Jamie Chung's Struggles With Postpartum Depression Show How Non-Birth Parents Suffer Too

by Marie Holmes
Leon Bennett/Getty

Chung, who welcomed twin boys via surrogate, advises fellow parents, “Accept all the help.”

Motherhood is hard no matter how you get there, and some challenges shouldn’t be faced alone.

“I think it comes in waves,” Chung told Yahoo! Life of postpartum depression. The actor and Real World alum has been open about the hardships of parenting not one, but two, babies, who arrived prematurely in October. “Some days — some moments — are really great and I try to focus on that,” said Chung.

“Talking to my friends is really helpful, talking to other parents is extremely helpful and so is staying in touch with therapy,” she continued.

Postpartum depression, part of a cluster of conditions experts now call perinatal mood and anxiety disorders, is commonly thought to be triggered by the precipitous drop in estrogen and progesterone that occurs in someone’s body after birth.

Indeed, post-delivery hormones can be a trigger for some people, says Dr. Fitelson, a psychiatrist at Columbia-Presbyterian who specializes in maternal mental health, but there are many other triggers. While there’s not a lot of research about the prevalence of perinatal mood and anxiety disorders in non-gestational parents like Chung, there is clear data showing that new fathers are also at risk.

Know Your Vulnerabilities and What To Watch For

As overwhelming as that hormonal drop can be, it’s a small sliver of the seismic shifts a new parent is undergoing. “Someone who has had experiences with anxiety and depression in the past is someone who’s more likely to like to experience them [now],” says Dr. Fitelson.

“It’s a high-stress time, it’s a transitional time,” she explains. “So it’s a vulnerable period.”

Other factors that can contribute to stress and trigger perinatal mood and anxiety disorders include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Feeding challenges. “Even though someone may not be lactating, they’re still bonding with a newborn,” says Dr. Fitelson. “For any parent, it’s an intense emotional experience.”
  • The overwhelming sense of responsibility that comes along with caring for an infant.
  • Changing relationships with your partner, your own parents, and your friends who do and don’t have children. “Every relationship changes in one in this one minute,” explains Dr. Fitelson.
  • A changing relationship to your body. Nursing or not, “you’re using your body to physically comfort and hold and care for a newborn,” says Dr. Fitelson.

It’s a lot to contend with, and most parents can expect a brief period of “baby blues,” or temporary mood swings that may include bouts of anxiety or sadness–like suddenly bursting into tears. “Some anxiety is perfectly normal,” says Dr. Fitelson. “But you shouldn’t be stuck in one position,” she says, and feels anxious or low all the time. Other worrisome symptoms include:

  • Not being able to enjoy things
  • Not being able to sleep, even when you have the opportunity.
  • Thoughts about death or not being alive.
  • Feelings of being worthless or excessive guilt.

Any of these signs go beyond “baby blues” and should be addressed by a healthcare professional pronto.

Line up support, and learn to ask for help

What can parents-to-be do to prepare for their transition? First, understand that becoming a parent, however it happens for you, is huge, and some big feelings are to be expected. Dr. Fitelson recommends that people line up emotional support in the same way that they line up logistical support, like meal-prep and doula or baby nurse care. While we often assume that those practical and emotional supports will come from the same person, that may not always be the case. The friend who offers to run an errand may not be the same friend you want to confide in about the feelings of ambivalence that you’re having.

“Let go of the expectation that you can or should be able to do it on your own,” says Dr. Fitelson.

This can be particularly difficult, for instance, for folks who become pregnant after a lot of effort. “There’s a lot of pressure for things to be perfect,” says Dr. Fitelson. “Like, you should be so happy, you finally got what you wanted, right?”

Chung referenced this pressure in an interview with People, saying, “I felt quite guilty feeling certain things that I felt.”

Dr. Fitelson says it’s vital for parents to reach out for help in spite of these feelings. “Having the courage to reach out, even as hard as it is with shame, is a strength.”

Chung echos this sentiment in her advice to new parents: “Accept all the help,” she told Yahoo! Life. “Usually I’m a very proud person and I think I can do it myself and don’t need any help, but these are the times when I have to be accepting all the help, whether it’s an extra feed or extra hands.”