The narrative around motherhood as depicted in television shows, films and advertisements often paints an unrealistic picture. People have been misled into thinking that it is a seamless, blissful experience, universal to all women. Disha’s* story, however, like that of countless other women, is starkly different. She remembers how a sense of fear loomed throughout her pregnancy. “I had suffered a miscarriage before, so I kept feeling scared,” she recalls.

Things did not get any better once her son was born. After her delivery, she began experiencing problems with breastfeeding. “I decided to see a lactation consultant, who then prescribed me a tablet to help latching. From there onwards, things only got worse. After a few doses, I started having side effects like twitching and spasms. This phase exacerbated my already fragile mental state, and that is when my postpartum depression kicked in.”

Postpartum depression or PPD is a kind of depression one experiences after childbirth. Many women experience ‘baby blues’ after delivery. But, if symptoms persist, it can escalate into depression. Women go through a wide range of emotions during and after pregnancy owing to the hormonal changes that their body undergoes. However, psychiatrists follow diagnostic criteria and say that if symptoms like anxiety, insomnia, fear and irritability are present within 12 weeks of delivery, then it is termed as postpartum depression.

Disha recounts how nothing made her happy. “My body was already weak; I was exhausted due to the sleepless nights because of the baby’s crying. As my son was not allowing me to feed him, I felt as though he did not want me at all.” Adding to her woes was a feeling of guilt that crippled her. “Every time I stepped out, I would see happy mothers feeding their babies. I felt immensely guilty for struggling at something that was so natural to these women.”

At her lowest she would have suicidal thoughts, which startled her family. “My husband was initially very supportive, but even he got frustrated with my destructive behavior. He would ask me how I could think of dying, when I had such a beautiful baby,” she said.

When you are in such a vulnerable state, support of the spouse and family is imperative. But nobody understood what she was going through. “Even my mother thought I had gone crazy. Impractical suggestions like - sleep when the baby sleeps would add on to my nerves. But, how will people respond with sensitivity, if they are not aware?”

Dr. Neena Sawant, a Mumbai based psychiatrist has about 3-4 PPD patients coming in every six months. “Large number of women undergo postpartum blues where they experience dysphoria or sadness. Out of which, cases of postpartum depression account for around 10 to 15%,” she said. Underscoring the importance of early recognition and treatment, Dr. Sawant continued, “Suicidal ideation maybe seen in some cases, and in such instances the mother may be depressed antepartum (occurring before childbirth). Severe post partum depression can endanger the life of the mother and the baby. So, awareness and timely intervention is necessary to ensure better emotional coping and to improve bonding between mother and child,”

Disha agreed that awareness is key. “Expecting mothers and their spouses must be given books or literature on pregnancy with dedicated chapters on postpartum depression. Scores of women go through this, but they are fearful of expressing their sadness beause of the stigma associated depression.”

A report released by the World Health Organization’s India country office titled ‘Depression in India, Let’s Talk’ stated that prevalence of depression is higher in women. The report which was published in 2017, also brought to fore that there was emerging evidence indicating that failure to thrive is more common in infants whose mothers have postnatal depression. Even though newspapers carry out stories on depression and NGOs run campaigns on social media, the awareness on postpartum depression continues to be low.

“Only a handful of these messages trickle down to those who are affected. I feel it has to start from gynecologists. Childbirth is treated like a mechanical process. You give birth and you’re packed and sent home. As an IT professional, the word we used most often was trouble-shoot. I think doctors need to understand that a woman’s body is not a machine and you can’t simply trouble-shoot everything. After delivery, they must guide new mothers and book them for follow-up sessions on mental health,” she continued indignantly.

Once Disha got better, she decided to do help others. After undertaking research on the subject, she began counseling women who suffer from PPD. “Though I am not a professional counselor, I talk to new mothers and make them feel better. I keep reiterating that it’s okay for them to feel this way. I share my experience with them, so that they are able to relate to someone. I encourage them to keep talking about it and also seek professional help,” she said. Today, Disha is an active member of an online support group where she answers queries and engages with women to help them cope.

One cannot miss the chirpiness in Disha’s voice when she talks about her baby who is growing up. “My son has just started school and I am beginning to enjoy motherhood. Now that I have recovered, I enjoy my son; I absolutely love spending time with him.”

What’s the one thing she would like to tell women who go through PPD? “You need to realise that it does not make you any less of a mom,” she chimes.

(*Name changed on request)