Stigma sucks. Stigma is the reason so many moms don’t talk about postpartum depression. The reason they struggle in silence. The reason they don’t ask for help and get the treatment they need to get better. The reason they would rather pretend life is perfect. The reason they take their own lives. Did you know that of the hundreds of thousands of women who suffer from a postpartum mood disorder, only 15 percent of them get treated? How heartbreaking and outrageous is that? 1 in 7 women who give birth each year experience symptoms resulting from a postpartum mood disorder. That’s close to 1 million women annually having some form of mental illness after the birth of their babies and close to 850,000 women not receiving the help they need to get better. That’s way TOO MANY women. Postpartum Progresss, Inc. reports that more women will suffer from postpartum depression and related illnesses in a year than the combined number of new cases for men and women of tuberculosis, leukemia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimers disease, lupus, and epilepsy. I bet people with these illnesses usually admit they are sick and seek professional care.
Yet, women with postpartum depression, a real and treatable illness, deny themselves the support they need. Whether or not they realize their illness is temporary and gets better with treatment, they don’t want anyone to know how they are feeling. Why does this happen? The answer is: stigma. Why don’t all moms understand they have a common illness that so many other moms get too? Stigma. Why don’t they talk about their experiences after they do get better? Stigma. Why aren’t women educated about postpartum depression and its risk factors during pregnancy? Stigma.
When I got pregnant, I knew exactly the type of mother I would be. Unfortunately my vision of motherhood was based on the “Pinterest Mom.” Facebook and Instagram pictures of moms always smiling with and gushing over their children made me think that every mom experienced feelings of euphoria and an intense, all-consuming love when their babies were born. Even moms I knew would talk about the arrival of their baby and becoming a mother as the most amazing, magical moment of their lives.
I had no clue I might feel overwhelmed, exhausted, sad, anxious, and indifferent to my newborn because no one told me those feelings often come with new motherhood too. I couldn’t understand why I didn’t feel the magic when my son was born. Or why I thought I had made a terrible mistake becoming a mom. Or why I wanted to stay in bed for the rest of my life and had no interest in bonding with that adorable little boy in the next room. Why was everybody winning at motherhood while I miserably failed? What was wrong with me? And what would everyone else think about me when they learned about my feelings?
These negative beliefs are why so many women with postpartum depression keep it to themselves. Because of these fairy tale stories of motherhood they assume to be true, they think there is something wrong with them when their version doesn’t fit. They don’t want anyone to know they don’t feel flooded with joy about the arrival of their babies. They don’t want to admit they don’t immediately feel connected to their babies. They feel ashamed and don’t want to be judged, so they choose to suffer in silence and fake a smile instead.
What if we could change this? What if we started talking about postpartum depression more? What if we actively spread awareness about just how common maternal mental illness is and the treatment options that are available? What if we stopped pretending? What if we shared with each other the difficult, messy parts of motherhood and honestly acknowledged our struggles? What if we stopped believing moms are supposed to be perfect and capable of doing everything by themselves? What if we started promoting the idea that it’s okay to ask for help because raising a child actually does take a village and we all need to find ours?
We could bring awareness to the experience of having postpartum depression. We could lessen the stigma and eventually cause it to disappear. Moms wouldn’t have to be afraid of being judged for having a postpartum mood disorder. They wouldn’t feel ashamed. They wouldn’t feel alone. They would feel comfortable asking for help and accepting treatment. They would recognize their symptoms, understand the cause of their feelings, and know what to do about them. They would get better and want to share their experiences to help and educate others. Lives would be saved.
Various dictionaries define stigma as “a mark” of some sort. A mark of shame. A mark of discredit. A mark of disgrace. Let’s change the definition. Let’s be the definers because why should anyone else standing on the outside of our story—our struggle—our pain get even the slightest say in the meaning of what we are going through.
When almost one million moms experience some form of postpartum depression each year, it shows we are not alone. We are in amazing company. We are in it together. We can be brave together and strong for each other. We can swap out the mark of shame for the mark of a warrior mom. The mark of a woman who asks for help when she needs it, fights to get better, and courageously tells her story to normalize the struggle for those that come after her.