In January, I posted a request on Facebook and Twitter for resources related to mental illness and academia. I had been contacted by a reader recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who was seeking information. The response to my request was greater than I expected, and many expressed a wish for a list of the resources I discovered. I eventually compiled such a list and posted it on the blog in this post, Mental Illness and the Academy. I also asked for guest posts on the subject. I feel it’s important and yet too often shrouded in secrecy and shame. We’ve had several guest posts so far, which you can find in the Mental Illness and the Academy category on the blog. Today’s is on postpartum depression. Thank you, reader, for your willingness to share.
I recently found something I had written when my daughter was about six weeks old. It reads:
“Over the past month and a half, I’ve sometimes felt like I’m falling apart, and often like I’m about to fall apart. That I’m being held together only by the finest – but strangely strong – of thread, made of guilt, fear, determination, hope, even shame. I feel overwhelmed with the demands of motherhood, of the unbelievable physical and emotional exhaustion involved in caring for a newborn. But even moreso, I feel overwhelmed by a sense of loss – losing all choice, freedom, the ability to walk away. And then crushing resentment and despair for what my life has become and my inability to change it, to change my mind. The baby that I had so excitedly and hopefully awaited was here, and she was a burden beyond anything I had experienced or expected. And I hated her for it. Even as I loved her.”
Being a mother is hard. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. In hindsight, now with 19 months in the rearview mirror, I realize that what I was feeling early on (and for periods later in the first year) was a combination of the very real struggles of motherhood and the very real illness of postpartum depression.
A brief primer on postpartum depression: postpartum mood disorders, of which postpartum depression is the most common, affect 15% of mothers, and these mood disorders can happen any time during the first year. These are different from the “baby blues,” which affect 80% of new mothers in the first month. And the baby blues — weepiness, exhaustion, feeling overwhelmed, feeling trapped, wanting to run away, feeling nostalgia for the “old life” — usually subside, when hormones regulate, when breastfeeding creates happy hormones, when support systems help alleviate burdens, when new mothers get farther along the steep learning curve, when mother-baby bonding happens, when everyone gets some sleep. But sometimes these feelings don’t go away and sometimes they get worse. And this happens for a variety of reasons, a confluence of factors related to both neurobiology and the external conditions affecting the new mother’s life — none of which are the mother’s fault. Postpartum mood disorders are illnesses. They are life-threatening illnesses. They can affect anyone, and are not a sign of “weakness” or “unfitness” as a mother. Last, as life-threatening illnesses, they require serious and appropriate treatments.
During the first year of my daughter’s life, as I was trying to finish the dissertation, I found myself in an abyss that at the time had no name and no visible way out. Now I know it has a name and an exit. Don’t worry — my story has a happy ending. I was able to find and create the right support system, and today I can confidently say that I am happy a good portion of every day. (This actually amazes me as I write this. There was a time when I could not imagine being happy again. There was a time, as I was recovering, that I counted being happy sporadically throughout the week as a major accomplishment.) I even managed to finish the dissertation. But let me tell you why this happy ending was so hard to reach, why even now I worry that I will backslide, and what I have to continue to do as both a mother and an academic to keep my sanity, literally.
First, the general culture around motherhood in the U.S. creates pressures and silences. While I was struggling, I found that I could not get many other parents to admit, even to themselves, that we sometimes don’t feel like it’s ‘worth it,’ that sometimes there is little or no reward, that sometimes we even have regrets, resentment, and a desire for something else. I can’t even get most new parents to admit that joy might not their predominant feeling. And while I was frustrated and despairing about this at the time, in hindsight, I understand that there is so much expectation and pressure around motherhood: Not only are we supposed to do it all; we’re supposed to do it all with a smile. So shame on those who don’t, or can’t.
But other factors of my life compounded this: the stigma of mental illness, especially in the Asian American community, of which I’m a part; and the stigma of both mental illness and motherhood in academia.
In the Vietnamese American community in which I was raised, there are only two states of mental health: “crazy” and “not-crazy.” For Vietnamese Americans, who have survived war, displacement, abject poverty, torture, sexual violence, and continuing racism — what is something as simple and ubiquitous as motherhood? Indeed, the irony here is that even as Vietnamese Americans have faced unimaginable trauma, we have no language to express the psychic toll these experiences take. So I am a Vietnamese American woman surviving and carrying this legacy even as I am a new mother, surviving personal and structural burdens related to racialized motherhood in the U.S. The traumas compound, but I found no way to talk about them, no names for my experiences, no voices to support my own.
