Recently, in our social media feed, we shared a graphic stating “you can’t always tell by looking”. The truth of this statement rings staggeringly true for so many moms fighting their way through the postpartum period.
First, let’s start by considering the expectations we (and society) have placed on ourselves well before baby’s arrival. The nursery needs to be perfect and the house clean and organized. Baby will be dressed in one of the many new, adorable outfits he or she was given and we should be back in our old jeans in no time. Breastfeeding will come easy. This will be the happiest time of our lives. For today’s moms, these impractical expectations are reinforced and perpetuated by idealic Facebook and Instagram posts that set a new bar to which we measure ourselves and our success as a mother.
When this picture was taken, the world saw a mother enjoying an afternoon with her kids at the park. But the reality was that I was at rock bottom and was being completely annihilated by my postpartum anxiety and OCD. While at the park, my mom was on her way to town to help care for my children. Because I was too afraid to be alone with them, this burden had fallen solely on my husband. Intrusive thoughts plagued my mind constantly and I hadn’t eaten or slept much in days. If I was forced to be alone with my kids, I’d keep them outside so that if I went crazy, a neighbor would hear me and save them. I incessantly asked my husband for reassurance, thought daily about checking myself into a hospital and often wondered how much longer I could go on this way. Surely, my kids deserved a better mother.
For some reason, we tell ourselves that the world must never know the pain we are feeling. A mom might tell herself that no one can know how hard it was for her to get out of bed today or that she hasn’t been able to sleep, even when baby is sleeping. No one can know that as she forces herself to rock her baby, she thinks about how she might have made a mistake and how she might wish she never became a mother. No one can know about the terrifying and disturbing thoughts and images that fill her head. So to keep these secrets, she slathers on the concealer, smiles and tells everyone all the things they want to hear.
You also can’t tell by looking, the woman who has suffered a miscarriage. Who is agonizingly grieving the loss of a baby that the world never knew. Or, the mother who carried a child only to lose him or her in some unimaginable way. She might wonder who could understand the physical and emotional torture she has experienced. And then there is, perhaps, the most extreme example of the “you can’t tell by looking” phenomenon which is the mother who hid her struggle and pain so well that the world is shocked when she takes herself from it.
It is true. We can’t always tell by looking but there are a few things we CAN do to help moms come out of hiding. We can ask moms how they are doing…how they are really doing. We can equip them with the information on and the symptoms of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders. We can preemptively point them to resources near them that can help should those symptoms arise. We can take the fear out of treatment – whether that be therapy or the need for medication. We can help moms feel less alone by sharing stories of our personal struggles and providing peer support. Finally, we can work towards ending the stigma around maternal mental health and dispeling the idea that motherhood requires perfection. So maybe you couldn’t tell by looking but I am grateful to have the courage to share that mine is the face of a perinatal mood and anxiety disorder. You are not alone.
–Written by Alexis Bruce