Postpartum depression: Caitlin's story

Caitlin playing with her son

Something felt off when Caitlin brought her newborn son home in 2017. Instead of enjoying the exhausting yet magical time to care for and bond with her baby, she struggled with terrifying feelings and couldn't connect with the tiny person she had been so excited to meet.

“I really felt like I had someone else's child in my house, and I was having to take care of this baby.” 

The first-time mom was suffering from postpartum depression (PPD), which is more severe and long-lasting than the typical “baby blues.”1 PPD affects about 1 in 8 women who have a live birth, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2

Caitlin is sharing her deeply personal story about PPD to bring attention to the condition that robbed her of precious moments with her firstborn and to offer hope. “I want other women to know that you don't have to go through it by yourself,” she said. “There are things that you can do.” 


Difficult initiation into motherhood

Caitlin's postpartum journey did not begin smoothly. Her labor lasted for more than 60 hours and ended in an emergency Caesarean section. The next day, as she was breastfeeding her son, he had a seizure and stopped breathing. Both were rushed to another hospital, and test results revealed her son had a stroke. She stayed for two days, and the baby came home six days later on seizure medication. She soon discovered he had a breast milk allergy and needed to switch to formula. (Thankfully, he is thriving today.)

It's hard for Caitlin to find the words for her emotional state in those blurry early days. “Overwhelming doesn't even begin to describe the feeling and the disconnection,” she said. “It's feeling like you were almost floating above your own body, just kind of watching everything happen and really not knowing what's happening, and just going from moment to moment.” 

She had uncharacteristic outbursts of emotion, felt completely alone and was extremely anxious. “I remember a moment where I was sitting on my bed with my son next to me watching my husband drive away to go to work and just panicking that something was going to happen to my husband...I had this completely irrational sense of, ‘I don't know what I'm going to do; I don't know where I'm going to go,’” Caitlin said.

Suffering in silence

Caitlin, who was in her mid-thirties when her son was born, originally didn't think what she was experiencing was abnormal. “I thought this was just baby blues,” she said. “I thought because we were both older with established routines this is just going to be harder for us.”

Meanwhile, with family members so focused on her son, her own struggles went unnoticed. “My mother still will say to this day, ‘I feel so guilty that I didn't step in’ or ‘I didn't know you were suffering,’” Caitlin said. “But I didn't know to tell her that I was having a hard time."


Missed opportunities for help

During her pregnancy, Caitlin told her physicians about her family history of mental illness and her close relative who was hospitalized with PPD. Yet, she doesn't remember being told about the PPD signs to look out for. 

“[PPD] is much easier to ignore because it's not a physical, tangible thing...if physicians are not versed in the right language or the right things to ask, it's very easy to miss.”

Indeed, the routine doctor questionnaires about depression didn't flag any issues. “None of the questions were quite right for what I was going through,” she said. She recalls one question that asked if she was sleeping more and having trouble getting out of bed, but, as a new mom, she had the opposite problem of not sleeping very much at all.

Looking back, Caitlin says the questionnaire would have been more effective if it asked if she was feeling overwhelmed, anxious or disconnected with her infant and other family members or experiencing racing thoughts or anger. She finally spoke up to her general practitioner about eight months after she had her son. There was also a strained dynamic with her husband, who worried about her and was frustrated by how overwhelmed she felt. In addition, the couple “couldn't seem to get on the same page around the baby,” she said. The doctor helped them connect with a social worker, but the focus was on their relationship; Caitlin’s concerns about feeling overwhelmed were ignored or dismissed, so her condition remained unrecognized. She was told that she needed to “relax.”   


Becoming her own advocate

It took nearly two years for Caitlin to finally feel that she and her son had developed a connection. When she became pregnant with her second child, a daughter, she was prepared to better advocate for herself with a new OB-GYN. “Right away, I told him about my family history, but also my experience with my first,” Caitlin said. “He said, 'All right, let's do this. Here's a plan.’” 

Within three months, she had a care team she could share her concerns with, and she developed a plan for support. Her mother and husband were on board, and she had access to anxiety medications. 

This support helped Caitlin form an immediate bond with her baby daughter. “Now I know what that is supposed to feel like,” she said. “And it makes it even sadder to know what I was missing the first time around.”