You've just had a baby. This should be the happiest time of your life. Yet you feel down in the dumps, anxious, irritable, hopeless. You're having trouble eating, sleeping and taking care of yourself and your baby, and you feel so alone.
You're not as alone as you think. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 1 in 5 women has postpartum depression, a serious condition that requires medical treatment. But most women don't talk about it because of feelings of shame and embarrassment.
Fortunately, some women do, including celebrities like Hayden Panettiere, Gwyneth Paltrow, Adele and Alanis Morissette, who have all come out with their postpartum depression stories. Add model and author Chrissy Teigen to the list, who, after giving birth to her daughter Luna in April 2016, dove into a depression so deep she didn't leave the house.
The following year she decided to speak out about her experience to help destigmatize the condition and relieve the shame and loneliness other mothers might feel.
How could Chrissy Teigen possibly be depressed? She's beautiful, successful and married to John Legend. She asked herself the same questions in an essay she wrote for Glamour in March of 2017. "I had everything I needed to be happy. And yet, for much of the last year, I felt unhappy."
Motherhood started off on the right foot, with an "energetic" birth complete with John Legend DJing in the delivery room, playing "Superfly" with perfect timing as baby Luna entered the world. Teigen was in love at first sight. But she was exhausted. They brought baby home to a rental house because theirs was under construction. They moved into a hotel soon after. Teigen was dragging, she felt anxious, detached and sad. She blamed these feelings on the upheaval from home and thought she would feel better when they returned to the nest.
Back to Work
But she didn't. She went back to work on "Lip Sync Battle" in August and still felt terrible. Her body ached, she had no appetite and would go days without eating and she was irritable. She snapped at people on set one minute and then burst into tears in her dressing room the next. For someone who is typically bubbly and likes joking around, this was a drastic change. She couldn't figure out what was wrong with her and chalked it up to fatigue. She thought maybe her personality had just changed with motherhood.
"When I wasn't in the studio, I never left the house. I mean, never. Not even a tiptoe outside," she wrote. "Most days were spent on the exact same spot on the couch, and rarely would I muster up the energy to make it upstairs for bed." But she had a supporting, loving husband in Legend, and he spent many nights on the couch with her for company.
Unexplained Body Aches
The physical pain was severe. "During that time my bones hurt to the core. I had to go to the hospital; the back pain was so overwhelming." The doctors couldn't figure out why. They ruled out rheumatoid arthritis or a kidney infection. Teigen felt nauseous all the time, so she saw a GI doctor. Still no explanation.
In December, she had to postpone publication of her latest cookbook. Usually, Teigen loves nothing more than to be in the kitchen, stirring, tasting, seasoning and creating delicious dishes and recipes for her husband and fans. But she couldn't stomach it. "This [second cookbook] came at the height of my losing my appetite, and the idea of having to test and taste recipes actually made me vomit." She was still spending a lot of time on the couch.
Finally, a Diagnosis
Teigen went for a routine checkup just before the holidays. "I looked at my doctor, and my eyes welled up because I was so tired of being in pain," she wrote. "Of sleeping on the couch. Of waking up throughout the night. Of throwing up. Of taking things out on the wrong people. Of not enjoying life. Of not seeing my friends. Of not having the energy to take my baby for a stroll."
Her doctor began to ask her some questions, listing symptom after symptom. "And I was like, 'Yep, yep, yep.'" And then he made a diagnosis: postpartum depression.
What Is Postpartum Depression?
The "baby blues" aren't just a collection of colors you might paint your nursery; they are the feelings of sadness and moodiness many women β up to 80 percent, according to the March of Dimes β experience in the period right after childbirth. With postpartum blues, women tend to be weepy, experience quick mood changes, have difficulty sleeping, eating and making decisions and feel overwhelmed by the tasks of motherhood. Postpartum blues typically subside on their own within two weeks.
Postpartum depression is markedly more severe. With this disorder women feel more than just sad β they feel hopeless, alone, worthless and they cry often. They have deep doubts about their ability to parent, and they have trouble eating, sleeping and taking care of themselves and their babies. Not only can this cause depression symptoms, but it can also cause crippling anxiety and panic attacks.
Other depression symptoms may include:
- Feeling distant from your baby, lack of bonding
- Racing, frightening thoughts
- Excessive anger
- Fear of being left alone with your baby
Some women may experience thoughts of hurting themselves or their babies. If you are experiencing this, it is important to seek help immediately.
Why Does Postpartum Depression Happen?
Many biological, genetic and life changes can be at play in the development of PPD, and it can be different for everyone. Fluctuating hormone levels may be partly to blame. During pregnancy, a woman's body produces greater amounts of estrogen and progesterone.
Immediately after giving birth, levels of these hormones drop down again, which can cause depression similar to premenstrual syndrome. Thyroid hormone levels may also drop, which can cause depression, irritability and problems sleeping and concentrating.
On top of that, the dramatic life change of having a baby β the overwhelm, the pressures, the lack of sleep and a sense of loss of the life you lived before pregnancy β can also lead to a downward spiral.
