I wrote this post in hopes that it might help another mother somewhere out there. You should know that these events happened nearly five years ago, and I couldn’t have written about them then if I tried. For the longest time, I resisted calling the thing what it was: postpartum depression. I didn’t realize how bad I felt until I finally started feeling better.
My perspective is much clearer now than it ever was then. Now I am able to tell my story. I hope it is a heartening one.
Like most first time expectant moms, I was thrilled to be having a baby- and I had a pretty clear idea of how I would handle our new addition. After all, I had a lot of experience with kids. I babysat regularly, worked at a daycare in both the infant and toddler room, and was a state certified K-12 music teacher. Naturally, I would know what I was doing- right?
I spent my pregnancy studying birth, preparing a nursery for months in advance, sorting through newborn clothes, and collecting little keepsakes. I counted kicks, belly-watched, dreamed baby names… My entire world revolved around welcoming this child.
Another mother gave me a book called The Mask of Motherhood, to help share with me what she wished she had known before having a child. The book divulged the darker parts of motherhood that many women don’t talk about- at least not publicly. I foolishly shrugged the book off, thinking that those things wouldn’t happen to me. (Ha, ha.)
In my mind, it seemed that I would naturally fall into motherhood with grace and ease. I would have my home birth, I would breastfeed, and I would care for my infant with love and song. As he grew, I would be a smiling, soft-spoken, “warm-cup-of-milk” type of mother who played with him in the fields. Of course it would have seemed absurd to admit that I didn’t expect to have any trouble with transitioning to motherhood- but I really didn’t.
Well, I had my home birth, and it was just as beautiful as I had hoped. And in fact, the first few weeks- even months- of motherhood were relatively what I expected. Sure, we had a few challenges getting the hang of breastfeeding, but we were fairly comfortable with it by the time my son was 3 or 4 weeks old. Yes, we were tired from getting up in the night- but of course, isn’t that what all babies do?
But as the months went on, things began to get less simple. Let me set the stage.
My husband was a couple of months into his first semester of a full-time online grad school program. He also was working his regular full-time job (a basil farm), and doing part time work at 2 other locations. He would get up at 6:30 to go to the farm, finish around 3-4 p.m., then go off to his part time jobs until 7 or 8 p.m. Then he would come home and work on his graduate studies late into the night. Sometimes he’d still be up typing at 2 a.m. Then he’d get up the next day and do it all over again.
(A fair representation of our life at the time.)
Meanwhile, our son was anything but a good sleeper. Was it a result of first time parent syndrome, his own personality, or a combination of the two? We’ll probably never know entirely. Regardless, I was up in the night with him far more than seemed normal for his age. And, being the good first-time parent that I was, I made sure to always nurse him in the rocker and never bring him to bed. This translated into me being up about every 2 hours for an hour or so each time- on a good night.
I gradually became more and more exhausted from the lack of sleep. I dreaded when he awoke from nap. Nighttime was more like a nightmare. I would bounce, nurse, rock, sing, pat, whisper, and beg him back to sleep on and off for hours on end. I would crawl out of his room on hands and knees, pleading that he would just give me another hour- heck, even another 20 minutes of rest.
During this time, I had a community of many other mothers around me, many of whom I dearly love and respect. Typically, this would be a really good thing for a new mom. However, I had a major problem with self-doubt and comparison, and to me, the other mothers were a constant reminder of my own self-envisioned failures.
I felt as though I was trudging through- and slowly drowning in- a pool of constantly conflicting advice. Hold your baby, you can’t spoil him vs. you’ve gotta let him cry sometimes! Co-sleeping is how you form a strong bond with your child vs. co-sleeping is how you ruin your marriage. Breastfeed on demand vs. he doesn’t need it- he’s only crying because he expects to be nursed.
You must know that none of these women ever spoke to me critically. They cared for me, spoke kindly, and in most instances, they were just relating their own experiences- not actually telling me what to do. But my hormonal, sleep-deprived mind read much into our conversations. Every time someone offered a helpful suggestion, I felt overwhelmed with how wrong I must be doing it.
