I am coming out of the Postpartum Depression closet.
I heard once that a good birth doula never tells her birth story. So I suppose a good postpartum doula never references her postpartum? Never admits she had a postpartum mood disorder? Well I’m not your average doula- I am also a writer and an artist and my truth is all about sharing my experience and through that hopefully bridging understanding.
I had postpartum depression.
It wasn’t “officially” diagnosed until my daughter was 10 months old. Her pediatrician, who is also our family doctor, asked me after one of her routine check ups to make an appointment for myself and come back later in the week. And so I did. And so I cried. A lot. Mostly for the shame I felt for what I had been experiencing. How lost I had “let myself” get, how blocked I felt, scared, alone and totally missing my inner voice. To finally be acknowledged (however wary I have been in the past about labels) was like a soothing balm to my very tired spirit.
People that don’t know me that well see me as happy, social, giving freely of my energy. People that know me better know that I struggle to fill myself and that I often feel lonely and depleted. Those that know me best know all these things are true and also that inside I am actually very shy, almost incapable of accepting help, and am prone to bouts of depression.
Discussing my postpartum depression dance last week I said, “Oh depression and I are old friends… I’ve been good to her”. What I meant by this is that I have cycled through depression approximately 5 separate times since adolescence, always naturally and clinging to some faith that there would be a lesson and that I would emerge victorious, stronger, and knowing myself and my purpose just a little better. And mostly that’s been true.
But postpartum depression was different.
This time it wasn’t me sitting alone in European windowsills smoking cigarettes and writing about my sorrows while Joni Mitchell played in the background… it was me waking up after too little sleep, bleary eyed trying to fold a cloth diaper on a wriggling being who needed every last ounce of who I was. Pause was not an option. 5 day silent meditation retreat- also NOT an option. Juice cleanse and yoga 5Xweek… again… not an option. Quit my life and move to a yurt in the forest… tempting but not an option.
The level of exhaustion was so high and the amount of time to spend on bettering my mindset, dietary balance or other past tools in my “fight depression” toolbox was virtually non existent. And the worst part? Nobody knew how to help me. And very few people had any idea I needed help. ****
What even IS depression?! Even after a half dozen spins around the block, awake and feeling every bit of every part of it I still can’t tell you. I recently read an article about how shamans view mental illness and truth be told I’m mostly with the shamans. But depression can be deadly serious. And our culture does very little to even address it let alone use it as any kind of positive portal for transformation.
And Postpartum Depression?! Forget about it. Mothers are marginalized even at the best of times. The pressure heaped on us to be perfect and successful and sexy and stylish and organized and eco friendly and up on the latest positive child rearing techniques is maddening. And dare we admit we are feeling lost? Blue? At times listless? Fired. Immediately. Go to the back of the line and apply next year for the position of “good mother”.
It’s fucked. It’s patriarchy. It is our collective pain and disconnection from where we come from (our mothers) that denies women feelings more complex than “I’m just so happy my baby is here”. The pressure to have it all, do it all, be it all and love it all (at the same time please- immediately!) is both comical and representative of our unrealistic ADHD inducing cultural expectations. Here ya go ladies- this is what you asked for right?!
With the freedom to choose comes the freedom to doubt ourselves and the pressure to make the right choice. Our lives and roles are only growing more complex and diverse- should we not be allowed feelings as layered as the lives we are expected to create, curate and live up to? The best personal and professional thing I learned in the DONA Postpartum Doula training was “It is okay to have more than one feeling at the same time”. I learned this month 8 of motherhood- but by then the patterns of personal expectations and cycles of judgment (mostly of my own feelings) were pretty engrained.
How I wish I had had that ONE tidbit to draw upon sooner.
For example: My daughter was born after 55 hours of unmedicated labor. I was spent- every last ounce of me exhausted. Every cell of my body ached. I had two thoughts simultaneously after I pulled her up: “It’s a girl! My beautiful girl! I knew it!” and “Can I get a shower, a sandwich and a 12 hour sleep?” And I judged myself SO HARD, silently for weeks for that thought. Selfish. Why aren’t you basking in the glorious glow of birth?! Bad mom. Already. It took me almost a month to admit to someone that I felt tired and like I needed space and rest after giving birth. I cried while admitting it. Thought it meant I didn’t appreciate the moment of her emergence. But as it turns out… you can feel TWO (or even MORE!) feelings AT THE SAME TIME!
My whole life I have wanted to be a mother. Known I would be one. Called out to the desert rocks weeks before my daughter was conceived and to the spirit of her, feeling in every cell that she was on her way.
I had a joyful pregnancy, and the supported and empowered birth I had wanted.
But still- I got postpartum depression.
