When postpartum depression lasts beyond new motherhood

By Christy Tending

There is postpartum depression, and it seems like every single person I know is talking about how we should talk about it more. We need to talk about it. We need to destigmatize it. Those early days are so hard and how new moms need so much support. Yes and.

When you are a mom, it seems there is acceptable depression and unacceptable depression. (Mine is, by all accounts, unacceptable.) If you have the acceptable kind—the mild, baby blues, needing-a-little-cheering-up kind—it is not your fault. Since I have the unacceptable kind—the loveless, numb, hopeless kind doesn’t shift or change when your kid is out of diapers—it is considered a character defect. Evidence of a lack of love.

At all of my screenings, while pregnant and after I give birth, I’m asked the same slate of questions, trying to determine my “risk level.” They are trying to figure out if I am dangerous, if I might hurt my baby, if I might fall into a black hole and be unable to mother my child.

“What’s the difference between postpartum depression and regular depression?” I ask.

A few people chuckle, and no one is able to tell me definitively. I press on. “If I already have depression, how will I know if I have postpartum depression?” I wonder aloud if it’s extra depression, a second helping of a meal I didn’t want. No one can tell me that either.

“You’re having a baby,” they say. “How could you be depressed?”

I think to myself, “You’d be surprised.”

Moms, as it turns out, are not supposed to be depressed.

If we do develop postpartum depression, we are supposed to be saved right away. We are supposed to get the meds, the talk therapy, the support, and then be on our way. Postpartum depression is supposed to fade. It is treated as an unnatural way of being, to be corrected as soon as possible.

We do not talk about the root of why all these moms seem to experience depression in the first place. How the expectations of how we will experience and perform motherhood, especially in those early days, are impossible. We do not discuss how there is no social safety net left for people who want children in their lives. If we acknowledged the abandonment our culture commits against women when they do what they have been taught they should—have children—society would collapse in on itself.

We treat the symptom of postpartum depression rather than the illness of capitalism and patriarchy, so these mothers can get back to what is expected of them: perfection and performance.

The problem is: if it’s not postpartum depression—if it doesn’t fade, if your child is at the age when they are getting ready for school and all you want is to crawl into a dark hole all day—then it is you who is the problem. We do not talk about her. She is a mess.

The mess is me.

Moms are supposed to rebound. Our bodies are supposed to “bounce back.” We are supposed to get back to our old selves. Everything about us is supposed to be elastic. We are meant to return to our original shape, without regard for what stretched us in the first place. There is no respect for how we are remade in new motherhood. The bizarre goal seems to be making everything the way it was before, with a tiny human. (For the record, I also believed this and it is completely impossible.)

There are too many metaphors for postpartum depression and none for my regular depression, which makes people assume I’m lazy and ungrateful. For others, the fog lifts. There is light at the end of the tunnel. 

I worry I’m lazy and ungrateful a lot.

When my son was born, we hired a postpartum doula who would come to our house three days a week to help out, since my husband was back to work almost immediately. She would put the baby in the sling and let him nap on her, and make me smoothies. I would cry when she would leave.

I would bounce on the yoga ball, holding my son so he would nap in between feedings. I would cry and bounce on the ball and wonder why the love wasn’t immediate. Why I was such a mess, why I couldn’t bounce back, wondering what had happened to my old life and why I wasn’t supposed to want it anymore.

Every time he would cry, it would set my body on edge. The anxiety would rise in me, with no place to escape. I felt panicked, and my face would flush with adrenaline. The love eventually came, but it took so long I truly wondered if something was wrong with me. I knew the answer— I am built differently from the moms who bounce back—but it didn’t make it easier.

I am still kind of a mess.

There is no ending to the story. There is no “after” picture, for me, of motherhood beyond depression. It is still here, under the surface. Some days it is more fiery than others, something teeming under my skin, something simmering. Some days, it is like a piece of lint I can pick off and go about my business.

There is no warning. But there is no way to plan my son’s moods, either. There is no planning for a three-year-old’s energy. So we are a mess, a little bit, all of the time. But sometimes, my son will come up to me gently. With his perfect curls and soft cheeks, he will stretch his arm out, holding his fox stuffed animal. He will ask me quietly if I am having a hard time. He will let me smell his hair and my heart will explode with all of the things I am supposed to feel—and do, truly, deep down. 

Christy Tending (she/they) is a climate justice activist, writer, and mama living in Oakland, California with her husband, son, and two feral cats. She writes about family, mental health, sobriety, and the environment.

Image: Maria Fabrizio for STAT.

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