Editorial note: I've been working on this post for almost 2 weeks. It's never going to be perfect, so it's time to get it out there.
This is a post that's been a long time coming -- I've been thinking about writing it ever since Tom Cruise opened his misinformed, obnoxious trap to spew his thoughts on postpartum depression. But I've been quite recently inspired by Meghan's excellent and heartfelt post about her experiences with PPD, and by Dawn's piece on the same topic on The Gimlet Eye. In the case of PPD, I think there's power in sharing the information, sharing our experiences so that women everywhere know that they are not alone and that there's help to be had.
Before Mimi was born I read book after book about all the physical and mental and lifestyle changes that I could expect with a new baby, so I felt pretty well prepared. But I must say that even though I anticipated major hormonal changes after the delivery, I had no idea where or how they'd hit or the extent to which they'd impact me. When my body started the roller coaster ride that I attributed to hormones, I was surprised at the intensity of the mood swings. I distinctly remember the onset of the post-delivery hormones, when Mimi was just two days old and I was on the phone with a coworker. I was espousing the wonders of being a mom -- of feeling that bond, and the nurturing -- and I was so high from the excitement of having my baby girl right there, finally born, that I cried tears of real joy. A few hours later, I was sobbing with emotion at feeling overwhelmed, like I'd never be a good enough mom to this little baby who was so dependent on me.
And that's how those first wonderful, awful weeks went. Moments of complete elation and happy tears followed within just a short time by periods of despair and sadness. Of course it was largely the hormones racing through my body, compounded by the bizarre sleep schedules that most parents of newborns must quickly adjust to. Objectively, I understood that -- but for some reason, I was really hard on myself for feeling bad.
I hated the periods of sadness when they'd overwhelm me -- I felt trapped by my own body and not entirely in control. Even though I knew it was at least a case of the "baby blues," I was very judgmental of myself for feeling the least bit unhappy with life. I mean, here I had this beautiful, healthy baby -- it just seemed irrational and ungrateful for me to feel bad when I'd been blessed with a little miracle in Mimi. But see, this is the message that we moms sometimes get -- that we should be thrilled with having a newborn, that it's all wonderful and miraculous. We don't feel comfortable even admitting to ourselves that everything is less than hunky dory. And some of the advice that's meant to make us feel better -- "just sleep when the baby sleeps," "this will pass when the baby's a little older," "don't worry about the house -- you can clean when you're settled into a routine" -- just makes it worse. Because when you're feeling so hopeless and full of despair, you can't think beyond that moment of unhappiness.
10:00 PM in particular was the witching hour for me during my trials with PPD. My mom would have the TV on, and as soon as I'd hear the distinctive music for the beginning of "Law and Order" this incredible sense of dread would overwhelm me. Although I hate to cry in front of anyone, particularly my mom, I would stand in the living room with tears streaming down my face. I could not express to my mom or J what I was feeling -- just this incredible sense of terror at facing the night. I am not sure how it happened, but after a couple of nights J and my mom seemed to make an unspoken pact that one of them would stay up with me in the evening until I put Mimi down for the night. Somehow they figured out that the late night feeding was just too much for my fragile emotional state.
Let me state here that I do not recall having any feelings of harming either of my girls during my bouts of PPD. Some moms have described intense feelings that they might accidentally harm their babies. What I do recall is my own thoughts of my life ending. I wouldn't say I was suicidal, just so overwhelmed with a sense of hopelessness that I honestly felt like I could just lay down and die and it would all be for the best. It's strange because I know these days if I felt like I was in harm's way, I'd fight tooth and nail to live so that I could be here for my girls. But during those dark, dark days, I honestly did not think it would be a bad thing if I just passed away in my sleep -- and during the worst moments I really wished I WOULD, just to stop feeling so miserable.
I really don't know how I finally figured out that the way I was feeling was not normal. I know my mom and J were concerned, but I never shared with them the extent of how I was feeling -- I guess I felt like it was my own personal hell that I needed to just work through. I didn't get out much during my first maternity leave, so I was able to keep my feelings from just about everyone I knew. With one big exception, something that helped to open my eyes... one of my coworkers (a mom of three who was also raising her teenage granddaughter) was printing baby pictures from my web site to show off in my office. When I brought Mimi into the office one day, she showed me the binder of photos that she'd created, and apologized for not having many photos of me in the group. "It's just because you look so sad in all of the pictures," she explained, glancing carefully at my face. "Just tired," I muttered -- but I think she knew. And at that moment I knew too.
I wasn't doing a good job pretending everything was OK. My friend was right -- if you look at Mimi's baby pictures, I look so sad. I really wanted to suck it up and be OK on my own. But finally I decided I couldn't do it -- I needed to get help.
The "getting help" part was mercifully anti-climatic. Since I'd been on antidepressants one other time during a difficult period in my life, I was able to check in with my doctor and get a new prescription. As the medicine started to take effect, my world began to come into focus. I could smile and coo at my baby, I could lay down and not feel like I wanted to die. I felt human again.
During my second pregnancy, I made sure to stock up on antidepressants so that if I started feeling bad, I would be all set. I did have some depression with Rosie, but it never reached the level of severity I'd had with Mimi thanks to the medication. Unfortunately, although the depression wasn't as bad with Rosie, it had a later onset and has lingered for a longer period of time. As Rosie's second birthday nears, I'm starting to feel like my body is shifting (physically and mentally) back to its old state. Well, let me rephrase that -- I'll never be exactly the same, now that I'm a mom, but I'm starting to love myself again.
That, like this post, has been a long time coming.