“As it stands, motherhood is a sort of wilderness through which each woman hacks her way, part martyr, part pioneer; a turn of events from which some women derive feelings of heroism, while others experience a sense of exile from the world they knew.” – Rachel Cusk
I read these words in this blog post many moons ago, and they have stayed with me ever since.
I have battled depression on and off for as long as I can remember. Looking back on my first pregnancy I'm not sure why I didn't think more about the possibility of postpartum depression, but for whatever reason, I just didn't. I was too busy putting all of my concern on becoming a mother in general. Daniel and I had not planned on having kids, not that we had anything against children. It just wasn't in the vision we had for our lives. We enjoyed the freedom our lives held and not having to make decisions based on someone other than each other. We both felt strongly about adoption and knew that should we ever change our minds, this was the route we would want to take.
When we found out I was pregnant, we were both shaken. I can still remember every detail of that evening. We knew there was a chance I was pregnant, but even as I took the test, I still thought in the back of my mind it would be negative. After seeing that it was positive, I don't think either of us spoke for several minutes. The picture we had in mind for our lives would now look completely different. We only shared that I was pregnant with both of my best friends. Aside from that, we didn't share the news with anyone until I was nearly twenty weeks along. We wanted the chance to process on our own without the outside perspective that so often comes with sharing that you are about to become parents.
I was fortunate to have a very healthy pregnancy with no issues or complications. As we prepared for the birth and this change in our lives we read books and took classes, slowly trying to prepare. It was around then that Daniel experienced a shift and started feeling more excited at the idea we were having a baby. I was still somewhere in between. We had waited to find out the gender, and we spent a lot of time guessing. We were both hoping for and picturing, a little boy. I thought a lot about what I wanted from my birth experience and did my best to make a 'plan' while also remembering that things could quickly change. One day I will write posts all about my birth experiences with each of my children, but for now, I will say that my labor and delivery went well. I was able to have an unmedicated vaginal birth (which was my hope) with Daniel and my best friend Megan next to me. I remember the midwife saying 'it's a boy!' and me asking if she was sure. By this point, I was utterly exhausted and almost unable to hold my head up. They laid him on my chest, and everything just felt very surreal. The bonding experience is so different for everyone, and even from child to child. I was nervous before he was born, wondering how I would feel. While I didn't feel any intense connection right away, I also didn't feel as sad as I had feared I might either. I took this as a good sign. We named him Fox.
The first weeks at home, things were going ok. Fox was a pretty good sleeper at night and would go right back to sleep after his feedings. We were extremely grateful for this. Lack of sleep as a parent is no joke. As the weeks passed though things started to change and he began to cry more and more throughout the day. Some days it felt like it was all he did. I was doing my best to take care of him and me, but in the process neglecting myself a lot. I was barely eating, something I tried to keep hidden. My husband would come home from work, and I would lie and say I had already eaten dinner. I knew that he would be upset and try to talk me into eating, but I had no desire. I knew how unhealthy it was, especially because I was breastfeeding, but the thought of eating food just made me nauseous. I remember people saying how amazing I looked, like I hadn't even had a baby, and each time I would think to myself how they had no idea why. I would give a small smile and not respond. For months I just pushed through, thinking that at some point it had to get better. That I would begin to find more happiness in this new role, that our son would start to cry less. Some days I would lock myself in my closet and sob on the floor while he napped. At night I would stand in the shower and sob. I felt so empty and all alone, eaten up with guilt over having a healthy baby and yet no joy.
I started experiencing anxiety, which was something entirely new for me. We would be out in public somewhere, sitting, and the entire time I would be running through things nonstop in my head. What would I do if he started crying? What will I do if he needs a diaper change? What if he needs to nurse? Will I stay here, go to a bathroom, the car? How long should we stay? On and on and on it went. It was impossible to enjoy myself because I spent all of my time anticipating the worst, which may or may not even happen. I just kept slapping on a good face and going through the motions. I was still convinced that at some point it would change. I assured myself that as I 'got the hang of things' it would be easier. I would be myself again.
