Jennifer was 22 years old when she gave birth to her daughter at a hospital in Florida. She was happily married, had a job she loved, and was surrounded by a support system that she could only define as “amazing”. Her entire life she had dreamt of being a mother.
After her daughter, Kaeli, was born she slipped into a funk that she chalked up to being a tired new mother. As time went on, she realized that it wasn’t just exhaustion that was causing her to feel not quite herself.
“I was miserable. I had this perfect baby and so much love around me but I couldn’t shake the feelings of sadness. Every day was a struggle,” Jennifer said. “I wanted to be happy but doing something as simple as going to the grocery store left me feeling like a failure. I loved my daughter but I didn’t have the maternal feelings I expected to have. It was like looking at a tiny stranger all day and feeling empty. I took care of her but it was hard.”
Jennifer went through 6 months of postpartum depression before reaching out to her doctor for help. “I knew I was depressed but I didn’t want my doctor to think I was an unfit mother. My husband knew I was struggling some but I never told him the extent of how depressed I really was. I didn’t feel like I could, so I just went through the motions.”
Her story is not uncommon, by any stretch of the imagination, but she is one of the few that actually reached out for help. According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in 8 women in the US is affected by postpartum depression. Of those women, only about 15% ever get professional treatment.
The emotional and mental struggles that so many women deal with after giving birth are deeply stigmatized and make it a challenge for them to reach out for or receive the help that could potentially save their lives. Jennifer’s reasons for putting on a brave face while fighting such an intense internal battle are similar to why millions of other women do the same: they don’t want to be judged, stereotyped, or deemed unfit as a mother.
How Language Impacts Stigma
In every stage of a woman’s life—from menarche to menopause—there are words that stigmatize her experience. And if a picture says a thousand words, then one word can perpetuate a thousand stigmas. As Jennifer’s story of postpartum depression illustrates, the stigma around postpartum depression, otherwise classified as a postpartum mood “disorder”, holds a lot of weight.
Often, words are misconstrued from their dictionary definition and enter our daily lexicon in a way that affects how we talk, feel, think, and act about what they describe. The stigmatization of postpartum mood disorders is largely due to the societal beliefs of mental health as a whole, as well as the negative connotations that the word “disorder” holds.
Using the word disorder to describe postpartum depression or anxiety causes us, as a whole, to assume that someone who does not struggle with depression or anxiety is “normal” and someone who does is “abnormal” or “disordered”. This type of language can be easily blamed for creating a barrier between those who need help and the help that is available to them.
Why Postpartum Depression is Not a Disorder
Giving birth is an intense experience, both physically and mentally. While your doctor is likely to give advice on how to allow your body to heal physically—no exercise or sex for 6 weeks, proper caring of any incisions or tears—it’s rare that you will be given the same instructions for your mental and emotional health. The lack of education around what our bodies go through hormonally during and after pregnancy can lead us to feel that something is wrong with us if we experience emotional struggles that are related to our child or life in general.
What we need to be taught is that, just like a physical illness, postpartum depression is a matter of cause and effect.
In an article by The Atlantic, maternal brain researcher Pilyoung Kim explains that a set of neurons in the brain, called the amygdala, is responsible for much of a mother’s thoughts and actions. This area of the brain is connected to “emotional reactions like fear, anxiety, and aggression. In a normal brain, activity in the amygdala grows in the weeks and months after giving birth...an enhanced amygdala make her hypersensitive to her baby’s needs”.
The growth of the amygdala, much like every other part of our brain, is affected by the hormones it receives. A lack of oxytocin, which helps a mother feel connected to her child and promotes happiness, could prevent the amygdala from growing as expected. This, combined with the fluctuating levels of hormones that occur during and after pregnancy can result in feelings of loneliness, guilt, worthlessness, anxiety, overwhelm, emptiness, and/or a lack of affection for your child, among other symptoms.
Hormones play an integral role in every part of a woman’s life. Starting when you get your first period, a combination of hormones is constantly rising, falling, and stabilizing to allow for ovulation, fertilization, and menstruation. As these hormones fluctuate, your body and mind undergo changes that range from slight, like mild cramps and moodiness, to severe, like depression, anxiety, and intense uterine cramping. After giving birth, those hormones fluctuate in different ways f but the result is still the same—your mind and body are affected.
Understanding this helps to illustrate the fact that experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety (or any other type of hormonal condition) is not a matter of being perceived as weak or confused, as the word “disorder” suggests. This merely indicates that postpartum depression should be treated by a doctor, just as any physical condition would be.
How We Can Make a Difference
With all of this information, it’s impossible to look at those suffering from postpartum depression or anxiety and say that they are abnormal. Considering how many women suffer from these emotional struggles, it’s a safer bet to say that it is to be expected.
Will taking the word “disorder” out of phrases regarding postpartum depression and anxiety help alleviate the condemnation of those who suffer? Absolutely. In Jennifer’s case, she explains “if there wasn’t such a stigma on having a mental “disorder”, I would have probably sought help sooner. The last thing any mother wants is to admit that she thinks she’s failing.”
Even more importantly than removing the word disorder (the medical use of the term makes that unlikely), is to bring these issues into the light, making it clear that there is nothing wrong with having feelings of depression or anxiety. There shouldn’t be fear around addressing something so normal, so common. Even if it starts with confiding in one close friend, having a conversation about what you’re going through can ease the burden and help other women feel more comfortable addressing their own struggles. It’s so important that we, as women, act as a vocal support system when it comes to taboo discussions about motherhood.