Jack’s few-day-old feet
I’ve ruined my life.
The thought thundered, endless as the tide, in my ears.
I’ve ruined my life. I don’t know how to do this. I just want this creature to go away.
I was a week into my new existence as a new mom. What was supposed to be the most precious time, full of adoration and cuddling a darling new baby, was turning out to be the darkest time of my life.
Upon birthing a tiny human, everything was suddenly different. Routines in which I’d been comfortable for decades were altered by the nonstop needs of my son. I couldn’t find time to brush my teeth or drink a cup of tea. Being out of work and home alone with a baby felt isolating and scary. I missed being alone with my husband. I hadn’t slept in days, and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to balance my checkbook.
I sat, at our dining room table, trying to make sense of the numbers in front of me– a chore I’d done hundreds of times in my adult life. I knew the shapes in front of me were numbers, but there were black holes in my brain where I was supposed to know what to do with them.
In desperation, I looked up as my husband appeared in front of me with Jack in his arms.
“We have to sell the baby!” I cried. “I can’t make these numbers make sense. We’ll never be able to afford life. Do you think we can sell the baby?”
It is a fortunate thing I married a level-headed individual. “We don’t have to sell the baby,” he said calmly.
My eyes were bleary from not sleeping as I looked at him. He swayed with our son in his arms. Why was Jack so peaceful with him? I felt clueless when it came to comforting him.
Nursing was excruciating, not at all the tender and nurturing experience I fantasized about while pregnant.
In fact, nothing about motherhood was what I expected.
My pregnancy with Jack had been idyllic. I had never been happier or more emotionally balanced. I slept great and was barely uncomfortable, even at full-term. In all honesty, I could have stayed pregnant with Jack forever, it was so awesome.
But now he was on the outside, and I felt devastated.
His cry sent me into tailspins of panic the likes of which I’d never known. Somehow, my husband had the patience to rock and coo at our son in ways that calmed him, but instead of reassuring me that it was possible for us to have a content baby, it infuriated me.
It was like the two of them were conspiring to make me see what a failure I was as a mom.
“It must be nice being the fucking father of the year!” I sobbed, enraged that my husband was already a better parent than me.
It is another very fortunate thing I married someone who didn’t take this sleep-deprived insanity personally.
And we were so very sleep-deprived. We hadn’t slept more than 45 consecutive minutes since my water broke at one a.m. and a 22 hour labor and birth ensued. I was totally prepared to follow the advice of “sleep while the baby sleeps,” but Jack did not sleep for more than an hour at a time, and it was shocking how much he wanted to nurse. My nipples were inflamed and raw. This pain plus sleep-deprivation equaled the revulsion I felt towards this tiny being who never ceased caterwauling.
I felt a despair at being a new mom and it was shameful. Fury grew as I internalized it.
I never wanted to hurt my baby. Never. I did adore him. I thought he was the most beautiful baby I’d ever seen. But sometimes when I couldn’t get him to stop crying, I just kind of wanted to open up the window and quietly slip him out.
I felt like the shittiest person in the world for feeling these awful feelings, hence my desire of looking into selling Jack on the internet, which at the time seemed like a totally plausible epiphany.
Postpartum depression is a complex combination of factors. As a social worker, I could give you a bunch of clinical jargon and criteria. But I’d rather talk to you as a mom who has been the fuck through it.
For me, a hormonal roller coaster met my history of anxiety and depression, acute sleep-deprivation, and the result was a sense of epic failure. Though I have no evidence to back it up, I also believe having pain meds during my labor complicated my recovery and was an impediment to successful initiation of breastfeeding. The poor breastfeeding relationship fed insecurity, and deepened my sense of failure.
Motherhood seemed a trap in which I had ensnared myself and my husband.
Nothing prepared me for motherhood. I had worked with children for over 15 years, but nothing prepared me for the exhausting onslaught of new responsibilities. Jack was what you would call a “high-needs” baby. He wanted constant holding, needed lots of soothing, and was incredibly alert. Meeting the needs of this kid while still recovering from birthing him was intense.
I really can’t over-state how fucking miserable sleep-deprivation is. I’m not talking about pulling an all nighter, staying out partying until 3 a.m., or having an occasional bout of insomnia. I’m talking about not sleeping for days and nights on end, to the point where your nerves are so frazzled if you actually got a couple hours in which to sleep you would be too anxious to even put your head down.
Sleep-deprivation has been used as a form of torture, and I learned first hand why it is so effective.
It was like I could hear Jack crying, even when he wasn’t, and it would startle me out of my skin, flood me with anxiety. I’m sure this hyper-nervous state also did nothing to help my milk supply, which in turn frustrated my ever-hungry baby.
Two weeks after Jack was born, my husband had to return to work. He had really been holding me up through this disaster we were calling- air quote- parenthood, and I dreaded him leaving us, even for a few hours.