It shocked and amazed me at how savvy we are getting with birth and reclaiming our choices for our bodies and our babies but when it comes to postpartum? Tumbleweeds…
Maybe it’s because I am prone to depression. Maybe it’s because I was only recently married and living a new life in a new city with none of my peeps around. Maybe it’s because I had left my career behind and had no creative balance. Maybe it’s because I was alone most days from 8-8 in a 4th floor walk up sometimes with an empty fridge. Maybe it’s because I was trying to do everything “right”. Maybe its because our breastfeeding journey was so difficult. Maybe it’s because my labor was a multi day affair. Maybe it’s because my daughter seemed to barely sleep and would cry unless she was in my arms for the first 3-6 months of her life. Maybe it’s cause I didn’t really understand what the feminist movement was about until I was knee deep in laundry and dishes feeling like my brain was made of cotton balls. Maybe it’s because I think too much and feel too much and becoming a mother is the most blessed and gnarly thing a human can ever do.
Does the reason matter? I’m not sure it does. But knowing the risk factors can be helpful for some- I certainly had many of them.
All that seemed to matter was- I was a new mother. I had a baby to take care of. And take care of her I did. Pretty goddamn well. I was just really sad for most of the time I was doing it.
The closest I came to admitting the depths of my struggle in Aria’s first year were mild references to her sleep and eating (being the most difficult and draining practical elements of mothering). Even then I was careful not to say too much because I was adamant about the way I wanted things for her… whatever the cost to me. I didn’t want the kind of support that said “You’re exhausted- let’s give the baby a bottle so you can sleep” however valid of a choice that might have been. I wanted a “Let’s talk about some of the more nuanced aspects of breastfeeding and infant soothing so we can help your baby get everything you want for her at a lesser cost to you”. I needed a postpartum doula.
So I became one.
And I have no doubt that the thoughts and feelings I experienced during my trip down the postpartum depression rabbit hole are not unique to me. I am just the truthsayer who is willing to risk people thinking she is a bad mom for saying:
“Sometimes I just held her and cried while she slept”.
“I felt trapped. Like all the ways I used to identify as a person were gone”
“I felt like nobody cared about me anymore”
“I’m not cut out for this- she would be better off with a different mother”
Then there was the accompanying anxiety- largely about how harsh and jagged the world was. I would look into her clean and clear eyes, the windows to her unblemished soul and try and devise plans to protect her from all the darkness out there. I felt like if I could just be a counterbalance of love, light, peace and calm for her then the world could not affect her. I’d just build a psychic stormshield around us both and keep all the strange and troubled energies of New York City at bay. But no pressure Laura.
So why bother talking about this? Why admit what I have been so ashamed of?
Because I believe most women experience symptoms of postpartum mood disorder and every single woman I know has experienced most if not all symptoms of the Baby Blues.
Here is a list of potential symptoms of the Baby Blues from the Mayo Clinic:
Trouble sleeping?! Decreased concentration?! Mood swings?! Crying?! Can you please stop pathologizing totally normal reactions to being in a hormonal funhouse and getting stretches of 1-3 hours of sleep while healing from the most physically arduous task of your life!? And anxiety?! Ummm yes- I am now responsible for another human beings entire life. That might at times feel a little overwhelming.
It is ridiculous. Or maybe you are a perfect unicorn mom and for that I applaud you.
But for the rest of us mere mortals…
What if women had space, support and cultural freedom to experience this kaleidoscope of emotions? What if people were coming by with meals and funny movies and rubbing moms feet as she cries about how she doesn’t know how to do a french braid and is therefore doomed as the mother to a daughter (I have no idea who might have cried about this… no idea… nope… can’t even take a guess…). What if we surrounded our sisters in love and mirrored back strength, empowering the choices she is making rather than using her vulnerability as an opportunity to push our own agendas and have our own choices validated?
It is easy to see how the above list unchecked could become repressed and sublimate, influencing the fabric of a woman’s being and her ability to bond and care for her child. It is also easy to see how without proper rest, food, laughter and relief one could very quickly feel isolated, drained and even dangerously unable to attend to the needs of her child.
In telling my story I hope for two things- to validate and normalize the complex feelings that accompany crossing the threshold into motherhood and also to encourage people to seek help and support if they feel like they are struggling to shift their emotions and mindset. It is worth reading this description of PPMD and I urge anyone who feels they are even bordering on depression, anxiety (and certainly psychosis) to call someone they trust (OBGYN, LLL leader, midwife, family doctor, local doula) or seek a support group.
I think that we need to have a more open and fluid dialogue about what becoming a mother is today. What the expectations are. How all of the choices and pressures and available support to execute those choices like a mom-boss can coincide. How it can be a transformative rite of passage. Warrior training. And that it can also be hard and sad and lonely. And sometimes its none of these… you are just a bit bored and wondering if you’re a bad mom because you’re a bit bored.
