My first child came into the world on a sweltering hot June evening. Not even the rain, which came down in heavy sheets as we drove to the hospital, could break the humid cloud that hung in the air that summer.
Thunder bellowed with the rain, rumbling like a low growl from a hungry bear. Lighting chased it’s every snarl. Outside, the world continued on with business as usual. Inside the hospital, my world was forever changed: it was my first night as a mom and my baby daughter had decided to pull an all-nighter.
I started out feeling positive and strong. An I-just-gave-birth-to-a-real-human-being-with-my-own-body-kind of strong. I told myself I was a MOM now. This baby did not scare me. As day turned to evening I was determined to be as fierce and strong as the storm outside my window.
By the middle of the night though, exhaustion set in. The I-just-gave-birth-to-a-real-human-being-with-my-own-body kind of exhaustion. Am I really meant to be a mom? This tiny baby terrifies me. And are newborns supposed to be this wide-eyed? Maybe I should call a nurse, something might be wrong with her. I thought babies, um, slept…like, a lot?
“Alright, tiny creature,” I whispered to the swaddled loaf with eyes-big, beautiful, un-sleepy eyes-that lay in my aching arms. “You can’t beat me. I read all about how babies are awake every few hours to eat in those What-to-Expect books. We have been awake now for almost six hours and it’s 3:00AM so I know the sleep part is coming!”
But it didn’t.
I paced, rocked and pleaded all night long but that baby just wanted to eat, cry and stare at me. Maybe my sincere yet chaotic attempt at putting a baby to sleep for the first time in my life was just so amusing she had to stay awake to witness it. All I know is that we finally fell asleep in the early morning just in time for a nurse to wake us up for a check-up.
When we left the hospital a few days later with our unusual form of an infant who did not sleep like the damn book said, the rain had stopped. The summer heat and sunshine had returned in full force. People all around me were doing normal people things like going to work, visiting with friends and running errands. I on the other hand still felt trapped in a humid cloud. I didn’t know it at the time, but the foggy feeling of not quite being myself, of not being able to focus or feel hopeful no matter how badly I wanted to, was a symptom of post-partum depression. I had skipped that part in the What-to-Expect books because I was strong, remember? So a thing like depression didn’t have a chance of happening to me.
Except it did.
I struggled to feel normal in my own skin. Even the most mundane tasks like getting dressed or buying groceries felt difficult and miserable. I carried a huge weight on my chest wherever I went. I loved my baby but that beautiful, tiny vampire just never slept. Ever. My husband would come home from work to find me in the same position I had been when he had left in the morning: dressed in pajamas and desperately fighting back my own tears while trying to unsuccessfully soothe a crying baby. I looked at all my blessings of a healthy baby, husband and home and felt ashamed I could even feel sad.
It took almost nine months for me to start feeling ok. Looking back I think, “Nine months?!” I let myself feel completely horrible for almost nine months and thought that it was ok, that if I could just be stronger I would overcome this and feel better. Slowly I began talking to my doctor, family and friends. By some miracle and not my own skill, the baby began to sleep more and cry less. I started exercising and getting into a routine. One day close to my daughter’s first birthday I realized for the first time in a long time that I didn’t feel hopeless or trapped in a thick fog.
Two years later one of my best friends told me about that she was feeling depressed after giving birth to twins. Her story reminded me so much of my own, the sadness and on top of that the guilt for your dark thoughts and feelings. I told her about my experience and encouraged her not to wait to get help because she is amazing and deserves to feel that way.
It wasn’t until I listened to my friend that my definition of strong really, truly changed.
She was strong for admitting her depression to me. She was strong because she loved her family and herself enough to try and find help amidst her pain. Strong does not mean hard things do not happen to you or that you can push through hard things alone. We are strongest when we shatter our perfect image and share our struggles to help ourselves and each other. We don’t always realize it or feel it, but we are as strong, if not stronger, in our cloudy times as we are in our sunniest of times.