Identifying Postpartum Depression in the Fog of New Motherhood

Article author Beth Spitalny playing with infant

Beth Spitalny is a first-time mamma currently residing in Connecticut with her husband and son. She's a director and producer of television, film and digital content. 

This is her story about postpartum depression. 

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If my postpartum story was a movie, it would probably start with a black screen. First, you’d hear a horrible noise over the darkness. Then, we would fade in on a walk-in closet. You’d see me on the carpeted floor, collapsed in the back corner and you would realize the sound you heard was sobbing. I used to cry and scream so damn hard. Tears, snot, and drool everywhere, to the point where the audience would be ever-so-slightly uncomfortable. We would then flashback to all the bodily fluids that doctors and nurses talk about when you give birth: brown blood, red blood, blood clots, baby tar poop, baby mustard poop. Doctors and nurses talk a lot about bodily fluids when you leave the hospital after giving birth, but rarely the tears, snot, and drool of new mothers crying in their closets. 

My closet cries were a common occurrence during the first few months of motherhood. Alongside the tears was a fog and heaviness unlike anything I’d ever experienced before in my life. I’d probably shoot this part of my story on black and white film and put a filter on the lens to make everything look blurry. Spoiler alert: this was postpartum depression (PPD).

Now, being on the other side of it all and coming to the end of what would be the final act, what I find to be most surprising is how difficult it was for me to put a name to it and accept that I needed help. After all, I was someone who did know about PPD and had always been ‘in touch’ with my mental well-being before giving birth, so why was it so tough to acknowledge and accept? At this point, the movie would flashback to checkups with my OB-GYN leading up to my due date. The doctor would mention PPD and I would listen and nod. There’d be a close-up shot of the huge packet of information I was given when discharged from the hospital after giving birth, part of which covered PPD. 

But here’s the thing. When you’re trying to breastfeed for the first time, when you’re processing the sound of your newborn crying, and when you’re trying to understand what just happened to your body after birth, your mental health (unintentionally) takes a back seat. 

Stepping into motherhood is something for which no one can prepare you (and is a whole separate film that no male director should EVER dare try and make) and the unfamiliarity that comes with it is immense. And so, hearing terms like postpartum depression before giving birth is like describing the color blue to a blind person.

I think we are somewhere in act two. And things are not going well. Instead of asking for help, I spent weeks and weeks trying to figure out this heaviness and fog that was consuming my mind and body. I felt that if I ‘justified’ it and if I made sense of it, then I could overcome it: “It's winter.” “It’s a pandemic.” “I had a c-section.” “I’m an older mom.” And when things didn’t get better, I surrendered to the fact that the world had kept a horrible secret from me: I was not meant to do this. What I thought was my destiny was, in fact, the furthest thing from it.

When my son was around 4 months old, I found myself crying on the bathroom floor while on the phone with my mom. I finally admitted to her what was creeping into my mind; I wanted to disappear, and I was afraid of what I might do. I’d been sad before but never like this. The fog and the sadness felt bigger than me and that was terrifying. I knew this was not ok. This was something I could not justify.

Here is where we would fade to black. The audience would wonder if that fog ever lifted. Some would wonder if I ever felt the way I had hoped I would feel as a new mom. Maybe a few would wonder if I made it at all.

After a dramatic silence, the screen would fill with light, and slowly things would come into focus. You’d see me and my 10-month-old son in his room as sunlight streams through the window. I look down at him while changing his diaper. He babbles. He has 3 teeth. His eyes are the color of his Dad’s but the shape of them are mine. He looks at me and I smile as tears of joy fill my eyes. I marvel at how much he has grown, how much we have grown. The joy overwhelms me in the best way possible. I thank the universe for him every single day and I feel proud of the mother I am. Yes, it’s harder than I ever imagined, but I’m okay. I’m more than okay.

We flashback to that day on the bathroom floor when I hit rock bottom. And then, a montage. It’s not an easy, perfectly paced, and scored montage because things didn’t go from bad to good gracefully or quickly. But over time, they did get better. On-screen, you’d watch me email my OB-GYN and ask for recommendations for maternal health psychiatrists. You’d see that it was way too hard, but not impossible, to find the right person with whom to speak. You’d see me make excuses before finally starting therapy and watch me discover that my hospital had groups for women going through what I was going through. You’d see me start reaching out to friends, less embarrassed by my experiences. You’d hear me slowly open up about how I have really been feeling and met with similar stories from other brave moms. You’d watch my psychiatrist and I work on finding the right medication dosage. And watch me agonize over having to stop nursing my son but accepting that it’s the best decision for both of us. Towards the end of the montage, I still cry occasionally, but less and less and less. I start recognizing my old self in a new role. I blossom into the mother I once doubted even existed.

Films usually follow a 3-act structure and last around 90 minutes, but my motherhood story will keep on going. There will be plot twists, scenes with uncontrollable laughter and joy, and scenes with closet cries. But as the story continues, the part that was black and white and out of focus moves further and further into the background and is replaced with bright colors, smiles, love, gratitude, laughter, and a mother who finally gets to feel the way she and every mother deserves to feel.