After I had my second baby, I immediately realized while in the hospital, lying on a bed covered in birth glory, surrounded by a flurry of nurses and holding a screaming brand new baby, that I had postpartum depression with my first son who was born three years earlier.
I knew because as I held new little Greyson in my arms I was flooded with everything other women described. I wanted to sing the praises of the little gooey marshmallow while he screamed. I was off in the hills of Austria twirling in circles and singing a saccharine soprano. My personal appearance aside, I wanted pictures, I was smiling and in captive awe, all at once. It was serene and beautiful. It was everything I had been robbed of when I gave birth to Teddy.
Three years prior I lay on a bed in the same hospital, on the same floor, with the same doctor. I held the baby boy for the first time. He was quiet and still, probably as exhausted as I was from the lengthy and strenuous process of breaking free into the world. I was worried, I was tired and I felt like crying. There was love, every part of me loved that baby boy, but equal parts of me feared him.
The fear that consumed me was the idea of the baby being hurt and I wondered if I would be the one who would inadvertently hurt him. I felt myself keeping him at a safe distance while I thought and wondered and studied. I had more questions than answers and my mind never settled into the joy of brand new parenthood. My emotions spiraled and I felt a certainty that the only thing I would succeed at was messing everything up.
I didn’t feel as open to love as I had expected I would. I didn’t feel an overwhelming bond. Feelings of inadequacy pulled the emotional plug and left the drain open for any happiness to run through. I wasn’t sure if I even felt like a mother. This was surely the baby I had longed for. This was the one I had been growing and giving life to for nine months. Where were those feelings now?
“The baby blues” the nurses said. “Your breast milk is creating unfamiliar hormones and you’ll sort through them”. I took the balm they offered and spent the short hospital stay acclimating to nursing my baby, changing diapers and trying to remove tiny articles of clothing from the squirming and screaming eight pound spider monkey. There was no sleep, there were a lot of tears and there were a lot of lessons from the staff. I did my best to gain confidence, but the idea of taking the baby home terrified me. I thought my house was now deadly, germ infested and unsuitable for a baby. The hospital seemed cleaner, better prepared and I thought briefly of making up excuses to not go home.
I never wanted to hurt the baby. I never wanted to hurt myself. I thought those were the things that defined postpartum depression. I did not understand or accept that feeling paralyzing inadequacy and fear of your surroundings were related. I didn’t foresee that my inability to bond with the baby was the beginning of an escalating depression that would eventually lead to me refusing to leave our apartment.
My family came to my aide every day and encouraged me to walk, or drive or go for coffee. They offered to take us to dinners, buy us presents and watch the baby. I couldn’t let the baby out of my sight. I couldn’t leave his side, even while he slept. I would not walk or leave the house because the outside world felt too big and consuming. I worried over minutiae, I cried at the thought of putting the baby in his car seat and loading him into the car. It overwhelmed me, even the small tasks.
Two weeks passed and my feelings didn’t abate. The negativity continued to consume my life. The nights waking with the baby turned into pure survival. I would sit up and nurse the baby and mentally fend off unlikely worst case scenarios of the baby being dropped, suffocating or rolling off the bed. I was too worried to sleep, even when the baby would sleep. I couldn’t turn my mind off; life felt like prison. There were no bars or restrictions other than what I was self-inflicting.
I cried every day for three months, never realizing that the mothers I was in contact with were not having this experience.
There is no normal. Especially when bringing a baby home to join the fold. Normal gets upheaved and jostled around like the ingredients in a martini shaker. Your new normal may not fall into place for some time. It’s different for every family. I drew the conclusion that this was my new normal.
I told everyone I was coping, handling myself, totally in love, motherhood wasn’t hard or awful. I pretended I was healing when I wasn’t. It was mostly out of shame that I lied to everyone. Fear of being judged weak. I couldn’t stand to be seen as an unfit mother, or as someone who could not take care of her responsibility. It felt like drowning in plain view and it felt like I was going under alone.
I still never realized or admitted that I may have depression; I knew that I didn’t want to hurt the baby, or myself and I misunderstood that to be the symptom to get help for. I was in denial that the other symptoms were going to require intervention. I continued to hide all of my feelings.
I struggled for 18 months with the fear, stress and consuming negativity of depression. The fog eventually cleared, my son eventually slept soundly, I was able to rest and pick myself up in pieces.
With the intention of losing weight, I ate healthier and was exercising regularly, which unbeknownst to me was helping to heal the depression I was in denial of. I was lucky. Things could have gone much worse with untreated postpartum depression.
I am fortunate to have the second child experience to draw from, to see the range in healthy emotion and to reassess my previously unhealthy mental state. My hindsight has brought all of this into the forefront.
I would not have had to suffer in isolation for so long if I had been able to clearly see that I needed help.
The mind has a mighty ability to fight and survive, even in the darkest times. It will sometimes use denial to defend itself and maintain homeostasis.
Postpartum depression doesn’t always go away. It isn’t always easy to detect or understand. It’s easy to find denial and assure yourself that everything is ok, even when it is glaringly not. Depression is not weakness. It is mistaken for a flaw, it makes you feel unworthy, but you are not. Depression is the problem, not the parent. You’re not unfit. You’re not irresponsible. You’re not crazy.
Depression will convince you of all these things. If there is any part of you that feels hopeless, or if worry and stress are interfering with your day, or your ability to be your best self and best parent, then call. Call your midwife, your OB, your doctor. Call your mother and make her call your doctor for you. Call me. Just do not suffer alone. Kick depression out on its ass because you are wonderful, you deserve to be happy. You will find joy again and parenting will feel rewarding. You can heal. You will never be wrong for seeking advice.
If you are the partner of a woman suffering from postpartum depression, hold her, feel her emotions with her. Let her cry. Make the call together. Don’t let her suffer alone.
Read more from Chrissy here!