What It's Like Slipping Into Postpartum Depression on Day One
You’re flushed and exhausted, with a smile as wide as the sea. The nurse just placed a squirming pink chub — wrapped burrito-style in a tidy bundle — in your arms. Over your shoulder, your doting partner looks on, elated and proud. You gaze down lovingly at the tiny face of your child, searching for familiarity, and finding it in the delicate tufts of fuzz and the sweet little pouty lips. You picture this delicate, fascinating, wonderful creature at varying stages of life — conveniently picturing yourself in the background — and marvel at how much you adore your child and look forward to the journey that the two of you will take together. It is as though the heavens have opened up, and a beam of warm sunlight blankets you in a cocoon of joy.
If this was your experience immediately after childbirth, then color me green with jealousy because it certainly was not mine. Throughout my first pregnancy, this was the admittedly naive vision of new motherhood that played on an endless loop in my head. Somehow, I allowed the mythology of this moment — a societal construct built in layers from sources ranging from pop culture to personal anecdote — to inflate my expectations to unreasonable levels. And when I got there, and my experience was vastly different, I felt like the bottom had dropped out.
For me, relief was first. The ordeal of pregnancy and childbirth was over, and the baby was crying. A good sign. What I remember most vividly is the pitch of her cries. From the second she breathed air, my daughter was letting us know she was here, and with a ferocity that soon seemed unnatural for something so tiny. As she continued to scream at the top of her little lungs, my husband and I exchanged looks. What have we done?
The nurses finished the weighing and measuring, and handed her — still shrieking like a doused alley cat — to me. I waited for The Feeling. I gazed down at her face, purple with rage, and willed myself to feel something other than dismay and dread.
I now understand this reaction is extreme. From an objective distance, I realize my emotional response to childbirth wasn’t entirely “normal,” and was likely an early sign of what would develop into postpartum depression. But I didn’t know that then. All I knew is I wasn’t immediately in love with this little person; there was no encompassing beam of sunlight wrapping us in warmth and bonding us together as mother and child. And that’s when the dismay deepened into something darker and more akin to panic.
I’d read about skin-to-skin contact and the benefits of starting breastfeeding as early as possible. Ah ha, I thought. If I could just get baby to breast; that would be the moment when it all clicked into place, and the idyllic movie scene version of this moment could proceed as scheduled.
Or not. As it turned out, combining a new mother and a baby with a poor latch is a recipe for frustration, pain and tears. We attempted, and we attempted, and we attempted. With increasing futility, we asked for help, and we tried different positions. It was hopeless. We were both sobbing our hearts out when one of the nurses mercifully intervened to take the baby out of my fumbling, shaky arms.
She asked my husband to accompany the baby for her first bath, and as they wheeled her out of the room and her cries started to recede down the hallway, I felt relieved. And more than a little ashamed and horrified. What kind of mother was I? How could I not adore my baby? What was wrong with me? I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience; my own thoughts were alien.
If reading this makes you cringe and judge me, I’m right there with you. I feel awful about my reaction to my first moments of motherhood, and I know I always will. Even now, as she turns 7 years old, the memory still brings up a sickening gorge of emotions. I’m disappointed in myself as a mother; I’m sad for the loss of the early moments I imagined we’d share, and I’m angry because I feel betrayed by my own brain.
Thankfully, I’m sure my experience is less common. I know — like so many aspects of motherhood — there is a spectrum, and each woman’s experience varies, sometimes profoundly, from that of others. And really, my day-one experience could’ve been an outlier, indicative of nothing other than the essential truth that birth is one of life’s most unpredictable events.
That it became more than that is at least partially the result of the other powerful emotion that overcame me in those early moments, hours and days: loneliness.
Turns out, being someone who doesn’t fit the mold of what is expected — of what you’re told is “normal” — is incredibly isolating. I believed no one would understand my feelings, and I felt deeply ashamed. I could never share the truth of these moments with anyone because I knew in speaking them out loud, I’d be validating an experience I desperately needed to deny. I knew I’d be subjecting myself to judgment; already creaking under the weight of my own self-loathing, I knew that would be more than I could bear. So I shoved it down, stuffed it in and refused to accept or acknowledge it.
And in my case, it did become more than those first moments. Those feelings, bottled up inside, festered. They darkened much of my early experience as a mother. Because I was too ashamed to talk about how I was feeling, no one understood the depth of what I was going through. Because I didn’t speak up, no one recognized I was slipping further and further into depression.
Looking back, I can’t help but wonder how things might’ve turned out differently if I thought that maybe there were others who could relate. I can’t say for sure that things would’ve been vastly different. There is one thing I know with certainty: I would have felt less alone. And that is why I share my experience now.
Here’s the thing: motherhood isn’t a fairy tale. It wasn’t for me, not on the first day, or after. New motherhood is a range of experiences and emotions. This was mine. If it bears any resemblance to yours, I want you to know that you are not alone. And if it doesn’t, I hope you can have compassion for the women in your life whose experience is different.
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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz