“I want to go sit in the woods all day and cry,” I whispered to my husband. We were sitting on our bed in the early evening, our 5-week old daughter in a tenuous sleep in her bassinet after the hour of walking, shh-ing and rocking that we had to repeat after each feeding.
I didn’t mean it metaphorically. I meant it literally.
I was trying to explain how I felt as a new mom, but no words seemed right. Exhausted, frustrated, overwhelmed, sad … I had said all this to everyone who would listen. Their responses were always the same; something along the lines of taking time for myself, getting away from the baby for a few hours, doing something I wanted to do.
But when I thought about what I wanted to do, what I absolutely would do if the disturbingly cold March weather would have permitted, was hike out into the woods, sit down under the leafless trees and cry. For hours. All day.
I looked at my husband through the tears that seemed to be constantly welling in my eyes since our daughter was born. He took a long beat.
“I think you might have postpartum depression,” he said.
As someone who had experienced depression in the past, I’d spent time during my pregnancy trying to come up with a game plan for the possibility it would return in some form, postpartum.
I was buoyed by the fact that a once little-talked-about issue was coming into the light. I’d read the articles from popular celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Adele, grateful that these women were choosing to use their positions of power to be candid and honest about something so many women experience. I’d watched an array of television shows, happy to see how postpartum depression had gone from not being discussed at all to being touched upon (Hannah’s fear and anxiety in the finale of ”Girls”) to becoming worthy of entire episodes (Rainbow seeking therapy and support for named PPD in ”Black-ish”).
But when the actual depression hit, when the crying became all day, every day for reasons I could not articulate, when my anxiety spiraled to a fever pitch about everything from my daughter’s sleep habits to what type of baby water to buy, when it felt like my life would never regain any sense of structure or routine, when guilt over not “mom-ing” enough kept me awake at night, staring at the ceiling, when the feelings of sadness and anger and panic continued far beyond the two-week long “baby blues” all the books assured me was normal, I knew I could not rely on the it-gets-better narratives of other women or the one-episode throwaway plots of television shows.
I knew what I needed was therapy. I knew what I needed was a professional. I knew what I needed was help.
But what I didn’t know was just how difficult getting that help would be.
Everything I’d heard about postpartum depression led me to believe the hardest thing about it was recognizing you were suffering. Stigma and shame were referenced over and over again as major blockades in the way of treatment. Real-life stories of women with PPD as well as the fictionalized accounts on television consistently followed a single linear narrative: struggle, realization, diagnosis and treatment, relief.
At first, I was proud of myself. I was aware that I was struggling. I had realized I needed help. I had a good job with insurance and lived in a major city ― surely finding a therapist for diagnosis and treatment leading to sweet relief wouldn’t be that hard.
But it turns out for all the “talking about it” we are consistently praising ourselves for as a society, we are failing, woefully, to do anything about it for a vast majority of women.
I’m sure, for many women, the shame of postpartum depression is a very real reason for not seeking treatment. But it’s not the only barrier. There are communities (on Reddit, on Facebook, on Twitter) filled with women like me who know they are suffering from it. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the world has responded with a flood of resources.
Cost of treatment, I quickly realized, was the largest hurdle. After Googling options, I called two centers that specialized in motherhood/parenthood: The Seleni Center, a nonprofit organization with a mission of “dedication to supporting the emotional health of individuals and families during the family building years in order to unlock the potential of future generations,” and The Motherhood Center of New York, which provides “supportive services for new and expecting moms, including a range of treatment options for women suffering from perinatal mood and anxiety disorders,” according to its website.
For individual sessions with a therapist, both quoted me prices in the hundreds of dollars. (I will say here, the intake counselor at The Seleni Center I spoke with did go above and beyond in her attempts to help, including calling my insurance provider to see if a portion might be covered as well as trying to negotiate their price down. However, like many mental health services, treatment still remained financially unfeasible.)
