Know The Signs: For Some, Post-Pregnancy Is Anything But Magical
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin, and this is For the Record. The definition of postpartum depression is broad. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the symptoms can be anything from feeling exhausted and disconnected from your baby to a paranoia that someone else might hurt your child or, even worse, that you yourself might do your baby harm. Because the spectrum is so wide, it can be hard to diagnose, which is why it's hard to measure how many women suffer from postpartum depression. The CDC says it's between 8 and 19 percent of women. A decade ago, Brooke Shields started a national conversation when she spoke publicly about her own depression after the birth of her first child.
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BROOKE SHIELDS: I was part of a group of an entire percentage of women that experienced frightful thoughts and fearful images and have no connections with their children.
MARTIN: Since then, the stigma around postpartum depression has lessened. But it's still news every time a woman in the public eye talks about it. Marie Osmond and Drew Barrymore both wrote memoirs that touched on their experiences. Just a few months ago, actress Hayden Panettiere checked into a treatment facility for the disorder. The people we're going to introduce you to today aren't celebrities, but they have made a conscious choice to share their very personal experience with postpartum depression. That is today on For the Record.
PAIGE BELLENBAUM: My name is Paige Bellenbaum, have a wonderful husband and two great kids, soon to be 7-year-old and 9-year-old.
BJORN BELLENBAUM: My name is Bjorn Bellenbaum. I'm married to Paige, from Germany originally, been in New York for over 20 years.
MARTIN: Paige and Bjorn conceived with no trouble a month after they were married.
P. BELLENBAUM: And then took, like, 15 pregnancy tests just to make sure.
MARTIN: A few months in, they found out they were having a boy. They were excited and anxious like any first-time parents. And while Paige was full of anxiety during her pregnancy, she didn't think a lot about what would come after giving birth.
P. BELLENBAUM: What I thought, which is what I think most women think unless told otherwise, that having a child was going to be a magical, wonderful, beautiful experience and that when I had him, they were going to lay him on my chest. And I was going to have this moment of just unconditional love swarm through me.
MARTIN: What was the birth like?
P. BELLENBAUM: It was terrible. It was the most traumatic physical experience I've ever had in my life. When I think about how traumatic that felt to me, the one thing that I do remember that softens it is that - and correct me if I'm wrong - I think Bjorn was pretty much speechless by the experience. He was blown away by the process, by the fact that it happened and by my strength.
B. BELLENBAUM: Yeah, it was incredible. And it always makes me sad, you know, to hear your side of it, that it was such a traumatic thing, and you felt so alone. Because for me, it was just - I was just in awe.
MARTIN: This was the beginning of the gaping hole that would develop between Paige and Bjorn and the vastly different way they experienced early parenthood.
P. BELLENBAUM: I remember them putting Max on my chest and wanting to feel that feeling of unconditional love, and I didn't feel anything. I felt tired. I still was in pain. I felt sore. I felt hungry. I wasn't able to eat anything for hours. But there was no magic. I just felt empty after that physical trauma and emotional trauma.
MARTIN: So you go home. What were those first few weeks like?
B. BELLENBAUM: It's funny. I remember so little about that time.
P. BELLENBAUM: I mean, I think that sometimes the mind chooses to forget. I remember it all vividly, almost more than any other period in my life. I found myself thinking in those first few weeks, I wish I could stuff him back up there. I feel like he's safer there than he is out here.
MARTIN: Bjorn took a week off work after the baby was born. But even then, he was still on email and not completely present. They didn't want any family to come in and help. So after that first week, Paige was all alone with the baby.
P. BELLENBAUM: I was up with him four, five, six times a night. There was always something wrong. He was sleeping too much. There had to be something wrong with him. We have to take him to the doctor. He's not eating enough. He only nursed for a few... He didn't have enough wet diapers. There was something wrong with the color of his poop. There was always something wrong.
B. BELLENBAUM: I think that set us up for this distance between us because it really wasn't that. It wasn't - I mean, he was fine basically.
P. BELLENBAUM: I wasn't.
MARTIN: Bjorn, did you - when did you start to think that maybe Paige needed help?
B. BELLENBAUM: It took me a long time because it seemed - I didn't have any perspective, you know? It was clear that Paige was really nervous. But I - that also seemed not uncommon. And my brother kept telling stories of his wife, who made him go out in the middle of the night to buy a baby scale to have their daughter weighed before and after every feeding to make sure that she was getting stuff. So that also didn't seem so unusual, to be worried about your newborn child.
