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Let Me Show You What Postpartum Depression Really Feels Like


In May, which happened to be Postpartum Depression Awareness month, Kathy DiVincenzo took social media by storm when she posted a side-by-side photo depicting a mother with postpartum depression. “As someone with diagnosed postpartum depression, anxiety, and OCD,” she wrote on her Facebook page, “I feel like it’s time to show you what that can really look like, not just the side of me that’s ‘Facebook worthy.’”

It’s easy to see why the image spoke to women, especially in breaking the stigma of postpartum mood disorders. I took a similar, much less professional snapshot a few months ago, when my third child was a newborn. I was standing while nursing him, in pajamas and a robe, with messy hair, a tired look, and piled-up laundry in the background.

In an attempt to erase the camera out of the mirror selfie, I accidentally erased part of my body too, and ran with it for artistic reasons. I posted it on Instagram and jokingly called it my “emo phase.” I was being completely honest, including the levity. I was tired, and sometimes I felt I was losing my bodily autonomy, but I also felt so #blessed. I knew I was overwhelmed but I knew it would be okay and #worthit.

The Problem Is, Everyone Thinks She’s Been Here

Being a mom not suffering from postpartum depression (PPD) has been an illuminating experience. After suffering from it with my first two children, I am sure I technically have PPD with my third child, but I am on medication that controls my symptoms so well that I function as a healthy neurotypical person.

So much is clear to me now, since I have been on both sides of the coin. This is what people have been talking about. I am tired but oh, so blissful. It is chaos in my home, but I also feel like superwoman as I wrangle three children. I wish I could be more on top of things, but I give myself grace. This is young parenthood.

That is the slight danger of DiVincenzo’s post. To a depression sufferer, she has done a great service. It depicts what the sufferer feels. It shows she is not alone. But it doesn’t do a great job of advocacy. See, we’re all tired. We’ve all been up with a screaming newborn at 3 a.m. And when you’ve never experienced postpartum depression, you may look at her photo in sympathy but also with slight confusion. Because everyone feels that way sometimes: put-together on the outside but a total mess on the inside.

I believe, unfortunately, that posts like these can stigmatize postpartum mood disorders even more. It looks like a picture of someone who is going through a universal experience but just can’t (wo)man up and pull through. (See the problematic “Silence Sucks” ad campaign for another example of unintentionally adding to stigma). What would I depict if I had my own photo series? I would include something similar to DiVincenzo’s photo. Absolutely. But here are a few more.

Here’s What Every Postpartum Mom Has Not Experienced

I would depict myself hiding under a table, trembling, as all the guilt and insecurities and self-condemnation hurl around like bullets.

I would depict myself in scuba gear underwater, being unable to distinguish signal from noise—everything I see, hear, or think being completely fuzzy—and being unable to maneuver or manipulate my environment properly.

I would depict myself with open sores all over my body, wincing whenever touched.

I would depict myself as an injured combatant, trudging through muck and waste in order to survive another day, waking from a fitful sleep only to come upon another battle waging in front of me.

Let me explain what my days were like when I had two young children and uncontrolled PPD.

Take a typical exhausted mother. She is for some reason sitting on the kitchen floor, but two beautiful children crawl around her, not really causing any trouble, sweet as can be. Picture an outsider looking in on this scene, seeing the typical early days of motherhood, chuckling to herself, “Yes, been there. The days are long but the years are short.”

Now zoom into the mother’s mind. She is self-aware enough to be know the observer is looking on this scene fondly, which makes herself feel worse because it makes her struggle seem even more illegitimate and ungrateful.

Earlier that morning, she wakes, but it is as if she hadn’t rested at all. She is disoriented by the sun and the sound of a baby crying. She mindlessly puts the baby to breast while trying to blink herself awake. The toddler runs in demanding breakfast. Her husband, freshly showered, gives her a peck on the cheek and reminds her of a few needed tasks—call this person, and did you wash my shirts yet?—and lets her know he’ll be late tonight. She nods, not really hearing.

At 6 p.m. that evening she will call him wondering where he is, breaking down in tears as he explains, yet again, that he will not be home until bedtime. He will sigh in frustration—he is truly busy—and she will clam up, not wanting to burden him further.

Back to the morning. She trudges downstairs, trying to figure out what to feed the toddler. Her kitchen is a mess. The pile of dishes keeps growing. She left the chicken out overnight again. Her head thuds.

“Just today. Just get through today,” she thinks. She changes a few diapers. She feels dizzy.

She gets up in an attempt to wash the dishes, but both babies start crying. She looks at them with her soapy hands, unsure of what to do next. Panic sets in, and she gets lightheaded. “Just one minute, just one minute!” she says frantically, as the breaths come faster and faster.

She sinks to the kitchen floor as both of them start coming toward her. Now they’re crawling all over her, kissing her, needing their mom. She can’t breathe. Why won’t they stop touching me, why do they need me, I can’t do this right now—the thoughts start barreling toward her. She pushes them away angrily and they both look at her, confused. She feels like scum.

I’m So Confused About Why This Is Happening

As clarity sets in, so do the recriminations. “This is ridiculous,” she thinks. “Stop whining and take care of your children.” She puts her head in her hands and tries to plan out the rest of her day. There will need to be food. There will need to be meals. “Is anyone coming over?” she thinks. “I really need someone to come over. I need help.” No one ever comes. If they do, they just gape at the mess of the house and start talking about how this person or that person is so organized even with a new baby.

She takes a deep breath. There is will need to be food. There will need to be meals. How is she so behind on laundry?

She gets very sleepy. She just wants to take a nap. She thinks ahead. “There will be no breaks,” she thinks. The baby will be awake again all throughout the night, and even if he sleeps for an hour before it’s time for her to go to bed, her husband will want to hang out with her and be hurt if she slinks away. Everyone wants to touch her all the time. The tears start coming.

Just get through the day, just live through this day. The children start crying again. The baby needs a nap. She anticipates rocking him vigorously for an hour while the toddler zones out in front of the TV. Her phone pings. Someone has commented on a Facebook picture. “What an adorable baby,” says the message. “How is everything going?” “Fine! :)” she writes in response. Hit send. Her head seems to buzz in unison.

She looks up at the clock. It is only 9 a.m.

Do this all day, every day, for at least six months straight. That is postpartum depression.