Nearly 10 years ago, Brooke Shields made headlines when she wrote a book about her experience with postpartum depression. I had never heard of such a thing. I thought that mothers obviously all just fall in love with their babies immediately. The maternal bond is so strong that, to protect their children, moms move cars, mountains, whatever. So it was shocking to hear a woman admit that she had instead envisioned her baby thrown against a wall and herself jumping out a window.
What was more shocking, though, is that after I gave birth in November, I completely understood.
In the darkest days after my son, Oscar, was born, I understood a lot of things that are more violent and disturbing and shameful than I’m willing to ever say out loud. Every moment of my newborn’s life, he seemed miserable. Nursing was excruciatingly painful and wasn’t going well. I kept thinking that it would be months before I’d really sleep again. I was giving him everything I had, emotionally and physically, but it wasn’t enough. My baby still seemed to hate me.
Every time I fed him — which seemed to be constantly — I’d cry big, fat tears and just repeat my mantra: “Mama’s sorry. Mama’s sorry.” My husband scolded that I had nothing to be sorry for. But I did.
I was sorry that I felt like I was starving him because breastfeeding wasn’t going well. I was sorry that I wasn’t strong enough to get through his birth without drugs and a vacuum. I was sorry that I couldn’t figure out how to soothe him. I was sorry that I kept thinking I had ruined my life.
I reached my nadir after a visit to the pediatrician. It ended with a referral to a therapist and a postpartum depression diagnosis soon after. I worried a lot about the cost of seeing a counselor, but my parents and my husband insisted that forgoing treatment wasn’t an option. They were right: I needed to be healthy, for myself and for Oscar. Fortunately for me, mental health treatment is completely covered under my health plan, so talking with the therapist who got me through the scariest time of my life was completely free.
I think about this experience every time I hear people complain about the Affordable Care Act, because the law’s rules about mental health coverage make it possible for people like me to get to the other side of postpartum depression. The ACA says that by 2015 mental health treatment has to be covered on par with other medical visits. But many plans, like mine, are already complying, and millions more people will have access within a year.
I’m speaking up about my experience because some businesses are trying to interfere with the health care their employees can access and because hearing other people’s stories was one of the only things that kept my head above water.
Postpartum depression isn’t something that’s easy to talk about. It’s anathema to the image we have in our minds about what motherhood will be like. What’s the image on the cover of parenting books? Is it a pallid, desperate, red-eyed woman clutching a screaming baby, or is it a beautiful mother in a rocking chair looking lovingly down at her peaceful child?
I know there are countless women out there who have gone through postpartum depression or who will go through it. I hope they speak up about how important mental health coverage is.
But mostly, I hope they have access to the help they need, like I did. Because, as it turns out, Oscar never hated me. He’s a sweet, smiling guy, and we’re all gonna be fine.
Hannah Moulton Belec is the AAUW Outlook magazine senior editor. She loves writing and talking about film and feminism.