“This is an illness that takes away a woman’s ability to access joy, right at the time she needs it the most.” - Dr. Katherine Wisner
The first time I heard of Postpartum Depression (PPD) was when I took a Regional Prenatal Class in Toronto a few months before my son was born.
My reading material described PPD as an onset of emotional lows characterised by mood swings, crying episodes, anxiety, and sadness shortly after childbirth.
I remember giving it a cursory read and unconsciously categorising myself in the group of women who will be unaffected by this disorder. I was wrong.
PPD is dark and debilitating, made worse by the constant social stigma surrounding it. I had never felt sadness like I did after I had my child.
No one I knew suffered from it. In fact, I came from a long line of strong and healthy child-rearing women whose maternal contributions had cultivated our family tree extensively in length and breadth.
Then why did I suffer from it? It felt like a dent in my identity as a woman. Why was I feeling sadness instead of joy? It felt downright shameful for me to feel this way.
I gave natural birth to a healthy baby boy a day before my scheduled due date. The baby’s height and weight was on the higher end of the average – he had even gained a few ounces at the time of discharge only 24 hours later! The doctors were beyond satisfied with both of us and I was happier than words could describe.
Soon after my husband and I brought our son home, the problem began. I didn’t know what the problem was; I just knew there was something wrong.
For starters, I didn’t want to hold my baby. I tried my hardest to put as many excuses so I wouldn’t be left alone with him.
We met every two hours for him to feed but as soon as he was done, I would find someone to hold him so I could go to the bathroom.
Once I was in the bathroom, I just stayed there, swaying back and forth, asking myself why I hadn’t realised the level of difficulty involved in having a child.
The weight of my decision to have a baby seemed enormous enough to crush me. To say that I was feeling overwhelmed was a gross understatement.
There was sadness in my very bones. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, I cried when the baby cried, I cried when he slept because I knew he would wake up soon. I cried all the time.
Finally, three weeks in, I told my mother how I felt. Her eyes wide, she stared at me in shock and disbelief. “Repent at once,” she demanded. “How can you be so ungrateful?”
But she was missing the point. I didn’t feel ungrateful; I felt nothing. No love or emotion. And that was the problem. I had no bond with the baby. He was just another member of the household and nothing more.
This feeling of detachment made me feel even worse. Where was my maternal instinct? All his cries sounded the same to me; I couldn’t tell if he needed a diaper change or another feeding.
To me, my child could have been another woman’s baby. And that feeling terrified me. I felt I had a better bond with him when he was in my womb, kicking my belly like clockwork every afternoon at 2:45 pm or waking me up in the early hours of the night to visit the bathroom.
I was filled with warm anticipation for his arrival. And now that he was here, I didn’t even feel a fraction of what I did before.
Then one day, a little over four months after my son’s birth, at the behest of my husband, I found myself searching for a specific video on YouTube. It was a simple request; he couldn’t find a viral video and asked me to look for it instead.
And that spark of pursuit I felt while trying to find the video was refreshing; I hadn't felt that in months. I missed the drive. I missed feeling useful. I missed feeling functional.
I realised that I was feeling again - the numbness that had shrouded over me was beginning to wear off. It felt like a cool breeze following endless dog days of summer.
And almost like a switch had gone off in life, I felt things start to improve. Every day the fog would get thinner and thinner.
I started enjoying feedings, I wanted to bath my baby every night, I started reading him books at bedtime and making countless videos of him doing the same thing everyday.
It was as if someone had added a stream of singular colour in an otherwise black-and-white painting.
Each day it felt as if an additional colour was being added to my static painting until finally by the time I hit six months, my life was back in Technicolor again.
The thoughts of depression seemed almost comical. I couldn’t believe that I had had the audacity to question my decision to have a child.
He was perfect and he was mine. His laughter brought me happiness; I looked for any excuse to give him an extra cuddle.
He was, in every sense, my pride and joy. How could I have ever thought otherwise?
The difference was like day and night. And it started so suddenly. Once I was able to see clearly, I went back to my readings from the prenatal class about PPD – the ones I had given a cursory read assuming it would never happen to me.
Once in hindsight, I wished I had taken the time to understand this section of my reading material more carefully. It outlined everything I needed to know about the time after my baby was born: what I would feel, what I could do to mitigate the depression, and who I should talk to.
When I was in the midst of this depression, I chalked up my feelings to a number of reasons. As a professional woman, I wrongfully assumed that it was because I had become too used to an alternative to the family lifestyle.
My riddled mind made me think that my unhappiness stemmed from wanting to remain childless because the childless life seemed so much more appealing.
I felt that the luxury of time I initially always had, and the cardio my brain received everyday at work, was now gone. It was replaced with a very repetitive lifestyle that didn’t charm me.
There was no distinction between day and night, weekday and weekend. Life was a cyclical, looped binary of my baby’s eat, poop and sleep cycle.
As a South Asian woman, I riled in guilt for weeks about feeling this way. How else was I supposed to feel at the birth of my first child?
But I was wrong. This was the depression talking – fueling fire to an already rampant arson set by the mismanagement of expectations. Having a kid is life altering and challenging and very different from a corporate 9-to-5 job.
And like all challenging things, it needed some getting used to. Having a child is just as rewarding as it is life changing. I wish I understood this sooner.
I also wish that I had taken the time to understand that PPD had nothing to do with my pre-baby expectations, or my anatomy, or creed, or race, or genetic build up. And it had happened to me due to no fault of my own. A childbearing woman cannot plan it, nor can she prevent it if she happens to fall into that 10-15% bracket.
Feeling the blues after your baby is born isn’t something to be taken lightly. Nor is it a cue for friends and relatives to tell you to ‘lighten up’ or ‘just be happy’.
This is a mental health issue that often goes unnoticed simply because people assume they shouldn’t feel this way.
What can be done is a series of actions taken by those closest to you. Educate those you live with to watch out for signs of the baby blues.
The sooner you can get the help you need, the sooner you can go back to caring for the one individual who needs you most – your baby.
After all, denial is its own form of self-harm and especially when you have a baby who is completely dependent on you.
Also read: Neonatal mortality: are we doing enough?
When I look back, I remember the day my son was born as being this monumental milestone. It certainly was, but it wasn’t nearly as important as the weeks that followed when we were trying to get to know each other.
The truth is, for the first few weeks, I wasn’t able to do anything at all. He needed me, and I needed help. The kind of help that wouldn't have been hard to find if I had gone looking for it, had I admitted there was a problem.
Always remember: you know yourself best; if you feel there is a problem, talk to someone about it. Reach out to the support groups and connect with other women who have felt the same way. Tell your doctor you feel this way at your sixth week follow up or even sooner.
There is more than enough support available for women suffering with PPD. The sooner you get back on your feet, the better it will be for both you and your child.
Header design: Marium Ali
The Agha Khan Hospital provides Prenatal and Antenatal classes. Internationally, you can seek support and advice from the Postpartum Support International and Le Leche League International. You can also share your story with us at firstname.lastname@example.org