Rochelle expected her maternity leave with her third child to be much simpler than her time spent at home following the births of her first two babies.
Not long after her first baby was born, she and her partner separated. During her third pregnancy, she and her husband were both in school and working full-time jobs. But this time, even though she had two children, who are now eight and four, to care for in addition to a newborn, she had a full three months off from work, her husband’s full-time job covered the bills, and she was settled in a comfortable house. But a few weeks after she brought the baby home, Rochelle realized things weren’t right.
“I would just sit in the dark. And because I was breastfeeding, I would just make sure I had enough water. So I would get the water for the day, the Pampers, the wipes, but we just sat there. At first, I would try to hide it from my husband. I would turn on the light or the TV as he was coming in, but then I got tired of that.”
She and her husband had vacations planned, and she wasn’t looking forward to any of it. Her daughter was craving her attention, but coloring felt like too much. Her son’s behavior started to suffer because she couldn’t muster the energy to discipline. She got angry with her husband for little things, like leaving an empty bowl on his nightstand, and at times felt like she hated him.
When she took the baby to the pediatrician for his one-month appointment, the doctor walked Rochelle through a series of questions meant to screen new moms for postpartum depression. Rochelle, a social worker, knew how to answer the questions to make the doctor think everything was fine – but stopped herself at the last minute and answered honestly.
“I know how to beat the screen. So I was about to lie, but I didn’t. I knew something was wrong, but growing up in African American communities, mental health is not addressed. You don’t get help – you get it together. But I really needed help.”
Rochelle’s pediatrician referred her to AHN Women’s Behavioral Health, and she started working with a therapist to address postpartum depression. But Rochelle grew skeptical, and eventually stopped going.
“He gave me some techniques I was learning in my master’s program. Everything he was telling me I already was learning, so I thought I could do this on my own and quit paying my co-payment. I needed somebody who understood that I already know the clinical side of this but I can’t treat myself.”
Shortly after she stopped going, a nurse practitioner called to follow up and asked Rochelle some of the postpartum mental health screening questions again. She scored high, and admitted she needed to come back. This time, she was paired with a therapist who connected with her instantly.
“Rebekah is everything I needed. She is non-judgmental. I say some of the craziest things, and her eyebrow doesn’t raise. She really was supportive.”
At first, Rochelle refused medication. But when she started having suicidal thoughts, she called Rebekah immediately and came in to see her. Together they came up with a plan, and Rochelle started taking the medication. At first, she was so ashamed she didn’t tell her husband, but eventually the pieces started to fall into place and today Rochelle feels like herself again.
Looking back, Rochelle thinks it’s possible she experienced postpartum depression and anxiety with her first two children, but she had so much on her plate with the separation and moving, then full time school and work, that she had trouble identifying symptoms of postpartum mental health issues amidst the heavy stress of the time.
Rochelle says that as a social worker, she plans to pay more attention to signs of postpartum depression and anxiety in the moms she encounters at work. She says it’s something that’s capable of breaking up families, and she’s grateful she got the help she needed to help herself and her family.
“If I’m not okay and if I’m not whole, I can’t be a good mother, I can’t be a good wife. That felt like failure. Now my daughter is always complimenting me. We built a game room in the basement together, and afterward she said, ‘Mom, I missed you.’”
In Her Words
When I first begin to think that I had postpartum depression, I was in denial. The stigma connected to the diagnoses has always been negative. Those who have had it were usually in the news for killing their children and society attacked the truth of the claim. So, accepting such a label came with the feeling of defeat and being a bad mother. How could I, Rochelle have postpartum depression? I felt guilty for the way I felt because I was blessed to have the ability to birth a child and had a husband who was a hands-on partner and parent. I had just graduated with my bachelor’s degree in social work and worked for a child protective service in my local county. I had provided children a safe place to live, and worked with parents who had different mental health issues. Yet I found myself depressed, sitting in the dark with no television, barely eating with a newborn baby and breastfeeding.
When I googled postpartum depression, I didn’t match what the internet described it to be. I didn’t want to kill my baby. I still enjoyed parenting my other two children and it explained nothing about starting to strongly dislike your spouse for lack of understanding. From this point, only two weeks after giving birth, I decided I would suffer in silence and get over this emotional hump by myself. My plan to avoid addressing my feelings and hide that I sat in the same spot all day after dropping the children off at school until my husband returned from work was this: turn on the television and find the strength to be happy to see him and the children when they got home. Sadly, the more I hid the feelings, the worse the depression became.
One day as my husband came into the house, he asked me ”have you been sitting there all day in the dark?” I said yes, but he didn’t make anything big out of the answer. I attempted to address my feelings with other family and friends. They either downplayed my feelings or expressed the seriousness of postpartum depression and how I could be involuntarily committed into a mental health facility. There I sat for another week, screaming literally on the inside and outside for help. I am considered the “strong friend” so at my moment of weakness, nobody thought I had an excuse to not clean, cook, or bathe. They thought I’d shake the feeling in no time. My mother and friends kept saying that I should just stop breastfeeding. That made me very angry because the last thing I needed was another reason to feel defeated and like a bad mother.
It wasn’t until I took the baby to his 1 month check-up and his doctor gave me the postpartum depression screening that I sat asking myself “do you really want the help or not?” In the African American community, mental health isn’t addressed. Those who do address it are labeled as crazy. Being in the field of social work gave me the knowledge that if I was honest on the screening exposing my mental health crisis, the doctor and I were then held responsible for the information. I completed the screening honestly and felt relieved of the mental prison I sat in everyday alone because no one understand the thoughts that ran through my head. The doctor and the nurse walked back in the exam room and I saw the alarm on their faces. They recommended I contact my OB-GYN who referred me to the Women’s Health Behavioral Center at AHN. Finally, someone heard my silent cry for help.
Throughout my time receiving counseling for postpartum depression, things got worse before they got better. I refused medication for a year. My marriage felt most of the effects and I even purchased divorce papers. My counselor and close family and friends talked me off that ledge, but I felt as if my husband didn’t understand and wasn’t supportive of my current mental state. Just like I did, he did his research on postpartum depression and he didn’t believe I had it because I didn’t match the criteria. It wasn’t until I began to have suicidal thoughts that he realized it was deeper than just mood swings. Those suicidal thoughts became worse by the day until finally, I texted my sister something that frightened her. Once I got to the children’s school, one of the teachers asked me if I was ok and I broke down crying. I told her about my suicidal thoughts. From there, my husband and sister talked to me and I called my counselor to agree to medication. Today, I’m able to look back and see that my husband was very supportive with the knowledge he was given. I’m happy we were able to get back on track, even stronger than before. This experience did leave me to wonder, how many marriages end due to untreated postpartum depression? And, where are the support groups for the husbands and mates that have a partner experiencing such an emotional diagnosis?
I enrolled into a university for my master’s degree in social work. In one of my courses, I was required to write about a mental health diagnosis. I chose postpartum depression just to gain more information and was shocked by the results. The fact that there is no clear indicator how one develops postpartum depression was mind blowing. Throughout my postpartum counseling, I have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Major Depressive Disorder, and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, all of which stem from the trauma of my childhood. Although I am in a better mental space and was able to heal from some of the childhood trauma on this unexpected journey, I am still left with unanswered questions. One of the major questions is if I wouldn’t have experienced such childhood trauma, would I have still experienced postpartum depression? Is my daughter likely to experience it even though she doesn’t have the childhood trauma? And as a social worker, is treating postpartum depression through therapy enough if we still don’t have enough information on what causes it? Either way, the only thing I can do is share my honest experience with other women to let them know suffering in silence is no longer an option. Heal sister.