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No Such Grace: My Experience With Postpartum Depression

Had a friend confided in me that she wasn’t feeling a bond with her newborn, I would have told her gently but confidently just to “give it time.” To myself, I extended no such grace.

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I’m writing this because it is my inclination not to do so.

I’d love to trash this particular chapter and never think of it again. I love my son and am so exceedingly thankful every single day that he is now part of the life my husband and I have together. As I look back at the pictures we have from the last couple of months, I see a glowingly happy family. Those aren’t fake pictures; we are happy. But these snapshots don’t tell the whole story, at least, not as it has related to me.

The truth of the matter is, I went through a really tough, dark time after my son was born. So dark that it feels as though I took part in only brief flashes of the joy of the first two months of my son’s life.

Now that I’m out of the fog and seeing clearly again, I’m realizing that I can’t move on from my experience with postpartum depression (PPD) without saying something. It would absolutely break my heart to hear later on down the road that one of my friends had struggled through this same darkness and that I had never extended a hand to help.

As a disclaimer, I am not someone who has struggled with depression on a regular basis. I realize there are many people out there–perhaps someone reading this–who have experienced severe depression for years on end. You are a warrior. My experience was no doubt very brief and so, so very tame compared to yours and to that of many of the women who struggle with PPD. But, this is the road I took so this is what I have to share.

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From the moment I saw those two lines appear on my pregnancy test, I felt that it was just too good to be true. Too easy. Surely it couldn’t last.

When I told my husband I was pregnant, it was with a strong caveat. “Surprise! You’re going to be a dad! …Maybe. It’s really early though! So don’t get your hopes up yet. …Yea!” (I know. I know. I’m so, so much fun. How do we ever get anything done in our house with me being so very fun all of the time?)

During the first trimester of my pregnancy, I sang to my son, I talked to my son, I charted his growth week to week, but I was always holding back. I didn’t want to hold back, but… I did. Even as I watched my stomach visibly growing, even as I started noticing fluttery kicks and the beginnings of what became frequent hiccups, at every ultrasound and every OB visit, I sat bracing myself for the bad news.

As the vast majority of miscarriages occur before 14 weeks, I thought making it to the second trimester would bring me some peace. Unfortunately this was not the case.

At around 20 weeks, my doctor informed me that many of the stronger “kicks” I was feeling weren’t kicks at all; I was having frequent contractions. Frequent. Sometimes I’d go for hours having a contraction every three or four minutes. It could be really bad, or it could be nothing, my OB told me.

Add to this that my husband had just lost his job and we were packing up to move out of state… I was a bundle of nerves.

When my son did arrive–just two days early, soft, pink, healthy, whole… my God, he was beautiful!–it was overwhelming in a way I had never experienced. I can still see so very clearly my ecstatic, white-faced husband holding that tiny, bewildered bundle up next to my face so I could kiss his forehead. Thinking back to that moment brings a rush of joy and excitement. But when it happened back three months ago? I sobbed with relief. Aside from that amazing relief, my feelings were absolutely shot. Emotion-wise, I was stalled out on the side of the road.

I should have taken this breakdown of emotion at face value: I was beyond exhausted, we had just moved into our new apartment two weeks prior, I needed time to get to know my son… this son I feared I’d never hold. As it was, I found myself cradling a very precious stranger. I would have jumped in front of a train to save that tiny stranger had the situation called for it, but he was still a stranger.

Had a friend confided in me that she wasn’t feeling a bond with her newborn, I would have given her a hug and told her gently but confidently just to “give it time.” To myself, I extended no such grace.

Instead of allowing them to be what they were, I wearily overanalyzed my feelings and ended up concluding that I was probably unfit to be a mother. What kind of a mother doesn’t experience an instant overflow of love for her new child? Why didn’t I feel a connection to the wailing baby I was (very painfully) trying to nurse?

