First of all, I’m not writing this because my experience with postpartum depression and anxiety is unique in any way. I’m writing this because my story is not unique at all.
Numbers Don’t Lie
Research conducted by the CDC shows that, in the United States, 1 in 9 women develop symptoms of postpartum depression following the birth of a child.
Now, 11% of mothers might not sound like that much. But consider this: there were almost 4 million births registered in the United States in 2015. Since some of those were multiples born to a single mother, we can estimate that around 400,000 women experience postpartum depression following the birth of a child.
And that doesn’t even take into account those women who develop symptoms following a miscarriage or stillbirth. It also doesn’t take into account other postpartum mood disorders, such as postpartum anxiety or postpartum psychosis.
My completely unscientific, unsupported guess? The number of women experiencing some sort of postpartum mood disorder is probably upwards of 800,000. In other words, you are not alone.
But This is a Taboo Topic
But, according to Postpartum Progress, only about 15% of women will ever receive treatment for postpartum depression.
Women are expected to be happy following the birth of a child, and there is a lot of judgement and stigma surrounding any other emotion. Especially postpartum depression. Sure, people allow for a brief period of the baby blues, but you’re supposed to get over it and settle into motherhood, right?
For most people, yes. But that’s not what happens for everyone, and the stigma only makes things worse. Women don’t feel like they can talk about their negative feelings surrounding motherhood, their babies, and themselves. They’re unlikely to receive appropriate support from family and friends who can’t understand, and they’re less likely to receive treatment. All because we don’t talk about postpartum depression and anxiety enough.
And that’s why I’m writing this. Because my story is not unique, and yet I felt completely alone. Even knowing that some of my friends had experienced postpartum depression, I had a really hard time reaching out for help. But it was when I did reach out for help that I began to heal.
So I hope that by sharing my story I can help reassure you that you are not alone, and encourage you to reach out for help in your own way.
Things will get better.
This is My Story
I Had a (Mostly) Uneventful Pregnancy
I was nauseated practically the entire time, had a hard time eating, and kind of ended up shrinking around Potato (as we called my then-unknown passenger). People congratulated me as if this were some kind of accomplishment. They didn’t seem to know what to say when I told them I’d rather be fat than sick.
That’s really the only negative I remember from my pregnancy. The hormones improved my pre-existing depression and anxiety, and made my hair grow super fast. My hand didn’t hurt when writing for the first time in years. And since I was pregnant over the summer, I wasn’t teaching and could spend my time absorbing all the baby books I could get my hands on.
I researched pregnancy and parenting, breastfeeding, baby wearing, attachment parenting, baby led weaning, and Montessori floor beds. I learned how to parent like the French (kinda), and read all about the dangers of the medicalized birth. I wrote out my natural birth plan and hired a doula. I drove an hour and a half each way for my prenatal appointments, so that I could be seen by a midwife instead of an OB.
I was going to do everything “right”.
(I’ll wait right here while you laugh. Go ahead, take your time.)
And Then I Actually Had a Baby
Little Bit was two and a half weeks early.
I went into labor three days before our scheduled hospital tour. Luckily, I have a tendency to over-plan, and my hospital bag was already packed. The Medic was at work, 90 minutes away. The hospital was also 90 minutes away, and NOT in the same direction. He was obviously panicked.
I felt disbelieving, like the moment we got to the hospital they would tell me I wasn’t actually in labor. But my water had broken, contractions had started, and they admitted me without issue.
My Natural Birth Plan Crumbled
Labor was extremely fast and painful. As I approached full dilation after being at the hospital for only two and a half hours, I demanded an epidural. I looked at the Medic and through gritted teeth told him, “I want an epidural. And yes, I know what I’m saying, and no, I won’t change my mind.” I had talked so much about wanting to avoid medication, and I didn’t want there to be any ambiguity to my demands.
By midnight I was fully dilated, and happily oblivious to anything going on below my belly button. The Medic had even relaxed enough to start chit-chatting about medical equipment with the nurses.
They let me rest for a bit, and then came the pushing. For four hours. With no result. Little Bit was sunny-side-up and refusing to budge. (This was my first indication that she had probably gotten a double-dose of stubbornness from her daddy and me.)
So about fourteen hours after my water broke, completely depleted, tense, and numb (emotionally and because, you know, epidural), I agreed to a c-section.
Had I Sabotaged Myself?
Now let me tell you something. To this day, all of this feels like it was at least somewhat my fault. I distinctly remember thinking, several days before I went into labor, that this would all be so much easier if I could just have a c-section. I didn’t think too much about actually having the baby beforehand, because I was actually terrified.
Terrified of the uncertainty, and the pain, and all the horror stories, and the expectation that the evil doctors would try to talk me into things I didn’t actually need. And to this day, the natural birth proponents in my head whisper that I probably made my body tense up so much that Little Bit couldn’t budge.
I caused this because I didn’t trust myself, or my body, to do what it needed to do, you see.
But by the time I agreed to that c-section, I absolutely did. not. care. I just wanted it all to be over. And not that much later, it was, and I had this perfect, new squalling little human presented to me.
