When I was expecting my son, I expected postpartum depression, too.
With a history of mild but chronic depression and anxiety, I knew I was at a high risk. I had a plan: I could go up on the anti-depressants I took. I could attend postpartum support groups and get a therapist. I was prepared.
Except, you can’t really be prepared.
Not for the bleakness. The unfairness of what is supposed to be a happy time instead feeling so raw and wrong.
I wasn’t prepared for being up for three nights before my son Max was even born. I wasn’t prepared for a hard labor, or a hard infant.
The first night home, we planned to set our new bundle into the bassinet by our bed and he’d sleep. At least for a few hours.
He did not.
Instead, he cried. He nursed and nursed and nursed. He fell asleep, and as soon as I slid him ever so gently back into the little white bassinet, he would startle awake. We’d repeat the process, over and over again.
Meanwhile, my hormone levels plummeted. I lay awake for nights, even for the brief periods when Max slept. Every one of his little snorting, breathing, animal sounds activated my brain.
Lying on my side, milk dripping down my ribs, I watched him breathe. My mind bounced from Is he breathing? to, What have we done? Had we gone and ruined our perfectly good, mellow, quiet, restful life?
More thoughts blazed through my brain. Uninvited images of hurting my baby. The guilt of having the thoughts added to my rapidly increasing depression. What kind of a mother has these thoughts?
A week after Max was born, my husband had to return to work. My parents left for their winter home in California. I was alone.
Except I was not at all alone, because there was a small, unhappy, unsleeping baby with me. All the time.
Slowly, like the drip of winter days, I got better. Some combination of action and time soothed me. And there were two phrases that I clung to that winter.
You didn’t choose this.
Every morning, I’d carry Max downstairs to find the low February sunlight striping our wood floors. It felt so terrible, so bright. The light meant there were still hours to fill before my husband got home from work. What do you do all day with an unhappy newborn, when you’re an unhappy mom?
I felt like a zombie. A tired, miserable, scared, light-hating zombie.
Within a few weeks of Max’s birth, I went to see my midwives. The medical assistant, Marcia, who had taught our birthing group, peppered me with questions. I answered them, sitting in the small room I had sat in so many times during my pregnancy. But instead of measuring my belly or discussing remedies for heartburn, Marcia asked if I was having any thoughts of harming my baby.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. She looked at me, and I felt like she was gazing right through my lie.
“You know, you didn’t choose this,” she said. “It chose you. And I’m so sorry.” She looked serious, but full of kindness.
While her words didn’t boost my mood, they did lighten my load. I hadn’t caused this—it was, like my other bouts with depression, luck of the draw. A lottery of brain chemistry and hormones, genetics and fate.
It gets easier.
After my visit with the midwives, we upped my anti-depressants. I found a therapist, and I started attending the post-partum adjustment group at a local hospital.
I walked into my first post-partum adjustment group on a Wednesday when Max was only a few weeks old. I was exhausted and reeling. But I knew I had to climb out of this somehow—I was responsible for another human being now. I snapped his carseat into the stroller and slowly pushed him through the hospital corridors. The white walls and fluorescent lights were as bland as my mood.
Max and I joined a few other women and their babies around a table in a small conference room. The two facilitators asked us to introduce ourselves and share what brought us here. As our babies nursed or slept, I heard stories mirroring my own. Women with histories of anxiety and depression that returned with a vengeance after birth. And some stories that were different; one woman was clobbered with sudden anxiety a few months after giving birth to her daughter. She’d never been an anxious person before.
One of the hardest parts of post-partum depression is that the birth of a baby is supposed to be a blessing. A harvest of love. Quiet time spent inhaling the soft, earthy sweet smell of new skin. But instead, I felt like I was dying. I couldn’t sooth my baby. I couldn’t sooth myself. And I didn’t feel like I could tell most people.
But at the postpartum group, I felt like I could breathe. Here, with these other tired, anxious women, I didn’t have to pretend.
Most of the women at the group had babies older than mine. One day, the mom who had the sudden onset of anxiety was spooning pureed squash into her daughter’s mouth.
I started sweating, thinking of all I would need to learn about in the months to come: solid food, babyproofing, sunscreen. And later: homework, bullying, puberty. I voiced my concern, and one of the facilitators said something that I clung to.
“Parenting doesn’t usually get easier as you go along.” She paused, leaning forward on the table.
My heart sunk a smidge lower. “But if you have post-partum depression, it does get easier.”
Every Wednesday, I returned to the small cluster of women and babies. I came back all spring and summer. With time and the boost of my anti-depressants, the lengthening light stopped feeling so suffocating. I made some new mom friends, some of whom I met at the post-partum group. We went for walks together, our babies strapped to our chests. We talked about how hard it was, and we pressed our lips to our babies’ scalps.
It was still hard. Max cried a lot. I cried a lot. Becoming a parent is one of the biggest transitions we humans experience. I felt so tethered. The demands to nurse and change diapers were relentless; a dull, exhausting loop.
But it did get easier.
Max is almost five now. And I have a daughter who is almost two. I had post-partum depression with her, too. This time I was even quicker to have my medication adjusted. I already had an amazing support system of mom friends. I knew to ask for help, and I asked quickly.
Parenting is still hard. I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
But I welcome the splay of morning light across the floor every morning, even as it illuminates the parade of toys and crumbs. The light shows the signs of a full family, a full life. The morning light which quickly becomes the afternoon sun, fading all too fast these days. My depression got better. Parenting got better. I got better.
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Ed: Cat Beekmans