We conceived our daughter on our honeymoon. How storybook is that? We still tease her that she’s our favorite souvenir. My husband and I couldn’t wait to be parents. We had scandalously talked about children as early as our first or second date. We read the books (well, I did anyway!), and took the baby classes and prepared as best we could.
The pregnancy was uneventful until during a routine appointment, I was told that our daughter was now in a breech position at 38.5 weeks. I was heartbroken. My carefully crafted, natural birth plan was slipping away. At our doctor’s suggestion, we attemped an external version which would allow me to delivery her vaginally. It failed. We went home from the hospital that weekend and celebrated our 1-year anniversary, knowing that our daughter would be born in 3 days. The lovely thing about a scheduled c-section, even if it’s just a few days in advance, was that we could make arrangements for family to come to town from Indiana and Georgia and meet our girl, and help me through the first few days of recovery.
We meet our daughter, a darling little creature, in the Operating Room. I cry when I meet her, although I feel confused and in a heavy fog from the anesthesia. Everyone around me was thrilled to meet our sweet little MJ. As the day progressed, I felt like I was watching this scene from elsewhere rather than having been a participant. Photos are taken. Balloons and flowers are delivered. I smile because I know that I should be smiling. The heavy fog and confusion don’t clear for a few days. We go home. My family cares for me, cooking, and allowing me to rest, and bringing me the baby when she needs to eat. After they go home, my husband and I share responsibilities, establish routines, and try to adapt to our new life. We are filled with joy with this sweet little girl, but something still doesn’t feel right. I join an AMMA New Mama Group. By the time she’s 6 or 8 weeks old, I already have obsessive, intrusive, anxious thoughts.
Because we had only moved to the Twin Cities area right after I became pregnant, we didn’t have a village per se. I had a handful of neighbor friends, and friends that I’d made at work or from the New Mama Group. Other than that, my husband and MJ and I were alone.Things start to slip down the slippery slope of depression. I wasn’t sure what was wrong. I’ve always believed that people who suffer from depression just need work harder to not be sad.
I had such an expectation of myself as a mother because I’d longed to have a family for so many years. I was married to my first husband at 23, and through extensive premarital counseling, we’d mapped out what our life would look like. We discussed how to manage our money, where we’d like to live, how many children we’d have and when we’d start, and monogamy. There were many things that led to our divorce 8 years later, but the big ones were emotional abuse, infidelity, and his desire to not have children. We divorced when I was 31, and I still desperately wanted to have a family. I rationally knew that I had plenty of time, as everyone continually assured me. I knew that I needed to take some time to heal my broken heart and that I needed to stand on my own feet and really find myself after having been controlled and manipulated for my entire adult life.
Motherhood didn’t look or feel at all like I had imagined. I’d spent years and years dreaming of a family: what that family would look like, and how I would parent, and how I would prioritize my marriage, and what my house would look like…and on, and on, and on. I now know that I’m a recovering perfectionist. Those perfectionist tendencies and thoughts lied to me and told me that I was a terrible mother. They told me that my daughter would be better off with anyone else but me, and they told me how to carefully erase myself entirely from her life. I’d find myself up for hours in the night after feedings, sobbing uncontrollably because I was so tired and because I felt like such a failure in comparison to the woman in my head. I’d fall asleep minutes before she woke for the next feeding and the pattern would repeat.
I tried to conceal it from my husband as much as I could because I felt like it would be a huge disappointment, and I didn’t want him to see that side of me. Of course, even though I knew and had been gently reminded through our courtship and marriage that he was a very different man than my ex husband, I was afraid to trust him and be vulnerable with him. I wanted to be strong, and be as little of a burden to him as possible, especially since he’d started a new job and was working very long hours. He was no longer traveling 80% of the workweek, halfway across the country, but was instead working long days in Minneapolis, and then well into the night at home. Instead of sharing my fear and insecurity, I was furious all the time. At her. At myself. At my husband. At my dog. At the red light that caused me to sit with a screaming baby. At the pile of dirty laundry. At the checkout lady at the grocery store. Everything produced fury and rageful tears. My husband would find me in the pantry or bathroom crying when he got home from work, because she wouldn’t be able to see me there. I didn’t want her to see me that way, either.