It’s something that celebrities sharing their experiences in glossy magazine pages don’t have to worry about, and television shows who pop their depressed-new-mom characters into a chic therapists’ offices never bother to address. But despite the reduced stigma and increased discussion around the need for mental health care, studies still report that cost is often the most significant block to receiving treatment.
Add to that the astounding (and often surprising and unavoidable) bills, even with insurance, after giving birth, and the costs associated with raising a baby, and it can make spending anything on your own mental health an impossibility at worst, or a frivolous indulgence at best.
Both centers did direct me to their group sessions ― a significantly cheaper option at between $10 and $25 for an hour of discussion with a group of other new moms, their babies, and either a clinician or an LMSW. But this, too, proved difficult.
Though experts say it is OK to bring a newborn outside, they also recommend avoiding crowded areas where the baby might be exposed to sick people. This quickly ruled out taking my young daughter on the subway, especially (as my pediatrician reminded me when I inquired) during the worst flu season. In any event, I could barely manage to take her to the grocery store down the street in the weeks after giving birth ― a far cry from the physical and mental challenge of tackling an hour on the train with two subway transfers.
There was an ineffability to this feeling that was overwhelming me every day. It wasn’t just sad. It wasn’t just anxious. It wasn’t just being overwhelmed by new responsibilities and life changes. I felt outside myself.
Many mothers must return to work mere weeks after giving birth due to the lack of mandated maternity leave in the United States. They often find themselves back on the job while still dealing with bleeding and broken bodies. Many employers have shown they will do the bare minimum in allowing women to recover from the well-documented and obvious physical aspects of childbirth, but I have little confidence that a majority would ever voluntarily allow new mothers to take time off in the middle of the day to attend group therapy sessions for less visible mental challenges.
There were some free options that required no travel. A New York City confidential toll-free helpline promised to connect me to resources I needed. But as my hand hovered over the call button after punching in the number, I hesitated. The place I was in felt dark and deep, and the idea that a stranger sitting at a call center could actually help seemed, in my mind, not just illogical and unreasonable, but a downright fantasy. I never called.
The Parent Helpline was also listed, but it’s supposedly for parents who are at risk of harming their kids ― a description that felt too dramatic for what I was experiencing.
There was an ineffability to this feeling that was overwhelming me every day. It wasn’t just sad. It wasn’t just anxious. It wasn’t just being overwhelmed by new responsibilities and life changes. I felt outside myself, a ghost I didn’t recognize, in a body that still felt heavy with the weight of giving birth. My mind knew I loved my daughter but couldn’t and didn’t understand how I was a mom. And it lingered like a fog descending on my apartment, hazy and gray no matter how many happy moments managed to break through.
Everything, every day, all day, just felt too scary, too lonely, too hard. It’s this unnamable, unknowable feeling that makes PPD so dangerous, and why we need so much more than tweets that tell people to “ask for help” and resources that put the onus on the one suffering to find help.
In the end, I think I was incredibly lucky. I have a job with an understanding supervisor who allowed for scheduling flexibility in returning to work, giving me time to adjust to my new life with a newborn. I have a husband who was able to take paternity leave and watch the baby while I went to the single therapy session I could both afford and find time to attend.
I live in a parent-friendly section of a major city that offered a new mom support group within walking distance (though still in the middle of the afternoon and for a price.) My own parents were close by and helped tremendously during those first sleep-deprived, overwhelming months. I can afford child care.
Somehow, this combination of assistance and understanding was enough to carry me through the newborn phase and the worst parts of the depression that came with it. My daughter is now 5 months old, and I no longer cry daily.
But I’m angry. Society shouldn’t be allowed to continuously pat itself on the back for simply acknowledging this incredibly widespread and common experience (1 in 9 women experience symptoms of postpartum depression).
And getting help certainly shouldn’t be based on luck. If we’re going to recognize postpartum depression in our entertainment, we must also commit to creating concrete avenues for those actually suffering to receive help.