MARTIN: All the while, Paige's depression deepened.
P. BELLENBAUM: I did not feel any love attraction for my son. I was scared of him. I was scared of him because he was this human being that I couldn't soothe, that controlled me. And I - I didn't like him. I didn't like him for taking my life away. I just would sit on our orange sofa underneath the window, crying all day long. And in the morning, when Bjorn would get up for work, I would beg him not to leave and cry and cry. And I remember you made me - you would make me these Nutri-Grain waffles and put a little bit of syrup and strawberries on top. And I think it was your way of trying really hard to give me something to make me feel better.
MARTIN: It didn't make her feel better. In fact, Paige found herself staring into the medicine cabinet and thinking about suicide.
Was all that happening in your head, or did you say any of this to Bjorn?
P. BELLENBAUM: I did not ever say to him that I hated myself or that I thought I was a failure as a mother or that I, you know, at that early stage, was contemplating taking my own life. No, I did not tell him those things. I assumed they were obvious.
MARTIN: When did it become obvious to you, Bjorn? Did you know that she was spending all day crying and...
B. BELLENBAUM: No, I didn't. We were just really disconnected in a big way. I mean, I - you know, I had my own sort of anxieties, obviously, with having - being a father. And now, it wasn't clear that you were going to go back to work. So I was worried about, you know, like, finances - all that stuff. And so it was clear that there was - that things were going poorly. But it wasn't clear to me, you know, what the solution was.
MARTIN: At this point, it's worth noting Paige is a social worker. And part of her job is to be able to spot signs of depression in other people.
P. BELLENBAUM: Even I, as a trained clinician, was unable to notice the symptoms that were happening within myself because I was so far gone.
MARTIN: One day in the fall, when the baby was around five months old, Paige took Max for a walk.
P. BELLENBAUM: Everything around me felt gray and boring and dull. Nothing could - I just - I couldn't really feel the breeze or - I just noticed that I just, you know, I didn't know who I was. And I was walking towards the corner with Max in the stroller. And I looked to the right, and I saw a bus coming. And I looked at the bus, and I had this impulse, out of nowhere, to throw myself and Max in front of the bus and just end it. And it was such a strong impulse. And as the bus passed, I remember looking at my reflection in the windows of the bus and the faces looking back at me but seeing my face and being like, who is that person? Who - I didn't even recognize myself. And I knew at that moment that that was - that was the breaking point. I had to do something to save myself and to save my son. And I hailed a cab, took the cab up to the Payne Whitney Clinic, and I walked in. And I was seen by a resident. And within two minutes, she said, you have severe postpartum depression. She called in a team of psychiatrists and other medical professionals. They spent some time talking to me and said that I needed to get on medication immediately.
MARTIN: She did. And eventually, Paige did get better. The darkness lifted, and she started to see her baby boy in a different way. Things felt good, stable. Then, less than a year later, Paige got pregnant again. It wasn't planned.
P. BELLENBAUM: That was a big blow because I was not...
B. BELLENBAUM: You cried.
P. BELLENBAUM: Ready.
B. BELLENBAUM: You cried for a week, I remember.
P. BELLENBAUM: I cried for a week. And I considered not having the baby. And I remember one afternoon sitting with you in the living room and saying, I don't know if I can do this again; I don't know if I can have this baby - and you looking at me and saying, I love you. I'll do whatever you want. I just don't want to lose you. And that I will never forget because I knew, in that moment, that I didn't want to lose you either and that we were going to figure out a way to do this together.
MARTIN: They had a baby girl. And everything was different this time. They knew the signs of postpartum depression. And they knew how to push back but only because they had been there before. Knowing those signs, that's the key. And Paige thought if more people knew what to look for, more moms could get help earlier. Last year, she helped write a new law in New York state aimed at educating more families on symptoms of maternal depression. It also gives pediatricians a process to screen and refer new mothers who might be struggling. Postpartum depression can pull some couples apart, and they never find their way back. Paige and Bjorn did, and they say they're stronger for it. Their daughter, Ella, is now 7 years old. They say she is the rambunctious one. Max is 9. He's the sensitive one. He feels everything really deeply. Paige adds, he's just like me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.