woman holding a newborn baby

I’m a Nurse But I Couldn’t See My Own Postpartum Depression

By Chaunie Marie Brusie, B.S.N., R.N.
Reviewed by Susan Ko, Ph.D.
May 17, 2023

“Okay, Dad, did you get all that? It’s super important that you’re on the lookout for these signs,” I said. “If she does get them, it will be really difficult for her to recognize them in herself.”

I closed the folder listing the symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) and handed it to the new father in the hospital room. He nodded solemnly, his partner next to him, dressed to go home. Their newborn baby was nestled cozily in her car seat. I knew that educating a family on postpartum depression was one of the most important things I could do, and I was relieved this man seemed to absorb the message.

During my time in nursing school, I worked as an obstetric nurse tech at our local labor and delivery unit. There, I primarily cared for postpartum patients. I helped new parents give their babies their first baths, taught them how to change diapers and how to take care of new umbilical cords. I was also extremely passionate about doing a lot of education on postpartum depression.

Whenever the birthing parent had a partner or support person, I made sure to focus my education on the partner or loved one. That person needed to know that they should be the primary go-to for recognizing signs of postpartum depression. They also needed to know the birthing parent’s healthcare providers’ phone numbers and that they may need to call on their loved one’s behalf.

That’s because often, the birthing parent can’t recognize their own signs of postpartum depression. And they often don’t have the capacity to reach out for help. Support is crucial.

Despite all of my nursing work and training, I made one crucial mistake when I became a mom myself: I never talked about postpartum depression with my own husband. And I suffered for almost a year as a result.

What Postpartum Depression Felt Like

I was hospitalized with a kidney infection only days after my daughter was born. After that, I felt like I slipped into darkness.

I was exhausted at a level that felt dangerous. I didn’t sleep ever, often staying awake for 72 hours at a time when I worked long nursing shifts. I cried all the time, and although I loved my daughter very much, I had a hard time feeling like I was being a good mom.

It felt a lot like I was going through the motions of motherhood, without feeling the happiness or joy I thought I was supposed to feel as a mom. I felt dead inside, like I was in a fog and to be honest with you, I don’t remember a lot of details of that first year of her life. It feels like I lost that entire year.

I Thought It Wouldn’t Happen to Me

Looking back, I was almost the poster child for someone at risk for postpartum depression. I I had almost all of the major risk factors for PPD, as described in a review published in the Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health:

  • Unplanned pregnancy: I became unexpectedly pregnant during my senior year of college, at the age of 21-–unplanned pregnancies raise the risk of postpartum depression significantly.
  • Life stress: In a span of nine months, I got married, had a baby, graduated college, and started a new job, all while being the sole income earner as my husband finished school.
  • Childcare stress: My husband was gone for 12 hours at a time, so I was the sole childcare provider during the day.
  • Lack of sleep: I was working nights and caring for the baby all day. I didn’t sleep much.
  • Lack of social support: I didn’t know women my age who were moms. I spent most of my time alone with my baby.
  • Medical complications: I was hospitalized twice for physical postpartum complications (the kidney infection and severe mastitis, a breast infection). I was also separated from my daughter during the hospitalizations, which caused quite a bit of emotional trauma for me.

Check, check, and double-check. The only PPD risk factors I didn’t have were the two identified in the review as the strongest ones: prenatal depression and current abuse. But the months leading up to my daughter’s birth were very stressful, and I was feeling the effects on my mental health well before she was even born.

I should have known that I was at a huge risk for PPD, but as a new mom, I was operating solely in survival mode. I was also stubborn. Because I was a young mom who had entered motherhood in a difficult position, I was determined to show everyone (myself included) that I could do it all, by myself.

I thought, mistakenly, of course, that because I was a nurse myself—the one responsible for educating other parents on PPD—that it wouldn’t happen to me. Postpartum depression was something that happened to my patients, not me.

Of course, I was horribly, terribly wrong.

Turning a Blind Eye

Today, it’s crystal-clear to me that I had postpartum depression. PPD doesn’t discriminate. Any parent can develop the condition.

I should have found help but instead my situation got worse.

I have one vivid memory of being alone with my daughter, taking her outside to push her in her swing.

The sun was shining, she was giggling, and I remember thinking that it should have been a picture-perfect moment. But I felt absolutely miserable. I felt almost like I was outside of my body, watching someone pretend to be a mother. And then, a crippling wave of shame and guilt hit me. Why couldn’t I just be happy? I had the perfect baby. It was a perfect, beautiful day, and I should have been grateful, I thought.

You need to just do better! Try harder! A voice shouted in my head.

So I did.

I tried to pull myself out of it by working as hard as I possibly could. I started exercising, running miles on the treadmill while my daughter played near me. I tried different hobbies, like photography and writing op-eds. I even signed up for graduate school and on the nights I wasn’t working, drove an hour to my alma mater to pursue a master’s degree in business administration (MBA).

I did more and more and more and I felt like I would collapse.

And then, I found out I was pregnant again.

Support Really Does Make a Difference

Here’s where I wish I could tell you I finally got help and all became instantly well. But the truth is, I never got the help I needed with my first baby.

My life slowly changed for the better with my second pregnancy. We moved into our first house closer to my family, giving me more support. My husband graduated and started working his first job as a teacher, so he could be home more and help with our finances. I changed to a more regular work schedule, so I was getting more sleep.

The postpartum experience the second time around—with more support, sleep, and help in my life—was like night and day.

My second baby was actually harder to care for—she had severe colic and reflux. But I felt tremendously better both mentally and physically. I didn’t get sick, never had mastitis, and instead of manically trying to run as many miles as possible or take night classes, I was able to rest and recover and focus on my baby.

Seeing the difference in my postpartum experiences with my first and second babies, I realized how much I had needlessly suffered after my first delivery. All the risk factors, signs, and symptoms of PPD were there—but no one helped me see it in myself.

It was exactly the scenario I had taught my patients’ partners and loved ones about. I couldn’t recognize the symptoms of PPD in myself, because I was the one experiencing it.

What I Think Everyone Should Know About PPD

When it comes to postpartum depression, one of the most powerful things you can do is have a conversation with a partner or another support person before your baby is born. Tell them to help you recognize the signs. They include:

  • Feeling disconnected from your baby
  • Feeling disconnected from people you love
  • Exhaustion
  • Feeling overly anxious
  • Feeling not like yourself
  • Sadness or low mood that lasts

If they notice any of those signs, they should intervene on your behalf. That means urging you to talk to your doctor, midwife, or mental health care provider. It may also mean calling them for you.

It doesn’t matter what kind of job you do, how much you know about postpartum depression, or how well you think you have prepared yourself. Postpartum depression can change the very way you think and it can be impossible to pull yourself out of it alone.

I know that moms and birthing people are powerful and strong—even through something as hard as postpartum depression. I know that I did the best I could with the tools I had. But I wish so much that I’d had the help I needed back then. If I did, I could look back and remember the first year of my daughter’s life with a smile, instead of squinting through a hazy cloud of foggy memories.

My hope is that you’ll put a plan in place against PPD well before your due date. Because both you and your baby deserve it.

Mental health support is available during and after pregnancy. You can call or text the National Maternal Mental Health Hotline anytime at 833-943-5746. Find a mental health professional with experience in prenatal and postpartum concerns at the Postpartum Support International directory. Or talk to your doctor or midwife.

If you’re ever in crisis or need to talk to someone right away, call 988, the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.

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