognition from our community of mothers, at large. After all, “it takes one to know one,” right? No, but it does take a village. So to all the mothers who feel trapped in their bodies, who feel sad, anxious, or beyond hope – you are not alone, you are not isolated, you are not forgotten or lost to the confusing identity of motherhood. You are part of an amazing tribe of strength and support. You are surrounded by love and light. And while I don’t have an answer for any of it, nor will I try to, and while there are countless resources available that will do far more than my little words, all want to say is I know this struggle is very very real, I see you, I hear you.