After my son was born, "How are you feeling?" took on a whole new meaning. What some people -- specifically my OB and pediatrician -- really meant was, was I feeling depressed?
Although I ended up not experiencing it, postpartum depression (PPD) was something I was acutely aware of. As a parenting editor, I read tons of articles about the so-called "baby blues" and knew they were fairly common and, thankfully, treatable. My doctor also spent the last few prenatal visits reminding me to pay attention to any feelings of overwhelming sadness, anxiety or restlessness, especially in the first few weeks after giving birth. (Like I could have ignored them!)
But as it turns out, the scope and nature of PPD are far different than we originally thought. According to an article in today's New York Times, recent studies show depression often starts during pregnancy and can crop up any time in the first year after baby is born. Meanwhile, symptoms can linger long after baby's first birthday.
New research is also giving us a better idea of just how many women experience symptoms of maternal mental illness. According to the article, studies have found that at least one in eight -- and as many as one in five moms and moms-to-be -- battle depression, anxiety, OCD, bipolar disorder or some combination.
For their part, scientists attribute maternal mental illness to a trifecta of genes, stress and fluctuating hormones. "Hormones go up more than a hundredfold" during pregnancy and take a nosedive after you give birth, says Dr. Margaret Spinelli, director of the Women's Program in Columbia University's psychiatry department. This dramatic drop can "disrupt brain chemistry," she adds. But figuring out who's vulnerable is no piece of cake. Some women are genetically predisposed to PPD, while others are more sensitive to stress (something a new parent has in spades). But there also are many cases involving women who have none of the risk factors.
Studies have also confirmed that women shouldn't ignore PPD symptoms. Not only can they keep a mom from fully bonding with her child, they can also harm baby's emotional and cognitive health.
Personally, I think these findings have major benefits for moms and moms-to-be. Now there's even more evidence to show that postpartum depression can happen to any of us. Further, it's not something to be ashamed about, and it definitely doesn't mean you're a bad mom.
Image of mom and baby courtesy of Shutterstock