It became impossible to hide eventually, and I reached out for help. During one of the many calls to my OB’s office, they recommended a therapist and I began regularly trudging to therapy with my girl in tow. It wasn’t until I asked my husband to change the code on our gun safe that my husband became fully aware of how serious things had become. I had promised my therapist that I’d do it and I’ll never forget the expression on his face when I asked. We then weaned her and helped her learn to sleep for longer stretches at night. Life began to turn around. Although I had refused medication for a very long time, I eventually realized that while things were improving, everything that we were doing wasn’t enough. I added an antidepressant to the mix and within a few weeks the fog really began to clear. I was enjoying my girl and playing with her. I knew that I needed to also take care of myself to take care of her. It’s hard to know which of these was the greatest help, or whether it truly took all of them.
I also found that being 100% honest and open with other moms has been tremendously helpful to me. Listening to other authentic stories of motherhood – hearing that other people struggled and overcame those struggles was inspiring. I hope that sharing my story helps someone else fight through their darkness.
I refuse to feed the perfect mom image and be one of those women who appears to have it all together. I’m all about real life. Sometimes a friend needs to just know that parenthood is HARD, and some days you DO count down to bedtime and have the TV on all day and eat leftover chicken nuggets. And that’s ok. For whatever reason, right now we’re faced with the expectation that parenting looks like the sitcoms and movies, or the snippets we see on social media. Life is messy, and complicated, and wonderful at the same time. It CAN be all three at once, and often it is. Next time you’re hosting a playdate, skip the extra cleaning. Brew a pot of coffee or pull out a snack and clear your couch of the laundry you didn’t get folded and put away last night. Sit down with her and just share. If you’re like me, what you’re seeking – authentic connection, true support, and friendship – will come when your new friend notices that you’re not putting on a front.
Something else that I’ve learned? Having another baby after PPD/PPA is possible. I had a completely different experience with my second baby. I had a very realistic expectation for what a newborn needs, and I was terrified that his infancy would also be colored by a deep sadness and feeling of failure. I read voraciously and talked to my doctor about what measures could be safely taken to prevent slipping down that slope the second time. Everything I heard or read reinforced one terrifying fact: I was at a higher risk of experiencing PPD/PPA again this time around.
I was determined to do anything and everything that I could to avoid it. I cooked freezer meals so that we could have a meal on the table easily. I scheduled our long distance family to visit for the first few months in rotations, so that I would have time to rest and recuperate. I had my placenta encapsulated. I ate lactation foods and pumped to increase my supply from the get go. I tried very, very hard to NOT care about the condition of my house or the quality of the meals we were eating. I accepted help whenever it was offered. I took a shower when I felt like it, and if he cried a bit, I knew it would be ok. It didn’t mean that I didn’t love him, and it certainly didn’t mean that he didn’t love me. I sat and just cuddled them both more. Breastfeeding was easier. He was a more relaxed child – or was it because I was more relaxed? He and I are very close – you may call him a mama’s boy – while I feel my daughter and I have a more strained relationship. Sometimes I wonder if that’s a result of my mental state for the first 6-8 months of her life, or if it’s because she and I are so, so similar. We probably won’t ever know. And that’s ok. We’re figuring it out.
There are so many things to ponder when you’re watching your little people grow and change and learn and experience life. If you have PPD/PPA, I want you to know that you are a great mom. This does not define you. This is one of the hardest things you’ll endure, but you will endure it. It’s a chapter in your story, and there are so many more to write. And you know what else? Your baby only knows that you’re it’s mama. The one and only. Their absolute favorite person in the whole wide world. And there’s nothing sweeter than that.