Not Even My Closest Friends Knew I Had Postpartum Depression
I gripped the wheel as I inched across the ice-caked road, my knuckles nearly the color of the falling snow. My thoughts bounced recklessly through my sleep-deprived brain.
What if I slide off the side of this bridge? How will I save them all? How can I get them all out? Who left me in charge of three children? How do I even have three kids? I don’t know how to do this. What if I am ruining them all?
Behind me, my 6-year-old son was chattering away about his day at kindergarten as his 5-week-old sister screamed like a baby Velociraptor on one side of him and her twin brother slept serenely on the other. I barely heard him talking. The heat hissed through the vents, a steady wave of false comfort.
The boy could probably swim, but the water would be so cold it would be hard to move. Would we be trapped beneath the ice of the frozen Mississippi River that had seemingly slowed to a halt below us? And my babies. My teeny, tiny babies. They aren’t even close to 10 pounds yet, I recalled, as though that arbitrary weight would somehow keep them safer in the icy blackness of the churning river below. How quickly could I undo not just one car seat, but two, in the subzero swirl of stunning darkness?
I was terrified — barely breathing, tears rolling down my cheeks.
That late January afternoon, I wondered how I could possibly be responsible for three children. I thought there was no way I could save them. I wondered if this was all some sort of mistake. And I deliberated the best possible ways to shield them from my anxiety-riddled mind.
Was I ever concerned about hurting my children? Never.
But I was unsure of how I could attend to their needs and be the mother they all deserved.
Every word and movement and thought felt like an affront. I was failing at the most important thing in my world — being a mom.
I won’t say I was overly surprised I had postpartum depression. There were prior decades of burying pain and trying to ignore all of the demons who haunted my sleep. But now here I was, surrounded by love in its purest and most reverent form — two babies and a joyful, compassionate 6-year old.
I thought my unending despondency was proof I did not deserve my children. I tried desperately to hold it together. To wish away the feelings of failure and emptiness and despair. I stared at the twins and breathed in their sweet sleepy skin and wished I could stop feeling so horribly sad in the midst of my little miracles.
Not even my closest friends knew.
I smiled and carefully maintained a façade of stability as best I could until I was alone and able to collapse into myself. Acknowledging the hopelessness and melancholy that formed an edge around my every waking hour.
My constant companions were irritability, anxiety, an unending feeling of being overwhelmed and sadness. Pure, shoulder-sobbing sadness. I cried a lot. Sometimes for hours on end — seemingly without reason.
I had struggled for almost four years to get pregnant. Seemingly spreading my legs for every fertility doctor in a 30-mile radius. Broken and nonfunctional parts of my reproductive system were surgically removed. Medications were ingested. I willingly offered my then-taut abdomen as a pin-cushion to the hoards of needles that arrived at my home. A medical waste container assumed a position on top of my fridge.
For years the struggle was fruitless. And eventually, it became clear the IVF was our only option. And so it began in earnest. I ran, I ate healthy, I meditated, I wrote.
And then it happened.
I was pregnant. Not just one, but two sesame-seed-sized hearts were beating inside of me. I was elated and terrified. For 37 weeks, I did every possible thing I could to protect the lives I was now nurturing and incubating. And then they were born. My babies were here. Tiny hands and soft skin and inviting eyes. My heart grew immeasurably, as did my sadness.
It was a desolation that did not fit the attendant circumstances.
Yes, I was exhausted. Yes, I was anxious. Yes, I had the “baby blues” from the sudden surge of hormones (that were not administered by injection). But this was more than that. This was postpartum depression.
I was ashamed. Embarrassed. Worried about what others would think or say. Certain I was a horrible mother and my children would be better off without me. Unable to be away from my babies for any amount of time. Terrified of what would happen if I was not always vigilant.
I sat on my couch, in my car, in the shower, virtually anywhere — willing myself to feel better.
I thought I could fix it. That I could try harder, smile more, eat healthier, get a little sleep.
I was certain I had to take care of this alone and that no one could know how horribly I was failing my children by being depressed. I thought since I was the one who was broken in the midst of so much perfection, I could not tell anyone.
I felt utterly and completely alone.
And then one day, several months after the twins were born, my partner looked me straight in my bloodshot, swollen eyes and said:
“You need to talk to someone about this.”
After much hesitation, I picked up the phone and carefully dialed the number.
I hung up three times before I heard the entirety of the greeting on the other end.
My voice was barely audible. The person on the other end was clearly not in the mood to accommodate or calm my fears. Her concern was only with scheduling an initial appointment, and she fought to understand what I was asking for with my cracking, shaky words. Alas, an appointment was confirmed and the wheels were set in motion.
Close to two weeks later, I met with a psychiatrist. She empathetically engaged me and offered the kindness and understanding I needed. She heard me. She saw me. And she didn’t look away.
The psychiatrist mentioned medications that might help. After careful consideration and having my fears about antidepressants and breastfeeding assuaged, I elected to take a low-dose prescription.