"We focus so much in our culture on what a blessing a child is and how a child will complete us and make us feel fulfilled that we ignore the fact that, for many women, the addition of a child means the loss of major sources of fulfillment that already existed, such as her career, hobbies, friendships and relationship with her partner," says Dr. Alison Miller, a practicing psychologist in Lutherville, Maryland.
Isolation of New Motherhood
Miller also points to the isolation new mothers face as a major contributor. In many other cultures, mothers are taken care of by female family members until they can resume normal duties β which isn't expected right away. Most mothers in this country don't have that luxury.
"Once the first couple of weeks have passed, often the visitors dry up, the partner goes back to work and a new mother faces hours upon hours of time alone in her house with a needy infant who expresses no love or appreciation and certainly cannot carry on a conversation. This isolation and pressure to return to a normal schedule is a big contributor to depression and anxiety," says Miller. "We are not meant, as humans, to do this alone."
History of Depression and Other Contributing Factors
The greatest risk factor for postpartum depression is a history of depression or other mental illness. Stress, hormonal fluctuations, lack of sleep and major life changes are triggers for depression, whether you are a new mom or not. If you have had depression at any other time in your life β even if you have been successfully treated β you risk relapse. If you were taking antidepressant medications before pregnancy and had to stop taking them during pregnancy, that is a major risk.
Other causes may include:
- Family history of mental illness
- Lack of a support system
- Marriage or money problems
- Having a spouse who is depressed or otherwise mentally ill
- Chronic health problems
- Young childbirth
- Substance abuse
- Stressful transitions, such as returning to work
Women who have multiple births, preterm births or babies with physical or neurodevelopmental deficits are also at greater risk of postpartum depression. So are minorities, immigrants and refugees who experience the added pressures of adjusting to and functioning in a new country without the support of extended family and with the additional financial concerns and cultural barriers.
Hope for Recovery
Once Teigen had a diagnosis, she felt happy, even excited. Now that she knew what was wrong with her, she could begin to heal. Her doctor put her on an antidepressant, and she started to feel better. That's when she started sharing her experience. She reached out to friends and family who she had been distant with since the birth. "I felt like everyone deserved an explanation, and I didn't know how else to say it other than the only way I know: just saying it. It got easier and easier to say it aloud every time."
But Teigen admits she still feels uncomfortable saying it, "because the word 'depression' scares a lot of people." It scared her too. She had never heard anyone talk about postpartum depression before. The words made her think of Susan Smith, the woman imprisoned for life for killing her two sons β made her think of anyone who "didn't like their babies or felt like they had to harm their children," she wrote.
She just didn't think it could happen to her. A wonderful husband, her mother nearby and a live-in nanny. What business did she have with being depressed? "But postpartum does not discriminate," according to Teigen. And no one can control it, snap out of it or heal themselves without help.
"I know I might sound like a whiny, entitled girl. Plenty of people around the world in my situation have no help, no family, no access to medical care," she wrote. "I can't imagine not being able to go to the doctors that I need."
So she decided to speak out β for her own release from the secret she was holding, but also to let other women know that they are not alone, they should not be ashamed and there is help and healing. It starts with being open about it to your family, friends and doctors, she said.
Teigen's open letter appeared in Glamour almost a year after she gave birth, and she was happy to report a significant change in her condition. "I am a much different human than I was even just in December," she wrote. After a month, the antidepressant was working well, and she was planning to begin seeing a therapist.
Although she still has her bad days, the really bad days are history. "There are weeks when I still don't leave the house for days; then I'm randomly at the Super Bowl or Grammys," wrote Teigen. Physically, she still didn't have a lot of energy, and she was still bothered by pain in her hands and wrists, although her back pain had improved. And stomaching food was still a challenge. "But I'm dealing."
Teigen's ability to "deal" was due in large part to her husband, who she repeatedly praises for his support, compassion and kindness and his many attempts to make her laugh. "He is not the goofiest guy, but he has gone out of his way to indulge my sense of humor."
If you have that love and support at home, rely on it. Open up to your spouse and ask for help. If you don't have that available, look for support from friends and other family members. Just tell one person what you are experiencing. For Teigen, just being open about it helped her immensely.
Getting professional help is also crucial. As Teigen's story reveals, postpartum depression is a serious disorder that doesn't resolve on its own β even with support from family and friends. Make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible to talk with her about treatment options.
Miller urges women not to isolate themselves. "Be around others, even if it feels difficult. Connect with other new moms, as long as they are supportive, as opposed to judgmental. Sharing struggles can be amazingly helpful," she says. Contact a therapist and attend weekly sessions, or locate a support group in your area.
And, Miller says, "Get sleep! Find any way you can to increase your sleep: Allow your partner to give baby a bottle if you are nursing, co-sleep safely or nap during the day."
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Know that what you are feeling doesn't make you a bad or shameful person. It's perfectly normal and more common than you know.