After Birth

A photographer plumbs the depths of her postpartum depression, drawing on a community of mothers whose agony matches her own.

Rachel Papo’s baby was sick. He was coughing, his breathing was labored, he couldn’t sleep. She took him into the bathroom and turned on the hot water in the shower, hoping the steam would ease his congestion. Then she aimed her phone at the mirror and shot a picture as she held him, as so many new moms do. In it, her nine-month-old son appears as a blur; the clearest part of the image is her own dark, worried eyes.

“It’s almost like the steam on the mirror symbolizes the fog I was in, that I was barely surviving, and barely alive,” says Papo, 48, a photographer who grew up in Israel and is now based in New York. When she took the photo in the mirror, it was 2014, she was living in Berlin with her husband and children, and she was suffering from postpartum depression—for the second time. She first succumbed to the illness in 2010, after giving birth to her daughter. When she had her son three years later, she was sure that it wouldn't happen again—that she was better prepared this time. But the darkness crept in again anyway. Papo says she felt possessed.

“The worst weeks are where all I remember is fear,” she says. “Just afraid of everything. Not able to cry. Not able to sleep. Not able to really function.” That fear confined Papo to her home and she grew isolated.

A few months after her son’s birth, as the darkness enveloped her again, she started taking medication for depression—but the feelings of fear and anxiety lingered on. After about a year, Papo overcame the most acute symptoms; their departure seemed to create a sort of physical shift in her body. She toyed with the idea of creating a photo project from the stark images she had snapped on her phone during that time, but the memories were still too fresh, too painful. When her son reached two years of age, Papo returned to the project with renewed energy, hungry to find stories like her own, which she had sought to no avail when she was mired in her depression.

 

 

She found women who had experienced the same symptoms by posting on a Facebook group for ex-pat mothers living in Berlin; they expressed relief that they could talk to someone about the dark feelings that had descended upon them following childbirth, just when the societal pressure to radiate joy was most overwhelming. As Papo began interviewing these women, some broke down and cried. It was the first time they had been able to discuss their depression openly. Papo’s project, called “It’s Been Pouring,” is still ongoing; she pairs text from her interviews with other survivors with photographs of places and objects that embody their experiences, as well as photos of herself, her son, and personal text messages. (For privacy, we are referring to the women by only their first names.)

“In many cases, if a woman expresses a dark thought, her loved ones will just brush it off: ‘Oh, it’s hard for everyone. Don’t worry about it, it’ll go away,’” says Papo. “And that’s a frustrating thing, because it’s not going away. What these mothers need is someone to really sit and listen, and help them reach deeper into these emotions.”

Papo often came away from these interviews feeling overwhelmed, recognizing herself in these other women’s feelings of shame. But the work gave her a focus: to encourage open discussions about postpartum depression, which the Centers for Disease Control has estimated could affect one in nine new mothers in the United States. (This number is likely low, as many cases go unreported or undiagnosed.)

“There are certain places, certain songs, certain objects that I can’t look at,” says Papo now, remembering her own experiences. “They just make me cringe.”

 

 

“I would alway put on these happy, pretend faces, and act like everything was OK ... and inside I was dying.” —Nikki
 
“Everyone, as soon as they saw her, said, ‘Oh, I love her. Don’t you love her, isn’t she just perfect?’—and the only thing I could think was: I wish I had never had her. I couldn’t stand it. I didn’t like anything about her. I just associated her with pain.” —Leshia

 

“When he cried, I hated him. It sounds horrible to say that, but I was so angry and resentful of him—that this happened to me, this happened to my body, this happened to my beautiful water-birthing story, this happened to my relationship with my husband—that I was pushing everyone away from me.” —Anita
“I felt like the world was just going on and things were happening and seasons were changing, and I was still stuck on this couch and I was not part of it. And I didn’t get how I would ever be a part of it ... it was like someone was standing on my chest, at all times.” —Julia

 

“I felt I was a bad person, a bad mama: How can you have these horrendous thoughts about harming your child? How can you not breastfeed properly? I am getting better now, but some days I’m still like, Oh, maybe you shouldn’t go meet those moms—if only they really knew about some of the thoughts you’ve had. The minute I’m with them, though, I never have those thoughts. It’s really therapy in itself, being with other moms.” —Vicky

 

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