Out of the Blue

Brooke Shields discusses her painful struggle with postpartum depression.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on March 24, 2005
9 min read

Brooke Shields seemingly has it all -- happy marriage, celebrated beauty, critical applause, world fame. Yet, after her child was born, she fought the "mother lode" of emotional battles: a crippling bout with postpartum depression.

After giving birth two years ago, actress/model/icon Brooke Shields was not singing lullabies in the pleasing voice that has earned her rave reviews on Broadway. Nor was she learning how to swaddle her newborn girl, Rowan Francis, named for her late father, Francis Shields. Instead, suffering from postpartum depression, she found herself staring out of the window of her fourth floor Manhattan apartment, contemplating putting an end to it all.

"I really didn't want to live anymore," she admits frankly. She says that, during this time, simply seeing a window was enough to prompt her to think, "'I just want to leap out of my life,' but then the rational side of me [would say], 'You're only on the fourth floor. You'll get broken to bits and then you will be even worse.'"

From the outside looking in, the 38-year-old former Calvin Klein model has everything -- happy family, career spanning decades -- but for Shields, the painful struggle to get pregnant and the ensuing slide into postpartum depression after her labor and delivery marks the most tumultuous time in her life.

Princeton-educated and seemingly savvy about all sorts of things, she still never knew that feelings of shame, secrecy, helplessness, and despair -- the classic signs of postpartum depression -- may affect as many as one in 10 new mothers within six months of delivery, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. More incapacitating than the "baby blues," postpartum depression is marked by severe sadness or emptiness, withdrawal from family and friends, a strong sense of failure, and even thoughts of suicide. These emotions can begin two or three weeks after birth and can last up to a year or longer if untreated.

For the 6-foot natural beauty, the troubling signs of postpartum depression began almost immediately after she gave birth to her now almost 2-year-old daughter on May 15, 2003. Her husband, television writer-producer Chris Henchy, whom she married in 2001 after her tabloid-fodder split from tennis star Andre Agassi, was supportive if also terribly concerned for his wife and his baby.

"Chris would say, 'Oh, my God, she's crying,' and I would respond, 'Yeah, baby. She's crying. I wonder what she wants?'" she recalls. "It was like this weird alien overtook my body and every appropriate response was answered with the antithesis of what you would assume."

Today, Rowan can cry a mile away and Shields boasts that she can tell whether her daughter is angry, hungry, scared, sad or just looking for the family's 7-year-old American bulldog, Darla. "That's the instinct stuff that you hear about and expect to have on day one," she says.

She claims that she had no mother's intuition at all.

Friends and family were quick to dismiss her sorrow and disinterest as a case of the "baby blues" that would disappear with some much-needed rest. But her sadness escalated rapidly into postpartum depression. Shields found herself crying more than Rowan did, and she says she suffered a mini-breakdown on her first post-pregnancy job interview to do a commercial for Bright Beginnings infant formula. She was plagued by feelings of self-doubt and self-harm. And if thoughts of suicide weren't frightening enough, Shields also suffered disturbing visions of seeing her daughter flying through the air, hitting a wall and then sliding down it, although, she is quick to clarify, she was never the one throwing her.

The words "postpartum depression" didn't mean much to her at first, but they finally hit home when a virtual stranger told her about the guilt, shame, and reclusiveness that were connected to postpartum depression -- the same symptoms she had struggled with since the baby was born.

Exactly which mothers will develop postpartum depression is not fully understood, but risk factors do exist. In Shields' case, these risk factors may have been red flags. They can include a complicated or difficult labor. Rowan was delivered via an emergency C-section with an umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. In addition, Shields' uterus herniated during the surgery, and she lost a lot of blood. Her doctors even considered performing a hysterectomy (the removal of a woman's uterus) if the bleeding did not stop. Fortunately, it did and her uterus was successfully repaired.

Another risk factor for postpartum depression is a temporary upheaval, such as the death of a loved one. For Shields, this was her father, who lost his fight with prostate cancer just three weeks before his namesake was born. She was also still mourning the death of her best friend and Suddenly Susan co-star David Strickland, who committed suicide in 1999.

In addition, women who undergo other stressors, including in vitro fertilization (IVF), may also be at higher risk for postpartum depression. Shields is, as she puts it, "cervically challenged," making conception difficult. Like many women, she underwent several failed attempts at IVF before conceiving and taking a baby to term. Part of the treatment involved Henchy giving her shots of hormones in her rear end to stimulate her ovaries to produce eggs. (The first time he had to do it, she says, he almost passed out, but with practice he became "a pro.") The drugs had to be given so regularly that the couple traveled with the syringes; they feared the tabloids would find out and assume she was doing illicit drugs. Still, IVF challenges were not her only ones. Shields also says she has a short cervix due to scarring that occurred years before when she had surgery to remove precancerous cells. Factor in a highly publicized divorce, a family history of depression, a miscarriage, and no baby nurse or help, , and she was an ideal candidate.

