“You want to give him back. You want your old life back.”
“He’s like a parasite, right?”
“I wanted to jump off a bridge after Owen was born.”
Is this what someone normally says to a new mother holding her days-old baby? No, probably not. But these are things my friends said to me right after my son was born. You know what, though? I wasn’t even mad about it. These friends were finally speaking my language.
When the daily parade of visitors began, I would be sitting deep in my couch, wearing my crusty, floor-length zip-up robe. The robe that made me feel so unattractive and sad, perfectly matching how I felt inside. My husband would be at work and Maury would be blaring in the background (He IS the father!).
My friends could see that this baby was not something that I was prepared for. They could see the crazy desperation in my eyes. That I didn’t realize how hard it would be. That he had only been alive eight days — how was I supposed to keep him alive for eighteen years, let alone eight more days?
I wanted to sleep. I wanted to eat. I wanted to NOT be hooked up to breast pumps that didn’t work (or maybe it was me that wasn’t working?). I wanted to know why he was crying. I wanted to stop googling everything. I wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to die in his sleep. I wanted to hold him. I didn’t want to hold him. I wanted to be left alone. I wanted him to be five already. I wanted him to sleep. I wanted him to sleep in his crib. I felt like my heart was wrapped around his body, keeping him safe. I felt lucky that he was born into a stable home. I felt despair for children that didn’t have what we had. I felt completely unprepared and inadequate to care for a human. I wanted sixteen continuous naps. And the guilt. Oh, the guilt. Mothers have been doing this for millions of years. Why couldn’t I? I was a mess.
I have a history of depression and anxiety and my doctor and I had had numerous conversations about the baby blues. So many of these conversations that I started to tune her out. Girl, I’ve LIVED depression. I know what the symptoms are. Pfffffff.
For those who need a refresher, the symptoms of the baby blues include: mood swings, anxiety, sadness, irritability, crying, feeling overwhelmed, trouble sleeping, appetite problems and reduced concentration (MayoClinic.org).
Listen, I’ve been depressed — this shit is my everyday life. This is how my life IS. Not only that, but what new parent doesn’t feel anxious about being responsible for a screaming tiny person? Who doesn’t feel overwhelmed? Trouble sleeping? Uh, yeah, who sleeps with a newborn? (I would like to meet this person.) There is no time to eat and the second I got pregnant, my concentration levels went to nonexistent. My concentration levels have never returned.
So, this is why I didn’t get worried. I felt like these baby blues would be something I could totally deal with. Twenty-five years of practice with depression had me ready for anything.
Well, let me tell you a little something about Postpartum Depression. According to MayoClinic.org, the symptoms include, but are not limited to: depressed mood, excessive crying, withdrawing from family and friends, intense irritability, fear that you’re not a good mother, hopelessness, feelings of shame and guilt, thoughts of harming yourself or your baby. Your risk goes up if you have a history of depression (check), your family has a history of mental health issues (check), it was a tough birth (labor for 27 hours plus a C-section, check).
These symptoms sound more specific and intense than the symptoms of the baby blues, right? Right. Because I had been prepped for the baby blues and not PPD, I felt that there REALLY was something wrong with me when it hit.
The guilt was overwhelming. It was like a cascade of all of the dreams that I had had for this baby came crashing down on me. I was pissed. I felt like I was lied to. I felt like I was not told the seriousness of what having a newborn was really like. Why didn’t anyone REALLY tell me?
I completely get not wanting to freak out a pregnant woman. Who wants to be the crusher of the baby fantasy? Who wants to describe feelings of hopelessness to a new mom when you could be talking about cute, tiny baby outfits? Who wants to discuss the feeling of not wanting to hold your baby when you could be coming up with name ideas? No one wants to hear about how much breastfeeding sucks (breast is best!).
There is an image to uphold. If we didn’t sustain this image, I swear, the birth rate would drop.
My son was born eight years ago and I can still vividly recall not wanting to get out of bed. Seinfeld was on TV, I was wrapped in my crappy robe, under a pile of blankets. Friends called and I let them go straight to voicemail. My mom called constantly and I never answered. I lost weight (and not in a good way). I cried everyday in the shower so I wouldn’t be seen as weak. I felt so much rage. The kind where you feel that at any moment your body is going to explode into a hurricane of thrown objects and words that you can never take back.
This was a beast I couldn’t speak about. If I said it out loud, it would make it real. I would not allow this to be real. I was supposed to be light on my feet, glowing with love. I wasn’t supposed to have red eyes glowing from crying all day.
I finally realized that I HAD to say it out loud. I had to tell my husband that I wasn’t feeling good; that I was unhappy. I had to tell him that I absolutely could not sustain my fruitless attempts at breastfeeding. He hadn’t realized the depth of my misery because I had been good at hiding it. We made a plan to talk to the doctor.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I have the most fantastic doctor — she understands my history, knows all about my health anxieties and is always willing to run late into her next appointment to make sure my questions are answered. She told me to stop breastfeeding (“Formula is fine! He will be healthy and happier now that YOU will be happier!”). I went back on antidepressants. I would see her in two weeks for a follow-up.
This, of course, is not where the story ends. Not by a long shot. It did get better, though. Slowly, as the days turned into months, I could start to see the sun. I had friends who told me that things get easier and better with each passing month and they were right. Eight years later, it still gets better as he gets older.
It was embarrassing and shameful to admit that I wasn’t bonding with him or that I just COULD NOT DO ONE MORE DAY. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done, but looking back, I’m proud that I stood up for my needs in order to love my son the best way that I could. I had to put me first before I could put him first.
By the time his first birthday rolled around, I finally felt like I had crossed a threshold. I made it. WE made it. It was still difficult because, well, kids, but my heart had softened and the dread was gone. I could make it through weeks without crying and I looked forward to seeing his chubby face in the morning. Were some things still a pain in the ass? Of course. No one enjoys exploding diapers in the middle of a bookstore or vomit all of your car (that smell never comes out). I would still fight with my husband about stupid shit like frying pans. But, I could manage these things without feeling like I was dying inside. I loved him and I loved our life.
I was a mother and I was finally doing it.