In academia, even as there is academic language to talk about mental illness, I found no way to talk about it personally. Mentall illness is still conflated with mental weakness, which is particularly dangerous for women — women of color especially. We cannot afford to be seen as “weak” or “less.” In fact, we have to do better than our white, male counterparts to even be considered for our token seat at the table. We cannot reveal that mothering is a burden or a challenge, not to mention possibly a major disability.
In other words, I found myself at the intersection of the super academic (I don’t have a body or other commitments), the happy supermom of contemporary American womanhood (I can handle everything; My baby is my greatest joy; My baby makes everything worth it), and the model minority (Just work harder; Accept obstacles and just hurdle them no matter the cost). Together, these discourses leave us no way to talk about how motherhood is hard, and that sometimes it gets too hard. And so we have no way to talk about what mothers need, what it means to live healthily as a mother, what the different forms of necessary support look like. They say it takes a village to raise a child; it takes a village to have happy, healthy mothers, too.
Like I’ve said, my story has a happy ending. I read a book that saved my life: Postpartum Depression for Dummies(seriously, this is actually an AMAZING book). Through its insights and encouragements, I sought therapy, both individual and couples’, I asked and received help with childcare and household duties from family for long periods, my partner took off work for several weeks and then worked from home for several months until I felt ready to be alone at home again. And I got sleep. 8-9 hours a day. Sleep became the highest priority in my life, because I found that for me lack of sleep was directly related to my mental well-being. The exhaustion, physical and emotional, had settled into my bones and only regular sleep over MONTHS could chip that away.
In fact, sleep was more important than finishing the dissertation. I repeat: sleep was more important than the dissertation! Once I was well on the road to recovery, I began writing again, an hour at a time, for a total of 3-4 hours each day. Writing only happened when I was relatively well-rested. So some days, I napped during my designated work hour instead.
And this paid off, in the most tremendous of ways. I’m happy to say that I can look at my daughter now and feel overwhelmed with a love and joy that borders on being painful. I enjoy her in ways I could not have imagined less than a year ago. And I finished the dissertation. I found a daily balance that has restored my health and my sanity and my love.
But this is still a daily struggle.
I guage how well I’m doing by how far away the abyss feels. Do not be fooled — it is STILL there. It hasn’t disappeared from my life, no matter how large my joy has grown. It remains, sometimes closer sometimes farther away. It looms, just in the corner of my vision. On good days, on the best days so far, it is somewhere in the distance and I can barely see it, barely think about it. But on the bad days — the days when I don’t get enough sleep, when my now-toddler throws one too many tantrums, when my partner and I just aren’t communicating and the resentment pings back and forth, when my writing and teaching seem to fail me, when I get one too many rejections, when support systems fail — the abyss draws near, and despair and hopelessness well up, alongside a suffocating panic because I fear that my depression will “take me” again.
So now I am very very very careful. I make sure I get 7-8 hours of unbroken sleep a night. I sometimes still nap. I need to work on eating more healthily and exercising regularly. But I do make sure that I make TIME — for myself, for my relationship with my partner, for work that gives me meaning, for friendships that mutually sustain. This time that I reserve is truly sacred. Professor Mommy recommends that young tenure-tracked professors who are mothers give up any notion of having “a life,” devoting all their time to their children and to the sprint that is the lead-up to tenure. I completely disagree. While I know sacrifices have to be made (and I’m not sure that I’m actually willing to make most of the ones they list), there are some that can have dire consequences. For me, the toll was on my health, my sanity, my love, possibly my life. So my advice, for everyone, not just academic mothers: Find what is truly restorative in your life and GUARD it, cultivate it. These are not silly hobbies or simple down-time. These are investments in your health, your sanity. They are investments in the health and sanity of your family as well. For me, they are investments in my love for my daughter, which I never ever want to lose the ability to feel again.
So I watch that abyss with the corner of my eye. I watch my thoughts and feelings, like watching a half-tamed beast. And if the abyss creeps (or jumps) closer, if I start feeling overwhelmed or trapped or even just numb, I know. My energy and self are in danger of being depleted; the stores are dangerously low; it’s time to “restock,” restore. This is the dance I dance, the balance I keep, every day now. Because my life, and the lives of those I love, I now realize, depends on it.
PPD has taught me the value of health and how easily everything in our lives steals from that health. Never apologize for putting your health first — over your academic career and even over your child’s immediate needs. What a child needs most is a healthy — ALIVE — parent.
Guard that health and that life with the ferocity and tenderness with which you would guard the life of your child.
For resources on postpartum depression, see the book Postpartum Depression for Dummies, and the org Postpartum Support International. PSI has local branches and support groups, and can point you to other local resources such as therapists specializing in postpartum issues.
Feel free to contact the author through her co-written blog, Not That Kind of Asian Doctor, which explores Asian American life, academia, and motherhood.