Yet, "it was a surprise to me. How about that one?" she quips. "I think of myself as aware, and all of these things were staring me in the face," she says. But "for each individual thing, I had a justification for how I was going to get through it to make sure it didn't bring me to my knees. I just didn't assume I would be weakened to the point of being affected, and therein lies the stigma."

Now, two years later and seriously considering having more children, Shields is doing what she can to remove this stigma in her new book, Down Came the Rain, due out in May.

"There is a really unfortunate and not-so-pretty part of going through something like this, and nobody wants to admit it, so I figured let me just blow the lid off this, and hopefully it will be able to speak to somebody."

The good news is that treatment for postpartum depression is often extremely effective, says women's health expert Donnica Moore, MD, president of Sapphire Women's Health in Far Hills, N.J. "It is not like treating strep throat, where you are 50% better in 24 hours. It takes some time," she says. Treatment typically involves a combination of therapy and medication, along with plenty of rest and help from family and friends. Shields did all of the above.

"Without therapy, I wouldn't have understood as much, and I think that without medicine, I would not have been clear enough," Shields says.

"There was always a glimmer of something that kept me trying to get better," she says. "I attribute a lot to breastfeeding, because, for me, the physical connection is what I really needed, whether I enjoyed it or not. Somewhere along the line it was undeniable that she was stuck to me," she adds. "I think that was important to my recovery."

Despite all she went through, Shields considers herself lucky. "I was able to get help and I was able to have a support system and recognize [the postpartum depression] relatively early," she says.

Now, she, Rowan and Chris have settled into to a comfortable, bi-coastal routine. She just finished a run on Broadway in Wonderful Town and may do a new sitcom in the fall. And she's taking the family to London this May where she will star in Chicago as the publicity-hungry moll, Roxie Hart.

For the most part, Shields embraces her role as mother and cherishes each milestone that her strawberry-haired toddler experiences, including "cozy time" before naps, a first trip to the zoo, and graduating from a crib to a big-girl bed.

None of this is to say that motherhood is suddenly easy. "Did I want to get up at 1:30 a.m., 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. last night? No. It doesn't get easier, but you start to acclimate, and it becomes less of a burden," she admits.

"Postpartum depression takes certain truths and turns them into the worst version of the truth," she asserts with the clarity of hindsight. "The truth is, your life is changed forever when you have a child, but what you don't factor in is that it might be better and it might be more enriched."

As she forges ahead with her new life, a few scars still remain.

"The scars for me are gaining peoples' trust again, and not feeling the need to bound through my life as 'happy camper lady' to prove how I can do it all and am really happy and it was just a phase," she says. She is now weaning off her medication under a doctor's guidance, as she and Chris consider growing their family.

"I would be lying if I didn't say that I was scared," she says, nervousness apparent in her voice. "I had a bad day yesterday, and my husband looked at me and said, 'Is this because you are going off the medicine?'" Rats had infested the garage of their Los Angeles home and eaten through one of Rowan's special toys. "I had to go through a series of explanations as to why I was entitled to be upset," she says ruefully as she stretches out her long legs clad in caramel-colored corduroys.

Women with a previous history of postpartum depression have about a 50% increased risk of experiencing it again with their next child, experts say.

And this is something Shields knows all too well. "I absolutely want more children, [but] I am not going to all of a sudden become a hero again and defeat the entire purpose of what I just learned. I am a perfect candidate for [another bout with] postpartum depression, and at least I know that now," she says.

"Who knows?" she continues. "I may not feel anything after this second baby, or I may plummet even further, but I am prepared," she says, adding that she plans to find a safe medication to take during her third trimester. "I will have to go through IVF again, but hopefully another parent of mine won't have passed away, and hopefully my best friend won't have just killed himself."

She admits that she is still coming to terms with her father's death and has not yet been able to visit not the home where he lived in Florida. "I honestly don't know how to deal with it. I call out in my head to both David and my dad and say, 'Come on, just please come back.'"

Despite her sorrows and struggles, Shields is showing all the signs of settling into motherhood. Already working by the time she was Rowan's age -- Shields was modeling for Ivory Snow ads at 11 months -- she is fiercely protective when it comes to the notion of her daughter following her rather glamorous path. "If she wanted [to act and model] and was able to articulate it in real terms, I would do everything in my power to make it happen," she says, "but I don't want to be out there subjecting her to any of it. However," and she says this with a proud smile, her lovely eyes twinkling, "last night at this party I made her do every trick that she has ever learned."

"Does that make me a stage mom?" she asks quickly. Well, maybe just a mom.

Originally published in the April/May 2005 issue of WebMD the Magazine.