Postpartum Depression: the Danger of ‘Bad Mother’ Stigma

I felt so trapped, like I had a made a huge mistake in having my child.

It’s heart-wrenching to imagine any mother having to say these words about her own child merely days after giving birth. But while interviewing Serena*, a young, resilient, postpartum depression (PPD) survivor last year, I was taken by surprise by this phrase.

Serena’s story about her struggles as a mother suffering from PPD were poignant. From difficulties getting out bed and taking care of herself, to a severe emotional disconnection from her own child and family, Serena suffered for weeks after giving birth to her first child. She felt unsupported and, after hearing accounts of mothers who were enjoying motherhood, she soon labeled herself a “bad mom” which caused her depression to deepen further.

It was not until she found a support group with other women going through similar struggles that she regained her strength and spirits. In the peer group, she found solace in knowing she wasn’t alone and that she was not indeed, a bad mother. The women who Serena interacted with in the group shared and learned techniques for overcoming their PPD and Serena benefitted and ultimately gained her life back. She no longer labels herself a “bad mom” and feels free to express some of the real difficulties she faced while transitioning into motherhood.

Serena’s experience is more common than you might imagine. 1 in 7 women are said to suffer from symptoms of PPD – depression that occurs after childbirth. Unlike Serena, however, only 15% of them ever get care. This leaves millions of women without treatment or support for a disorder that cripples them and plagues their lives. While talking to Serena, I often found myself wondering about how much more manageable PPD would have been for her had she been able to express her emotions and feelings. But due to the fear of being stigmatized for what seem like “unusual thoughts”, Serena suffered in silence for weeks.

The problem with this stigma is that it originates very early on. I can distinctly recall being taught that motherhood is a blessing. With media, social networks and familial conversations, I, along with countless other women, grew up with a narrative that portrays motherhood as a natural bonding process. Rarely, until recently, did I consider the pressures associated with not being able to fill the expectations of being a “good” mother. Not until I talked to Serena a few months ago did I realize how the stereotypes lead to a stigmatization, which makes PPD, other postpartum mood disorders and often even the everyday tasks of motherhood difficult to talk about.

As I conversed with more mothers who had suffered from postpartum mood disorders, each one of their experiences cut deeper than the last. Every woman mentioned having to bottle up her emotions and recalled blaming her own self. Instead of acknowledging their likely genetic predispositions or the imbalance of hormones as the real causes, they pointed fingers at their own characters, which worsened their condition.

As a society, it is time for us to reduce the stigma and turn the narrative of constant perfect motherhood around, so that women can feel unafraid to talk about the very real disorders that affect their lives. So that, on an even broader level, we can liberate women and free them from the chains of unrealistic standards. This is a goal that we can all partake in. We can read up on PPD, share our knowledge with others, and often simply offer a listening ear to mothers who need it. Most importantly, we can donate to organizations who are already making strides in a positive direction (Postpartum Progress, Postpartum Support International).

Being a mom is not easy and it’s time we portray this reality. Going forward, my hope is that our combined efforts can raise awareness and bring PPD to the forefront of care. Implementing simple steps can provide an outlet for every woman to open up and share her pain, so that she does not have to suffer for as long as Serena did.

*name has been changed for confidentiality purposes

Photo Credit: Bridget Coila, Flickr