There were two times I made reference to being exhausted and/or struggling on my personal social media and both times I was shamed by people who felt they needed to remind me that “my child is a blessing” and to “enjoy every moment”. EVERY moment? REALLY?! Even the one where I was struggling alone up 4 flights of stairs with groceries, a diaper bag and a screaming baby who (after driving around for 30 minutes looking for a parking space) had just shit all over me out the side of her diaper as we walked past single stylish childless people enjoying evening cocktails?
And thanks for the reminder but… I know my child is a blessing. I created her out of the deepest parts of my heart, through love and sex and creative fire that is the stuff of fairy tales. My daughter is the coolest person I know. She is smart and funny and intuitive and playful and musical and maybe not the most cuddly in the world but she shoots rainbows out of her eyeballs. She’s the best one. Of all the humans, babies or grown, she is the very best one of them all. So yes. I know she is a blessing. But thank you for making me feel like a complete asshole all the same.
I had postpartum depression. And I love my kid.
I had postpartum depression. And I was a good mother at the same time.
I had postpartum depression- and started a business, trained in a new profession and also had a part time job while breastfeeding, co sleeping, cloth diapering and being a loving gentle parent all in the space of a year.
It does not look the same for every person.
If you’re reading this and you are struggling- send me an email… maybe I can help you find a support group in your area or remind you that you are probably feeling really normal things, you are just one of the few brave enough to admit it. Or maybe I can encourage you to reach for clinical support before you inadvertently create a precarious emotional or physical situation for yourself or family. Being a good mother also means being self-honest and knowing when to ask for help.
If you’re reading this and are shocked by this post because you know me- don’t be. We are all a little darker and more layered than we give each other space to be. The stigma that accompanies mental wellness issues is one of the main factors preventing people (like me!) from seeking timely support. I’ve been terrified of judgment- I said to my Dr “But I don’t really think of myself as a ‘depressed’ person”. Her response was brilliant “You’re not- you are just going through depression. If you had a sprained ankle we wouldn’t call you a ‘sprained ankle person’ so why should this define you?” Wow. Thank you for that perspective shift.
If you’re reading this and you know someone who is struggling- send me an email and maybe I can help you find resources for them… you can also show up at their door with soup, a hug, a funny movie, hold their baby while they shower and do the dishes before you leave. You don’t need to ask questions or provide answers, just be there and help in small practical ways until you are invited into the meat of what they are going through.
The one thing I can say I understand very well about living through depression is that often it is not the feelings themselves that are the hardest to deal with but rather the judgment of yourself for feeling them. This is what heightens the hurting, spins you in on yourself and ultimately pulls you under. Add to this: the stage is already set for guilt and feeling like you’re fucking it all up in motherhood- perhaps the more real (and funny!) the dialogue can become about what really happens when that tiny creature emerges from your lady bits the more we can breathe a sigh of collective understanding and feel like we have room to be where we are at with it while it is happening.
I feel like I am turning a corner- an actual one… the hard and dirty truth is that it has taken a long time and lots of letting go. Writing helps, as does supporting others and hopefully helping other women trust themselves more and judge themselves less. I have so many hopes for the future, but I’m trying to have less expectations. Am I the parent I always thought I’d be? Kind of. I’m too busy to think about it most of the time- its in the quiet moments I know I am winning.
It will never be what we dreamed it would- it is in the actual doing that we become prepared to do it. It’s always a bit messy and that’s okay. There is space for all of it- and with the space to feel comes space to shift, and shifting I am.
*** I would like to note here my thanks to a few people who did their part to support me My parents who came to visit me 4 weeks postpartum and cooked and sat with me and were present in my space- my parents who paid for tickets home and then fed me and watched my baby so that I could meditate by the beach and see my friends… those trips have been the greatest equalizer and more truly healing than anything. To Erica who has been my constant. Laughing with you has been the best pharmaceutical and your deep understanding and commitment to our friendship has grounded me in New York. Katie who came 8 weeks postpartum and held my girl while I took a walk around the block and who reminded me to eat vegetables and keep perspective. Caatje who fed me mango sorbet as I paced naked in hard labor- you are my mother from another lifetime. Sal who tried to understand and couldn’t, but still kept trying. Sal who shifted his axis so much to make room for two females to blow open his heart. Sal who went to work everyday so I could pretend I was still in Canada and get a reasonable maternity leave… and who always brought me home chocolate. And to Aria who is my shifting sand and also my compass. I’ve lost myself in you a thousand times but you always help me find a better starting point. You exhaust me and you wake me back up to see things new and shining like the sun in your eyes. Thank you for your patience with my learning. It is all for you baby.