But the numbness continued. While the Medic and the nurses cooed and fawned over Little Bit, I mostly just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t have any inclination to reach out and touch her, and I didn’t really care if her bassinet was nearby. I watched her from my bed, and thought that my disinterest must be due to exhaustion and pain medication.
Breastfeeding Was a Disaster
The lactation consultants in the hospital all told me I was doing great at breastfeeding. They told me Little Bit had a strong latch, and showed me how to use the hospital’s breast pump in between feeding sessions.
But when we got home everything fell apart. At first Little Bit just refused to latch, but then every time I tried to feed her she would scream. Finally, I sent the Medic to the basement for one of the formula samples we had received.
Little Bit happily sucked down her formula, and I’d like to say I never looked back.
But I did. I tried to appease my anxiety by pumping milk, but it was extremely painful and made the skin of my nipples peel off. And my milk never actually came in, anyway.
I cried a lot during those first few days. I remained disconnected from everything, probably because there were just too many emotions boiling inside for me to process. I constantly had to fight back the thought that I must be poisoning my baby with all the chemicals. That I had failed because I couldn’t feed my baby myself. Breast is best, after all.
This Wasn’t What I Planned For
When I finally came off the post-surgery pain medication, my anxiety spiked like never before. That’s the thing about postpartum depression and anxiety. Hormones make everything worse.
I don’t remember very much of the first six weeks of my baby’s life. The Medic was home on sick-leave-funded paternity leave during that time, and all I could do was sleep. Without my family’s support I’m pretty sure I would have needed hospitalization during that time.
I Couldn’t Be Left Alone With My Baby
Most of what I do remember is a swirl of contradictory emotions. I was deathly afraid of something happening to Little Bit, and I wanted nothing to do with her. I wanted to be her everything, and I wanted to run away.
As I watched the way the Medic and her grandparents doted on her, I wondered what was wrong with me. I thought I must be a terrible mother because looking at her didn’t make me smile. It made my stomach fill with dread.
And I was horribly afraid of being left alone with her. I wasn’t afraid that I was going to hurt her, but I was afraid that she would cry and I wouldn’t be able to calm her. I didn’t want her out of my sight, but I didn’t feel capable of taking care of her.
I Had a Spirited Child
Eventually the Medic had to go back to work, and things for me got worse.
I didn’t understand it at the time, but Little Bit was kind of a demanding baby. She didn’t have any health problems (which I’m sure make things much worse), but she didn’t settle easily.
She slept in short bursts, and took forever to fall asleep. Most of each day was spent with someone laying next to her, waiting in case her pacifier fell out before she was really actually for sure asleep. And don’t you dare look at her, because those little blue eyes would pop open and stare, unblinking, straight into your soul. I probably sound melodramatic, but it was kind of creepy.
When she wasn’t resisting sleep she was a pretty happy, contented baby. Until she wasn’t. At times (many, many, many times) she would wail and scream for absolutely no apparent reason. And nothing would appease her. Of course, this usually happened when I was alone with her, in the dead of night.
And when Little Bit screamed my mind went numb, blank, unresponsive. I had trouble remembering what kinds of things she might need. My brain became a whirling hurricane of desperation and anxiety. I would break down, unable to do more than lay on the floor next to my screaming infant, shaking and sobbing, while I waited for my mom to come over.
Mom kept her phone by her bed specifically for this reason. We both knew I might not make it through the night on my own.
I Felt Ashamed
Despite knowing, logically, that I was sick, I felt like I wasn’t doing my job. I had brought this child into the world, and I should be the one caring for her. I should be able to do the 24-hour shifts without the Medic, and I should be able to do the all-night care. I should be able to, and I should want to.
I felt useless, worthless, and ashamed that I wasn’t able to take care of my baby. I was embarrassed that I needed so much help. It felt like I was burdening my family, like they would all be better off if I just left. I didn’t feel like I was contributing enough to be worthy of all the care they provided, both for Little Bit and for me.
It HAS Gotten Better
I remember thinking that I just wanted to feel normal again. And I can honestly say that, at 17 months postpartum, I’m starting to. Nothing is perfect, and it’s taken a lot of work.
I’ve had to take a year off from teaching in order to focus on my health. I know just how lucky I am to have the financial and social support to do that.
It took many changes in medication before I found the right combination to stabilize my mood. It took hours of therapy, and learning to accept that my version of motherhood wasn’t going to look like anyone else’s. But postpartum depression and anxiety didn’t make me a bad mother.
It also took a lot of visits to specialists to deal with my other chronic health issues. These were probably interacting with my anxiety and depression. While I struggled emotionally, I was also dealing with a major flare of chronic fatigue, heartburn that made me vomit, and a sudden onset of unexplained joint pain (in the fall of 2017 I was diagnosed with spondyloarthritis).
I am still, and most likely always will be, medicated for anxiety and depression. I still struggle with brain fog, and pacing myself so that I don’t get overwhelmed. I still feel like a burden sometimes. I still feel embarrassed to need as much help as I do.
But I’ve bonded with my child, and my ability to feel a range of positive emotions has returned. I have more energy, and I’m interested in my hobbies again. I’m no longer simply surviving one day at a time. I’m making plans, and moving forward with projects.
Things have gotten better. And they will for you, too.