Academic Parenting and Post-Partum Depression

Heather Scheurer, PhD candidate, Middle Tennessee State University

In the summer of 2016, I returned from a study abroad trip to Ireland ready to start a family with my husband of four years. I only had one semester left of course work for the PhD and I felt that it was a good time for us to have a child.

My pregnancy proved difficult. I suffered from severe morning sickness and intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy. Our son had to be delivered via cesarean section at thirty-seven weeks. Our son spent five days in the NICU. When we returned home, I sank into a deep depression. I had never experienced anything like post-partum depression.

PPD robbed me of bonding time with my son. It brought about flashes of rage. I was angry that I could no longer have a “normal” graduate student life. I could not focus long enough to read an article. I could not sleep longer than two hour stretches. I could not attend cohort meetups. I resented my husband for “getting” to go to work during the day.

Once our son turned twelve weeks old, he went to stay with a sitter during the weekdays. I felt so relieved that I would be able to return to work. But, instead of spending my days reading and writing, I spent them in bed. The duvet felt like a giant boulder. I slept. I cried on the phone to my mother. I binge watched Netflix shows to escape my feelings.

Through all of this, I hid my struggle from my colleagues and advisors. I returned to teaching undergraduates in August 2017 and found little relief in being out of the
house and speaking on the topics I love so much. The depression, anger, and anxiety persisted. I found myself cancelling classes and ignoring my colleagues.

Finally, I decided to make an appointment with my OB/GYN. I could not let myself, my husband, and my son suffer  because of PPD. I met a lovely psychiatrist who listened, cared, and prescribed medication to combat the illness. Within a month, I felt like a new person. The flashes of anger disappeared. I looked forward to getting out of bed most mornings. I found joy in my son’s smile and new developments. It was like a thick fog had cleared to reveal a bright, sunny day. However, the effects of PPD on my work did not go unnoticed.

One day, my advisor called me to her office for a chat. She gently confronted me about how my work had suffered. I opened up to her and shared my experience with PPD. I cried fat, ugly tears in her office. She listened, offered tissues, and then helped me formulate a plan to move forward. She hugged me and told me that she loved me. She advised me to never hide my struggles from those close to me in my cohort. If I need help, I only have to ask.

If we share our successes, but never our struggles, we give the idea to others that we are doing the PhD with no stresses and setbacks. By not sharing my experience, I gave the impression that it is easy to have a baby in the middle of the PhD. It is not easy. It is a struggle every day of the week, but every hard week gets me closer to my defense date.