It was an internal battle, and some days I hated myself for needing it. I thought I was weak. More proof I was incapable of being a good mother if I was not medicated. After a while, though, I came to see that nothing could be further from the truth. I had sought help.
I was able to take a step back and understand that even if I was depressed and struggling, my children needed me to be at my best, and I too deserved to feel better.
I was also referred to an incredible therapist who would become a proverbial hand to hold through the darkness.
Several weeks later, I carried my then 4-month-old babies into the waiting room of a clinic at a large public hospital. Each child was carefully cradled in a bulky and protective infant car seat.
I was nervous. Hesitant. Exhausted. Embarrassed. And desperate.
I checked and double checked to make sure I had not forgotten one of my babies — I never did, but I worried regardless. I made sure they were breathing and not overheating.
A bag full of accouterments that rarely needed to be used was slung over my shoulder. Diapers and wipes and hand sanitizer. Toys and clothes and burp clothes. A blanket or two. I tried to convince myself that if I brought the right things with me, I would be OK, they would be OK. We would all be OK.
I was beyond tired.
My bones ached with exhaustion beyond what could be anticipated from caring for two infants simultaneously. My hands trembled from the constant barrage of being so overwhelmed. I gazed lovingly at my two tiny babies and hoped beyond hope I could do better for them.
What if the therapist thinks I am unfit? What if one of my babies starts crying and I can’t get them to stop it? What if I start crying and cannot stop either?
None of these things happened.
I hesitantly sat down in her office and desperately tried to hold it together.
Until she told me I didn’t have to be strong all the time.
Until she explained that my frightening new normal was not abnormal.
Until she said she understood — and I believed her.
It was only then that I let loose a torrent of tears I was not certain would ever end.
I rambled on and on as she looked at me intently with an empathy that spoke volumes. She held my gaze and assured me what I was thinking and feeling and saying all made perfect sense. She seemed to genuinely understand the desolation I felt, and she never assigned any judgment to it.
For months we met biweekly, and sometimes weekly. She provided a safe space where I could open up about my feelings of inadequacy and my concerns for the future.
Some days, I just sat down heavily in the chair, my babies playing at my feet, and said:
“This is really f*cking hard and I don’t feel like I am doing anything right.”
She had an endless amount of patience for my self-deprecation and was there to remind me it was entirely OK to feel simultaneously ecstatic and distraught. More than anything else, she listened and just let me speak — or cry — as needed.
And after some time, the intense sadness did begin to dissipate. I started to find my footing and not feel entirely leveled on a daily basis. It was hard-fought but well worth the effort.
Two years ago, a dear friend was pregnant with her first child, and she lamented her concerns about postpartum depression. When I mentioned I had experienced it and there were options available if it did happen, she was nearly flabbergasted.
“You did?! I had no idea.”
And that was entirely the point.
I hid my sadness and my despair and my tortured thinking from as many as I could. I was ashamed I was sad at such a seemingly happy time in my life. I wanted to let others know I needed help, but I also feared how weak and ungrateful I would seem if I articulated a need for assistance.
According to the American Psychological Association, up to one in seven women experience postpartum depression in the weeks and months after giving birth, but not everyone seeks treatment. Many go through it alone in silence, wondering what is wrong with them.
Depression tells you no one else will understand. It coerces you into believing you are alone and you should be alone. It silences you when all you want to do is ask for understanding and kindness.
Postpartum depression offers the same delusions, with the added variable of a new baby (or babies) and all of the attendant duties, responsibilities and expectations placed on mothers by themselves, their families and society.
It is an equal opportunity offender, catching new mothers off-guard in the midst of what they have been repeatedly told is “the happiest time in their lives.”
Was my childbirth experience the perfect storm for postpartum depression? Possibly.
After years of fertility treatments, the physical and emotional stress of a multiple pregnancy, an extremely difficult delivery with significant blood loss during an unanticipated cesarean section, issues with milk supply, and no family within nearly a thousand-mile radius, I was already running on close to empty.
Did all of these factors contribute to the tidal wave of postpartum depression that left me struggling to breathe? Probably.
Was any one of them the tipping point? Perhaps.
Does it really matter? No. There doesn’t have to be a reason. Sometimes it just is. And that is OK.
Having postpartum depression does not make someone a bad mother. It does not make them broken or a failure. There should be no shame in talking about it, no harm in letting other women know it can and does happen.
Years later, I am still not sure if I am doing anything right. But now I also know that is OK.
Do I worry that my children were irreparably influenced by my postpartum depression? Of course.
Were they? I will never know.
What I do hope is that they were more influenced by my decision to acknowledge that something was not right and to seek the help I needed to be a better mother to all of them.
Postpartum depression is valid. It is real. And it can feel devastating. Those who are struggling with it need and deserve to be recognized.
We can start the conversation. We can hold the hard truths. And we can offer support. Providing small reminders to let one another know that there is no place for shame, and we don’t have to be alone.