I finally had the insight to Google “postpartum depression” about a month ago. I was shocked to see that one of the big risk factors listed for PPD was “having difficulty breastfeeding.” As a pregnant woman, that would have confused me. Something as seemingly insignificant as “difficulty breastfeeding” could fuel postpartum depression? As a new mother, though, I understand only too well.

I was woefully uninformed about the habits of young babies before having one of my own, but I quickly learned one very basic truth about newborns:

Newborns spend their initial weeks of life eating.

That’s basically all they do. They will, every once in a while, pause their eating to sleep or poo, but eating is their main thing.

In other words, as a new mom, if you’re struggling with feeding your child, you’re basically struggling with everything. You will feel your failure hard and you will feel it every single hour of the day and night.

And, if that doesn’t already sound fantastic, wait for the cherry on top: Everyone and their mom will simply be climbing over each other to ask you intimate questions about your breasts and to tell you exactly what you should be doing differently.

It’s basically every shy introvert’s dream: You get to spend nine uncomfortable months dodging strangers running over to feel your stomach and now they’re honing in on your breasts.

In my case, breastfeeding was puberty all over again–insecure me, desperately wondering if and when my breasts were ever going to get the hormone-memo that it was time to do something and them… not.

I saw at least seven different lactation consultants. I took a breastfeeding class. I read books with helpful diagrams. Youtube picked up on my searches and started recommending breastfeeding channels. I got nipple shields and creams. I was given breast shells. When it became clear that latching just wasn’t going to work for us, I got a pump. When I realized how bad that pump was, I borrowed a better pump. Then I purchased better less-terrible breast shields for that pump. When I was told my milk supply was low, I took milk-increasing supplements.

Oh, to go back to a time when I didn’t know what half of those things were… a time when I thought “breast shells” were Ariel’s bikini.

The end result was one constantly-engorged breast, one breast that produced next to nothing, and a very exhausted, constantly-in-pain me.

I did my best to plow through this pain. Pumping became my life. My patient husband helped as much as he possibly could taking over feedings as I hunched over my pump on the couch next to him–or hidden back in our bedroom if anyone happened to be over for a visit. From behind the closed door, I listened to people enjoying my baby over the pump’s mechanical wheeze.

As time went on, I grew more and more terrified of people’s judgement.

I avoided friends I thought might judge me for supplementing with formula. I also avoided certain friends I feared might pick up on my depressed mood and decide it warranted a lesson on “trusting God more” or on “being thankful.” (This part was definitely the depression talking; my rational self is fairly certain that most if not all of my friends would have offered support and love had they known my state of mind.)

I avoided going anywhere public with my son for fear that I would have to pull out a bottle and attract the unwanted attention of a large-breasted stranger strongly in favor of breastfeeding.

When I did have to go out to run errands, I tried to only visit stores that had dressing rooms. There, I huddled in red-faced shame feeding my son formula with the phrase Breast is best! Breast is best! beating over and over like a drum in my mind.

In this isolation, I (unwisely) turned to the Internet for guidance only to find that it reinforced all of these fears… and more. Online, moms of all ages marched like gladiators into arena-forums to do battle.

Still today, I find it mind-numbingly difficult to accept the reality that the women whose comments I came across online are out there somewhere in the world gently rocking a baby to sleep or getting a little girl ready for her first day of school. Online, crouching behind their anonymous aliases, these women don’t pull any punches.

In case you’ve missed out on the pleasure of visiting a breastfeeding forum, here’s the basic gist of what many of them eventually devolve into: Moms who don’t breastfeed their sweet DD (dear daughters) or DS (dear sons) are SUTs (selfish, unfeeling trollops) who hate their own children. These poor, unfortunate FF (formula-fed) children will probably pass from disease by the age of four or, if they somehow manage to evade this fate, will live out their miserable adult lives with the max IQ of a pond snail.

