“Society is scared shitless of crazy mothers.” –Walker Ladd, PhD
A week after my second son was born, I closed myself in my closet and crumpled into a heap on the floor. I could hear him crying outside the locked door, but the sounds of my own gut-wrenching sobs and ragged breaths were louder. The meltdown had hit me out of the blue, and I was suddenly so overwhelmed that it seemed the most logical idea was to lock myself away and hide from the crushing weight of this new responsibility. I berated myself for it, of course — What the hell is wrong with you? Go take care of your baby. You’re a terrible mother — but at that moment I was literally unable to respond to my son, and it was scary.
Lucky for me (and for my husband and kids), it was temporary, a fleeting bout of the “baby blues” that seemed to resolve itself as quickly as it had come on. But for some women (1 in 5, statistics suggest), the feeling persists, intensifies, and engulfs their entire lives like a raging fire — and in some cases, it leads them to harm themselves or their children. Yet many of these women stay silent and try to struggle through these feelings on their own because of a stubbornly lingering stigma against mental illness, particularly when it comes to mothers.
We’re afraid to talk openly about it, for fear someone will guess that we don’t have it all together. We can’t admit that we’re unable to handle things, and nobody wants to feel like a failure, a bad mom, a bad wife.
But if we continue to stay silent, women will continue to suffer in isolation with a very real affliction that nobody ever asks for: postpartum depression (PPD).
In a powerful documentary called When the Bough Breaks, we meet Lindsay Gerzst, who lets us tag along on her journey to overcome PPD. Six years after the birth of her son, she is still grappling with the symptoms. The critical need for an open, no-holds-barred discussion about PPD and its life-threatening counterpart, postpartum psychosis (PPP) led Lindsay and fellow producers Jamielyn Lippman and Tanya Newbould to dedicate themselves to giving these disorders a very real, very relatable face. The result is a gritty and poignant film that shines a bright light on something that has festered in darkness for far too long.
When the Bough Breaks, executive produced and narrated by Brooke Shields, shows that PPD and PPP can affect any mom, transcending all social, cultural, and economic boundaries — and it presents differently in different women. Stories relayed by mothers from all walks of life, including notably famous faces such as celebrity chef Aarti Sequeira and singer Carnie Wilson, contain quotes that resonate with any weary caregiver:
I let it all overcome me.
I fantasized about leaving all the time. I obsessed about what I was doing wrong.
I can’t do this. It’s too much. I want my life back.
But as the storm clouds of PPD grow darker, so do the thoughts:
This girl would be better off with another woman as her mother.
I knew I needed to bond and that he needed to see me smiling, but I couldn’t do any of that.
I couldn’t muster the ability to take care of her, and I didn’t want to.
In the film, doula Shannon Hernandez aptly compares the feeling of PPD to having a sheet of glass between you and your infant: “Even when you hold them and touch them, the connection is still not there.”
Although PPD is a shockingly common complication, it’s widely overlooked, even by medical professionals. OB-GYNs are focused mainly on physical aspects of recovery. Pediatricians are focused on the baby. But very little, if any, attention is paid to the mental health of the mother.
Even if a mom hasn’t struggled with mental health issues before having a baby, after childbirth, our bodies and brains are a minefield of risk factors: nutritional issues, unrelenting stress, sleep deprivation, and hormonal changes, not to mention physical repercussions from delivery. After any other physically taxing surgery or hospitalization, the patient isn’t expected to jump right back into life at full-throttle, let alone be fully responsible for someone else’s every need. So why do we expect new moms to immediately rebound and settle comfortably into their new routine after childbirth?
At the hospital, you have a staff to help you; at home, it’s just you and the baby. Unlike other countries and cultures, in the U.S. we don’t give new moms a chance to adjust or transition into the role of mother. In some cultures, India, for example, a critical support system of family and friends rallies around new mothers for a month or more to make sure they have the rest they require. But in our society, new mothers often feel isolated and overwhelmed, circumstances which can turn out to be deadly for sufferers of PPD or PPP.
“There is nothing more important for a new mother who is suffering than to have the support of her village,” Gerzst tells Scary Mommy. “It is so important that you show your support to them and let them know you are there for them. Postpartum depression is a very lonely and isolating illness. We feel like no one will understand what we’re going through, and often lose friends and push family away.”
She says that sometimes just being there is enough if someone we know is struggling with motherhood or PPD/PPP. “Sit with them and let them know you’re there, even if they can’t be there for you,” she says. “Ask if you can help with anything, whether it’s bringing food over or watching the baby so the new mother can rest. Most of all, tell them you support them, that they don’t have to go through this pain alone.”
Sleeplessness, problems with appetite, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and feelings of incompetence and helplessness are just a few of the many ways PPD can manifest itself. Women with PPD know something is wrong, but often blame themselves, wondering what kind of terrible mother they must be to feel the way they do. In PPP, new mothers often don’t realize their thoughts are wrong; they may experience hallucinations, often with religious overtones, which lead them to do the unthinkable: either kill their babies, or themselves, or both.
When the Bough Breaks is a soul-shaking, eye-opening look at what these conditions can do to even the most seemingly healthy, well-adjusted women. In the film, we hear the haunting words of mothers who have taken the lives of their children while suffering from PPP, and those of the grieving family members left behind when a mother takes her own life.
Gerzst’s research and interviews about PPP have also changed her own outlook on the condition. “These were people just like the rest of us who dealt with such pain, and in some cases, extreme loss because of this unfair illness that they had no control over,” she says.
One such mom was Naomi Knoles who, despite still suffering from PPD and PPP, served 10 years in prison for the death of her infant daughter, Anna. We see her in the film, recounting her story in heartbreaking detail. Upon her release, she became involved with Postpartum Support International to raise awareness and assistance, making good on a promise she’d made that her daughter’s death wouldn’t be in vain. But she was still fighting her own tragic battle and lost her life to suicide not long after her interview for When the Bough Breaks.
It’s important to give a voice to the ones who feel they can’t speak up, to send the loud and clear message that they are not alone and that there is help. From therapy to acupuncture to hypnosis to medications, there are a wide variety of treatments that can relieve the symptoms of PPD, no matter how they manifest, and nobody should have to fear judgment or repercussions for asking for help. Seeking treatment is essential.
Gerzst asks that in a “world of pretty pictures” on social media, we remember that there are real stories behind them — and those aren’t always so pretty. “When we share our truth, others open up and share theirs,” she says. No one, she adds, should be ashamed of their story. Because being honest about your struggle can help someone get through theirs.
If you or a loved one are affected by postpartum depression or other postpartum disorders and need help, you can call Postpartum Support International — one of Lindsay’s personal favorite resources — at 1-800-944-4773. Additionally, she says, the When the Bough Breaks Facebook page is a wonderful community where you can connect with other women who have experienced the pain of PPD.
When the Bough Breaks is available now on Netflix, iTunes, and most VOD platforms in 70 countries.