“Where’s mama?” my two-year-old inquired sadly. His tear-streaked face and profoundly appropriate question broke my heart. We were standing there together, and yet he asked where I was.

A wave of shame and frustration rolled through my body. I had lost my temper and yelled at him again over nothing. We were both in sad, confused tears.

I knelt to wrap him in my arms, softly telling him I was so sorry. The anger had burst from within me out of nowhere and I felt powerless to stop it. I was as frightened as he was.

His question, “Where’s mama?” was a legitimate one. He didn’t recognize this angry version of me. He was asking where his real mama was. And I really didn’t know.

I’m on a path now to reconnecting with the real mama. But like 600,000 mothers each year in the U.S. my struggle with postpartum mental health disorders is also very real. And I want my children, when they’re old enough, to understand maternal mental health; what it is and what it’s taught me.

Mental illness is like a monster. It lurks in the mind and body waiting to reveal itself unexpectedly. Everyone’s monster is different. And the monster has many faces.

Anxiety

Some level of worry after having a baby is completely expected and normal. But for many women anxiety dominates their thinking and begins to interfere with their ability to function and bond with their children. Anxiety presents itself as obsessively thinking about every possibility that may or may not become reality. Fears are often irrational and cannot be assuaged. 

Racing thoughts, rumination and inability to sleep take a physical and mental toll on the mother who simply wants the best for her child.

My monster’s “anxiety face” included extreme irritability, obsessive self doubt, racing thoughts about the “right” and “wrong” way to do everything and inability to focus and complete tasks.

As anxiety took over, my confidence and sense of self was shattered. Even simple decisions became monumental challenges. And as I struggled with perfectionism and inadequacy I took those frustrations out on my son. Every challenging behavior he presented felt like a reflection of myself as a mom who wasn’t good enough.

I want my kids to know my actions were never about not loving them. They were about my anxiety robbing me of my love for myself.

Depression

During the postpartum period, hormones are all over the place taking emotions in unexpected directions. The stress of taking care of a new baby combined with sleep deprivation and very little time out of the house leaves many women feeling down.

But postpartum depression lingers, can develop anytime during baby’s first year, and will not get better on its own. An article featured on the Postpartum Progress website, The 6 Stages of Postpartum Depression, expresses why the monster’s “depression face” can be a tricky one to identify. It explains how identifying and dealing with postpartum depression often involves denial and bargaining with oneself about the severity and root cause of the symptoms.

Once appropriately identified, the feelings of hopelessness, apathy, lack of motivation, and extreme fatigue can be treated with a combination of medication, cognitive behavioral therapy, and self-care practices.

I want my kids to know that I would have started treating my symptoms sooner if the illness hadn’t convinced me I wasn’t ill. If I could go back and have more time with them as my real self, I absolutely would.

Obsessive compulsive disorder

Anxiety can sometimes bring with it the monsters of obsession and compulsion. Burdened by worry, the mind is taken over by irrational, intrusive thoughts. Women experiencing obsessive, intrusive thinking replay fearful negative thought patterns over and over in their minds. These may include thoughts of harming themselves or their children and cannot be dismissed by logic. Intrusive, obsessive thinking leads women with obsessive compulsive disorder to engage in rituals or perform a task repeatedly.

In my own experience, obsessive thoughts about schedules, routines, and the “right” way to do things dominated my thinking and perpetuated the cycle of anxiety and depression.

I want my kids to know that the monster thoughts in my mind are what compelled me to continue picking up toys and sweeping the floor instead of sitting down and playing with them.

Fortunately, my boys will never experience maternal mental illness themselves. But they will most likely know someone who does, quite possibly the mother of their own children someday or someone else they love. The maternal mental illness monster can be a scary one. But male or female, people equipped with the right tools and awareness can win the battle against it.

Loved ones can be warriors for the mothers struggling with perinatal mood disorders. But they have to recognize what the mother is going through for what it is; a disorder. Unfortunately mental illness is often misunderstood and those afflicted with disorders are sometimes blamed for their symptoms as if overcoming it is simply mind over matter.

But, just as an epileptic shouldn’t be blamed for having seizures neither should people with mental illness be blamed for mood swings or irrational behavior. These are symptoms of the disease. And just like other illnesses, perinatal mood disorders affect the entire family, require treatment, and have no one-size-fits-all path through the recovery process.

So as I recover, I understand that it won’t happen overnight and am trying to be patient with myself in the process. And I hope if my kids find themselves helping someone they love through maternal mental illness they will understand that getting better takes time. It’s a difficult journey but slowly and surely the monster will retreat, revealing the familiar real mama once again.

My experience with postpartum mental illness often revealed itself through irritability and anger. There was yelling in a voice I didn’t even recognize as my own. An intimidating mama my child didn’t recognize slammed doors and walked away. But I’m working hard to leave that person behind and be the mother I know I really am.

When my children become adults, I hope the slammed doors and angry words are not the part of my experience that makes the biggest impact on them. Instead I hope their awareness of maternal mental health will allow them to see my illness as open doors to knowledge and acceptance. I hope other families will use the resources available to open more doors of advocacy for mothers struggling to find their real selves.

If you or a loved one is experiencing symptoms of a postpartum mood disorder please visit the following sites and seek local help.

Postpartum Progress

Postpartum Support International