Then there were the parenting books. Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child. The No-Cry Sleep Solution. The Baby Book. And so on and so forth. I kept looking for the magic formula that would make this sleep and baby thing a little easier. But it didn’t exist.
I became immobilized as a parent. My gut was wrenched over little decisions. Every time I would go to breastfeed (again), I would worry people would think I was nursing him too much. Every time I decided to make him wait, I would inwardly be fretting over our relationship. Whenever he started to cry, I felt like my blood pressure spiked. I was sweaty, anxious, and anything but confident.
A fog crept over me. I cried daily, sometimes multiple times a day. I started eating all the time to keep up my energy- except for when I was having a particularly rough day- then I skipped meals altogether. I spent too much time on the computer. I began experiencing regular insomnia, despite my exhaustion. Though we were living with family at the time (again, a very good thing for a new mom), I often hid in our room so I wouldn’t have to make a public appearance. I avoided going out with friends because I felt I couldn’t hold it together long enough to keep up the facade that we were doing just fine.
Though I loved him more than anything, I began to resent my son. So many struggles came with raising a baby that I hadn’t expected. Caring for him didn’t come easily, and I hated that I was always second guessing myself. Beyond that, our marriage was suffering from lack of time, sleep, and communication. I didn’t feel motivated to do much of anything- work, cleaning, exercise, music practice… I thought I would never be able to sing again.
I blamed myself. I’m just not adjusting well to mothering, I told myself. I became more and more angry with my own lack of ability. I wasn’t made to do this. He deserves a better mother. I sincerely believed that I was doing him a disservice by my existence. I secretly wished that someone else could just be his mother in my place.
Words a friend had said to me when I was pregnant echoed in my mind: “It will take you about eight weeks to adjust to having a baby, then you’ll find a routine.” Well, I was going on ten months and still hadn’t found it. This, to me, said that it was never going to happen. Never.
I began to feel a deep sense of hopelessness. While I didn’t spend every minute of every day crying, I faced a pervasive darkness that I could see no obvious way to escape. Most people- even those close to me- never would have guessed I was having such a hard time.
During this time, one of the only passions that kept me going- as silly as it may sound- was my interest in (and addiction to) all things birth. I suppose it makes sense- it was the only part of being a mother that gave me any confidence, so naturally, I clung to it. I had such a positive experience with my prenatal care and birth that I decided to become a doula.
One of the books I was reading for my doula training was called This Isn’t What I Expected: Overcoming Postpartum Depression (affiliate link). I picked it up, expecting to be able to better help other mothers after reading it. What I didn’t realize was that I was the one who needed to read it.
I read the checklist for postpartum depression: Crying at least once a day, inability to concentrate, no interest in regular activities, feeling like a failure, lack of energy, annoyance and anger at everything, hopelessness, the sense that I would feel this way forever…
I was actually surprised- Wow. I could say yes to almost every one of these symptoms. Is this what’s been going on? I honestly had thought that I was just a bad mother.
Very slowly, I began to recognize that what I had been experiencing was not normal. I had been wrestling with postpartum depression for months, but always blamed my struggles on my own insufficiencies. I never thought that there might actually be a real problem. Once I gave myself permission to acknowledge my depression, I began to feel great relief.
It wasn’t my fault. I wasn’t just a bad mother. It wouldn’t always feel this awful.
It was as if I was locked in a dark, dusty room for months and someone had finally opened the door to invite the sunshine in. A beautiful world was waiting for me, if only I was willing to step outside.
I’m happy to say that my journey up out of the mire was much shorter than the time I spent wallowing in it. While I still struggle with depressive tendencies, I learned a lot of tools during this time that help me to keep it at bay. If you think you may be struggling with PPD, please talk to an educated, trusted friend or professional to seek help. You will be so glad you did.