Long before my husband and I even thought about having a baby, I had big plans for how motherhood would go for me. I just knew that the second my little precious bundle of perfection was conceived, life would be complete and all the pieces would fall into place. I would effortlessly sail through a yoga-filled healthy pregnancy, gaining no more than a respectable 15 lbs. (which would melt off almost instantly, of course). And once my sweet baby was born, I would just instantly–poof!– morph into the most perfect version of myself. Oh, I wouldn’t be one of those moms who walked around in the same yoga pants for four days straight, bleary eyed and wandering the aisles of Target with spit up in my hair. No, that was for other moms. I would make sure my hair was always washed and pulled back into a stylishly casual ponytail and I’d waltz around my spotless, all white kitchen (in my fantasies, I have an all white kitchen reminiscent of a Clorox commercial) whipping up Pinterest-worthy snacks and vibrant kale salads for the whole family. That was going to be MY motherhood journey. And, I really believed it, bless my heart.
I don’t want to give away any surprise endings here, but it didn’t exactly go that way. After a particularly rough pregnancy that included 3 hospitalizations for preterm labor, my beautiful daughter was born at 33 weeks. She was absolutely perfect and the minute I laid eyes on her, I was in love. Despite being so early, she had a relatively short stay in the NICU with zero complications and somewhere in the back of my head, I really believed my love and commitment somehow were responsible for her astonishing outcome. She was a week old and I had already nailed this motherhood thing! The rest was going to be a breeze too!
Oh sure, the first few weeks, I experienced periodic bouts of the “baby blues”. I’d suddenly start weeping– I thought– because I was overwhelmed by my love for this perfect little person. But, that would pass, wouldn’t it? Surely these “baby blues” weren’t going to last for more than a few weeks? I’d go to her weekly checkups and fill out the questionnaire at the pediatrician’s office confidently. “Do you feel overwhelmed?” YEAH, OVERWHELMED BY JOY! “Do you feel worried or anxious for no good reason?” NO, I MEAN, I HAVE A GOOD REASON! I JUST MADE A PERSON! ”Do you think you may be depressed?” WHO ME? NOT A CHANCE! Where’s my gold star, Doc? Did I get an A?
You know what? I really wasn’t in denial… as someone who’d grappled with bouts of depression in my teens and 20’s, I wasn’t experiencing depression in the way I had in the past. I was managing the feedings and sleeplessness well enough. I felt connected to my daughter. I was, in fact, happy. But this overwhelming anxiety and fear were always bubbling under the surface. I’d lay my child down to sleep and suddenly I’d be gripped by panic and terrible scenarios would begin to play out in my head. “What if she stops breathing while I nap and I’m asleep and don’t know it? What if I walk downstairs to grab a snack while she’s in her bassinet, and I fall down the stairs and break my neck, and I can’t reach the phone and no one finds me for 12 hours? She’ll starve to death!” The storylines that played out in my imagination were gruesome and terrifying and always centered around the fear that something out of my control would lead to her harm. And this made me panic even more. So I started to think, “What if this isn’t baby blues or PPD? What if I lose my mind and have a psychotic episode, like Andrea Yates? What if I wake up 20 years from now in an institution and realize I’ve done something horrific and didn’t even realize it? What if I am losing my mind? IS THIS REAL LIFE?”
My support system was limited. I only had my mom and my husband to talk to really, and neither of them could comprehend what I was going through, possibly because I had no idea how to talk about it. My mom was still very much grieving the loss of my dad two years earlier… how could I burden her with this? So, I’d allude to feeling “not myself” and my mom would impart her mom-like wisdom and tell me to get some fresh air, go get my hair cut, and nap when the baby napped. My husband, who was adjusting to fatherhood while working 70 hours a week, would listen dutifully but still manage to get annoyed when he’d walk in the door and I’d hand him a colicky baby so I could go in the bathroom and cry.
One of the reasons many of us have a hard time talking about these overwhelming feelings is because we are often met with blank stares and unhelpful advice that ranges from trite to downright judgmental:
Even when we’ve experienced trauma related to the birth of a child, we are still encouraged to suck it up:
Like so many others, I decided the best thing to do was deny, deny, deny. Surely, this was like a cold that would eventually just run its course. “Mind over matter! You can do this!”, I told myself. I refused to think that I needed treatment or medication. I felt like admitting that I was suffering would be admitting that I had been defeated. Like many, I felt that allowing myself to focus on my own mental health was indulgent and selfish when I had this tiny little person who needed me. You’re a mom now, BE HAPPY, like ALL THE OTHER MOMS.
I returned to work 5 weeks postpartum barely able to function. As luck would have it, I worked remotely most of the time and my bosses, who I’d never actually met face-to-face, had no clue how much of a struggle my job was for me. Somehow I managed to eke out a barely satisfactory performance. Others, however haven’t been as lucky.
It wasn’t until my daughter was 7 months old that I sought help. After a particularly terrifying and panic-filled evening, I called my husband at work and begged him to hurry home. If nothing else, I needed validation. I needed to know I was ok… I needed confirmation that I was there, safe at home and that I hadn’t completely lost my mind. What I really needed was a hug.
I called my PCP the next morning and tearfully begged them to see me that same day. The moment my doctor walked in the room, I started crying and I begged him to write me a script for Zoloft and that day, I started working my way out of that deep dark hole I’d dug myself into.
No one ever told me what PPD was really like. I mean, I knew other moms suffered from PPD, but I didn’t know what that actually meant. If I’d ever known that intrusive thoughts were not uncommon, maybe I would have sought help sooner. If women knew that feeling “disconnected” from their child was a telltale sign of PPD, and not proof of being a “bad mother”, many of us might feel more comfortable seeking support. The fact is, we don’t know how to talk about it, so we don’t talk about it… and sometimes these problems persist for weeks, months… even years. Even if we do “get better”, or seek help in the form of therapy or medication, the shame and fear linger and many– myself included– fear having subsequent pregnancies.
I wish I could end this post with a triumphant tale of redemption and victory over PPD. I wish I could tell you that Zoloft was a magical cure for me. It wasn’t. It helped me cope. It helped me function. It helped me remain employed. It somewhat quieted the rush of anxious thoughts that were constantly making my daily life unlivable. And, that was my journey. Some women find success in meditation, or yoga. Many find success with talk therapy (or, the cheaper version, joining online Mommy Groups where they can vent somewhat anonymously with other moms). Some have found essential oils or dietary changes to be helpful. We all do what we have to do to to keep one foot moving in front of the other.
If you’re struggling with postpartum depression/anxiety or intrusive thoughts, please don’t suffer silently. You are not alone. You are not weak. You might feel like nothing will ever be ok again, but I promise you… it will. You may never master those pesky Pinterest crafts or get your kids to eat that kale salad you can’t seem to get quite right (bbbbut… the recipe said that KIDS LOVE IT!?) and the chances you’ll ever have that sparkling all white kitchen are pretty slim… but there will come a day that you will stop and take a look at yourself,– as is, with all your perfect imperfections–and realize you’re kinda already nailing this motherhood thing… four day old yoga pants notwithstanding.