At my lowest point, which lasted about a week (and finally tipped me off that there was something more going on with my brain than just the “baby blues”), I couldn’t stop thinking about suicide. Whenever my mind was idle, I would find myself drifting inevitably toward this morbid topic. I became so troubled by this unwanted fixation that I told my husband about it on the car ride home one evening. Although I did not seriously think I would go through with it, I did have an actual plan put together. In a very twisted way, knowing that I had an out gave me a feeling of control.

Around the time I told my husband about these thoughts, he walked in on me naked from the waist up weeping from pain and frustration into the kitchen sink as I washed my pumping equipment. For just a moment, as I looked at the concern in his face, I saw myself through his eyes. Something had to change. I was putting so much strain on my husband–so much pressure on our little our family.

My son did not have a mom and my husband did not have a wife. They had a house-ghost.

One quiet afternoon, shortly after the incident at the kitchen sink, I was holding my son. As I stared down into his widely solemn blue eyes, I felt an awesome surge of love for that little creature… It was that feeling I had been waiting for.

My joy quickly turned to horror as I suddenly felt myself plunge down into my all-too-familiar thought spiral. He deserves so much better than you.

It was then that I realized that my concussive guilt was blurring out every other feeling I could possibly have toward my son. Any feeling of closeness immediately triggered that paralyzing guilt–guilt that was blinding me to everything but itself.

“Leo?” I said staring at my baby. “Let’s have a talk.”

Leo stared back at me in that curious baby-fashion. I continued.

“Here’s the deal, little guy,” I said. “I’m not the best mom in the world, but I love you a whole lot. I really, really want to be the best mom I can be to you. That’s all I can do. So why don’t we make a deal, okay? We’ll work together: I’ll be the best mom I can be and you be the best Leo you can be.”

He kept staring at me and smiled a little. (He had just started to do this.) I smiled back at him and felt the tiniest glimmer of hope.

Those were my first steps out of the fog. At that point, I was still pretty deep in it, but even that small step felt like progress. There were several people who helped me find my way out–my patient husband who strove to support me in every way he could, my mom and dad who did the same, loving in-laws who came to help, a far-away friend who was going through similar struggles, friends who didn’t even have the slightest clue what I was going through who were surrounding me with support unknowingly.

I began to relax a little and let myself just be and, eventually, I started realizing some things.

I realized that what I look like as a mom is different from what other women look like as moms… and that’s totally okay. Good even… because my kid is going to be different from other kids.

I realized that there will never, ever be a shortage of issues for moms to spar with other moms about. And I realized that I don’t have to participate in these battles or even care.

I realized that, no matter what I do, there will always be someone who is ready and waiting to criticize my parenting decisions. And that’s okay. I’m not striving to please the random strangers I pass by at the grocery store; I’m striving to love my son the best I can and raise him to be a brave, kind, and good man.

I realized that my terrifying “worst case scenario” isn’t really a worst… anything. If someone approaches me at the mall while I’m giving my son his bottle to inquire as to whether or not I’ve heard that “breast is, in fact, best,” I can simply reply that, yes, the phrase definitely sounds familiar… that it has a certain ring to it. Then I can thank that person for their observation and move on with my day. Someone’s disapproval does not signal any sort of imminent destruction.

I realized that I need to set boundaries as to who I listen to for advice. My husband and I found a pediatrician for our son who is gentle, rational, insightful, and trustworthy. Whenever I have a question or feel some sort of fear cropping up about a health concern regarding my son, I can call her to ask about it.

As life quieted down and we started to fall into a new rhythm of life with an infant, I got into the habit of letting my feelings be what they were and not beating myself up for them. And then, one very happy day, my hormones mercifully began to change. My guilt/fear thought spirals began to slow down and eventually dissipated into the nothingness they always were.

My son got a little older. He began to smile… all of the time. Then he learned to laugh and giggle. When he spots me from across the room, he’ll smile and coo. When my husband tickles him, he squeals with excitement and his wide, toothless grin is so indescribably cute that I all but lose my mind.

Loving my son has quickly become the easiest thing in the world.

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