As Fox neared six months things weren't improving for either of us. He still cried so much during the day, and I was slowly unraveling. My body ached so much I would wake up every morning and slowly shuffle into the kitchen. My anxiety wasn't getting any better. My mood was all over the place. I would be ok one minute and down the next. During this same time, Fox had been going to physical therapy for a flat spot on his head. It was a small practice with really great staff, a place I didn't mind being, which was high praise from me at that time. I was in the waiting room one day and noticed a book 'This Isn't What I Expected, Overcoming Postpartum Depression.' I immediately made a mental note to buy it and read it. We went back the next week for his appointment, and I began talking with his physical therapist. I casually mentioned that I had seen the book in the waiting room and that I had started reading a copy. She glanced at me and then told me that the book had once belonged to her (her son was now a teenager). We were quiet for a minute, and then I shared that I was feeling overwhelmed and like my life was moving around me all the time while I just stood still. She asked me if I felt that way a lot. This moment would later become the one where things began to shift for me. Only I didn't know it just then. I remember when she asked me she sounded casual, but her eye contact was meaningful. I thought to myself, 'this is it, I have a choice to lie or to tell someone the truth.' I simply replied 'yes.' We didn't talk anymore after that. The room was chaotic with people in and out, and Fox needed to get through his appointment. We left, and I thought 'that's it, I said yes, I shared the truth.' It felt freeing.
We went back for our next appointment a few days later, and after the session, she took me aside and handed me a card for a psychologist she knew. One that specialized in women dealing with pregnancy and postpartum issues. I sat in the car staring at the card wondering why I hadn't thought of this before. Why had I not seen what was going on with myself? As someone who had done therapy before, tried several depression medications in college, battled depression for as long as I could remember, it felt like I should have already known what was going on, but I hadn't. I had been so focused on putting one foot in front of the other and keeping my head above water that I had overlooked that my anxiety was ruling my life. Later that same day I called the number on the card, and we made plans to meet. I went to my first session and just let it all out, the sadness, the anxiety, the guilt, and stress. I began going to therapy weekly and taking things one day at a time.
I went out to dinner with Fox's physical therapist, and she shared her story with me. She had struggled with postpartum mental health issues after the birth of her son. Meeting another mother who had experience with what I was going through was one of the most valuable things for me. I don't know if I will ever be able to thank her enough for everything she did, but mostly for just being honest with me. Her honesty was what set me free. I slowly started letting go of the guilt I had been feeling over my depression and instead tried focusing on myself and making my own health a priority. I started seeing a chiropractor to help with the physical pain I was having. With every passing day and week, things began to get better.
As Fox reached ten months his crying started to change, he cried less throughout the day, and this had a massive impact on me. My anxiety was still there, but I was getting better at managing it. I was now able to leave my house without complete panic planning every little detail, or more importantly, panic over the unknown. Would my son have a meltdown at dinner? Maybe, but if he does I can, and I will handle it. I am not really alone, it will be ok, and we will get through it. We started preparing for Fox's first birthday, and it felt like a big milestone. Almost more for me than for him. I was beginning to feel more comfortable with myself, trusting myself more as a mother. I started feeling more like the me that I once knew before having a kid. It felt like the two versions of myself were finally beginning to merge. I woke up one morning the week of Fox's first birthday and realized for the first time in a long time that I felt ok. Feeling ok after a year of feeling desperate, alone, and like I was drowning in my own worry was huge. While the worst parts seemed like they were behind me, I continued therapy regularly. I started talking about my experience and feelings with every mother I knew, strangers I met, literally anyone and everyone. I came across so many women who felt like I did. Even if they hadn't experienced postpartum depression or postpartum anxiety they were just overwhelmed by how hard being a mother could be. Connecting with other mothers and being able to share my experiences without judgment was a vital part of my recovery. Without it, I'm not sure where I would be.
While I no longer have postpartum depression or anxiety, I still have days where it's hard, days where the guilt and anxiety creep up, days where I have, in fact, failed. But now, three years and another kid later, I have learned to take it in stride (for the most part) and to let go of that desire to control everything or be everything all the time. I'm a mother, but I'm still me. I'm human just showing up every day trying to do better but realizing I might not. And I'm ok with that.