I paced around the house and refused to hold Jack. It pains the deepest core in me to admit this, but I wouldn’t even look at my beautiful, new boy that morning. I wouldn’t nurse him. As luck would have it (not) I had burned off half my areola in an unfortunate attempt at using my breast pump, so I had no pumped milk for the critter. My husband had to mix and give him a bottle of formula. Jack guzzled it down in breathtaking cooperation, but I sank deeper into the abyss of self-hatred.
I want to note this intense refusal to parent my son lasted a few hours at most, but it was awful. I still feel guilty when I remember turning away from Jack to lie on the couch, my breasts engorged and soaking the front of my tee shirt.
Jack was never alone, my husband or other family held him, and I know that connection to other humans was really important. I can’t help but think of other women who don’t have this kind of support network, who suffer without help, and who’s babies claim the unfortunate side effects of maternal depression.
Jack and I were lucky.
Of course my husband could not leave us like that. Something had to be done, so he basically shoved me into an intensive therapy program where I went, with Jack, every day for two weeks. It was almost immediately helpful.
There was a poster on the wall that said something like, “It isn’t always about stopping your baby’s crying, but learning to tolerate it.” Seeing that poster was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. I slowly learned to stop taking it so personally when Jack was crying, as long as I was attending to his needs and he was safe, warm, fed, and in dry clothes.
I saw a psychiatrist and was started on a very low dose of an SSRI, considered safe and compatible with breastfeeding. Jack and I were evaluated by a competent lactation consultant who diagnosed a tongue tie in him and mastitis in me. Once we got these issues treated, we were on track with our nursing, and my self esteem soared each time I put him to my breast without pain.
I participated in group therapy with other women and their newborns and learned I was far from the only woman experiencing this crazy confusion.
I also learned it didn’t make any of us bad mothers.
Medication and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy went a long way, but another thing that really helped was learning to sleep in shifts with my husband. We altered our schedules so I would go to bed each night from seven to midnight. If Jack needed to be fed during this time, my husband would give him a bottle, which allowed me to get at least a five hour chunk of sleep. Then he would bring Jack to me and I would nurse him whenever he woke for the rest of the night. This allowed my husband to get a chunk of sleep before he had to get up and go to work the next day.
It was amazing what a few hours of sleep did for all of us. Within a month of Jack’s birth, we had gotten into a routine that was not altogether convenient, but did work. I continued to attend weekly therapy, which helped me keep my thoughts in check, and also helped me feel supported and connected.
A couple other things were really helpful for my growth as a new mom. At the suggestion of my best friend, who’s daughter was three months old at the time, we signed up together for a baby yoga class. It was a fun way to interact with our babies, and was great for getting us out of the house and among other new moms.
I also took Jack to an infant massage class, and learned some new ways of bonding with him. Since it turned out Jack had reflux and was a bit colicky, massage was a great way of comforting him when he was uncomfortable, and proved to me that I could meet the needs of my child.
In this process of childbirth, postpartum depression, treatment and recovery, I learned many women share a similar experience. My depressed brain drowned me in the belief that I was the only shitty person who had ever thought she’d ruined her life and would never learn how to be a good mom. The truth is, none of us are shitty, and many of us struggle. It isn’t an easy world in which to be a mom, what with all the constant judgement, scrutiny, and pressure to balance everything and look sleek and sultry doing it.
And experiencing postpartum depression does not mean we stop loving our babies or love them less for even one second.
The good news is we are getting better at recognizing and treating postpartum depression and anxiety. The bad news is there are still tons of women who struggle and feel too stigmatized by cultural notions of mental illness or ideas of what makes a “good” mom.
In retrospect, I could be pissed with the nurses who breezed in and out of my hospital room while I sobbed with newborn Jack in my arms as depression stole my soul mere hours after his birth. Or I could hold a grudge with the crappy lactation consult who gave me about four seconds of her time and didn’t recognize Jack’s tongue tie.
I could berate our shitty system of managed care that has women pop out babies and then tosses them out of the hospital in a remarkably short time span.
And I could rant about how in this country, it is a crime against the human family that women are pushed back into the work force to support their families merely weeks after giving birth, when nursing relationships are barely established.
I could grieve those first few days I “lost” with Jack.
But I’m not going to go there. Not today.
Instead, I’d like to focus on the small victory of all those who championed me through that dark chapter of my life. I’d like to celebrate all I learned about myself, motherhood, and the strength of my family at this time, and the fact I birthed another baby and did not have even the slightest twinge of PPD with her.
I’d like to share this story in hopes that it might light someone else’s way.
Finally, I’d like to pat myself on the back for not selling my baby on the internet, tempting as the idea seemed at the time.
There’s hope. Don’t be ashamed. Get help. Know you can and will do it because there is nothing in the universe quite as strong as a mother. And please don’t sell your baby.
It does get better. We have not ruined our lives.
I’d love to hear from you. . . Have you experienced PPD? How did it affect you and your family? What did you learn? What was helpful? What advice would you give a new mom who is depressed?
If you or someone you love are struggling with emotional issues beyond the “baby blues,” please talk to your doctor today and learn what is available in your area for help and support.