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When the Birth of Your Child Leaves You Feeling Empty

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I had felt its presence before, but have never known what it was. It was like being jerked awake by a hard poke in the back then simply turning over, thinking dreamily it must have been my own imagination, and sleeping on. My life was like this. Foggy slumber from which I never awoke, punctured by unnamed, faceless creatures that didn’t emerge in their entirety until much later.

In the beginning, half-formed thoughts and hazy feelings of despair would engulf me, choke me, and my mouth would open on its own accord — I’d hear myself say hideous things. Fury and anguish would spew from me uncontrollably without trigger, without cause. I’d hear myself as though I wasn’t there and think, Why am I saying this? Why am I so angry? What has hurt me so much?

Though the answer would swim in the back of my mind, obscure and enigmatic, I could never reach down and grasp it. It took very little to set me off. Sometimes there was no reason at all, just a blank empty stretch of self-loathing and torment. But mostly, it was simply someone looking at me the wrong way. Somehow proving, through an unanswered text or an unenthusiastic greeting, just how little they cared for me. It could be the coffee shop running out of my preferred flavor of donuts. It could be discovering my bedspread pattern didn’t quite match the carpet. And where would I be without the desperate assurance from others I was loved and cherished or the security of refined sugary treats and the comfort of an immaculately beautiful home? Surely these things will guard me from the monsters in my head? Surely they will protect me in an impenetrable blanket of safety on which I can rest my head and sigh with contentment? Doesn’t pain leave, doesn’t it go with the acquisition of these things? Doesn’t it heal you? Isn’t this what will finally make you happy? I wasted half my life running because I had thought the answer was yes.

It is a sad thing when you don’t know what it is plaguing you. My darkness followed me everywhere I went, but I didn’t even know its name. It was such an enormous part of me and it took so much from me, but still every night I would find myself on my knees screaming for someone to tell me what was wrong with me. If I had understood then something wasn’t right, I wasn’t just lazy, tired and bad tempered, maybe things would have turned out different. But as it was, I didn’t see beyond my low moods and seemingly incurable lethargy. I shrugged it off as a bad day, never stopping to see just how many bad days I was starting to have. I wish it had occurred to me something much deeper was at play, but it’s hard to admit. And if only I didn’t fall into this trap, maybe I would have found peace sooner.

One day, it all became so much worse. I became a mother. I was handed a beautiful, healthy baby boy who would one day grow to entrance me with his wide-eyed gaze and unencumbered smile. But back then, it was as if my world had imploded. Call it nerves or blame it on naiveté, but throughout my pregnancy I had never pictured what it would be like to become a mother. I spent those nine months thinking about ways I would lose the baby weight. I thought about the impact it would have on my relationship with my husband. I wondered where I would keep the cot in our bedroom, how I would store away the bundles of baby clothes. But I never imagined what it would be like to hold a real living thing in my arms, look into my baby’s eyes and know he was mine. My child, with my blood running through his veins. I took for granted I would love him. After all, isn’t this what mothers do? Eventually I learned loving my child was not a right, but a privilege.

It happened in the moments right after my son was born. A stealthy presence had crept over me, slithered into my chest and planted its claws into my heart. I looked at all the happy, tearful faces around me as if I was watching from one end of a long tunnel. They were so far away from me, their voices resounding strangely in my ears. Was this really happening? Why didn’t I feel this happy? I waited for that rush of joy to consume me, for my heart to burst with gratitude and delight, but it never came. I yearned for it, tried vainly to convince myself of it, but my heart had closed itself to any emotion. I spent the night battling exhaustion and fatigue as my baby slept in a bassinet beside me. The only sounds in the room were the voices of other mothers crooning and murmuring into their newborn’s ears and the beating of my own empty heart.

When I returned home from the hospital, I felt no joy and no sense of fulfillment. My husband tried thinking of ways to make me smile, to get me to talk to him about what was wrong, but for some reason my mind wasn’t my own anymore. It was functioning completely apart from me, because surely the thoughts I was having couldn’t possibly be mine. Oh I felt determination, yes. But not for the crying bundle beside me. No, I wanted to run as far away from this as I could, because what could I do to console it? What comfort did I have to give? No, it was much easier tackling the mound of unwashed dishes in the sink and cartons of food that littered the table. This was what I knew. This was something I could do. And when I was done, it wouldn’t cling to me needily the way my baby did. It left me alone. And this was all every pore in my body ached for — to be blissfully and utterly alone. Away from the wailing, away from little hands grabbing at me, away from facing my own horrifying indifference. Somewhere inside me, a little girl buried her face in her pillow and cried and cried. Why doesn’t he sleep? Why doesn’t he ever stop crying? What am I doing wrong? What’s the matter with me? All these desperate questions swarmed round and round in my head like bees until all I could do was grab my head and weep.

I still can’t think back to that time without my hands turning cold. My days became long, dreary stretches of me staring catatonically at the wall while my son wailed in my arms. Other people would bend over him, stroking his cheek and caressing his hair while I sat unmoved, not caring. I wanted so badly to reach over and soothe my child, but the demon held me back. It whispered I would fail anyway, so why bother? It told me my son would probably recoil at my touch. It was always there, watching me, haunting me, mocking me. It bound my wrists so I wouldn’t rock my baby to sleep. It cackled and told me I was the worst mother in the world. It made me stare in bewilderment when other people tickled their children, bounced them on their knee. It was strange to me someone, somewhere, would actually enjoy their child because It had convinced me there was nothing to enjoy in motherhood. I believed all of this to be true.

If I had the words to explain what it was like in my mind, I would. No one can possibly understand what it’s like unless they’ve experienced it. It isn’t as if you don’t love your child — you do — but there is so much sadness and stress over it, the love is diminished, quietened, forgotten. You feel shame and horror that the most basic maternal instincts were denied to you. You feel an almost painful desperation to quiet the demons in your head, who keep whispering how hard it is to take care of a baby. You yearn to sleep again. You resent the constant feeding. You’re sickened by the constant stench of dirty diapers. You can scarcely believe there was a time you could leave the house unbidden and unrestrained. And the ever present, evil thought you are failing. You are ruining your child’s life. Everyone hates you for this. Your son doesn’t deserve someone like you. The earth itself will rise up to reject you. It is relentless.

Ironically my son’s needs were always met. He was always in a clean diaper, well fed and comfortably nestled in heaps of fluffy blankets. I insisted on exclusive breastfeeding. No matter how much it worsened my mood, I nursed and nursed because it was the only way I could think to redeem myself as a mother. I bought him toys. But that was it. No lullabies, no whispers. No tickling of tiny toes. No shared smiles and giggles. Just standing by and watching indifferently.

My husband could of course see by now something was devastatingly wrong. He tried cajoling and comforting. He listened in those rare moments when I opened up to him and admitted I was drowning and he told me none of it was true. He said I was a great mother. I tried to nod, but all I could hear was the laughter in my head at how wrong he was. But he persisted. We went out to restaurants and funfairs in an attempt to awaken me from the zombie I had become. He bought me gifts. He held my hand and told me he was there for me. But still, caring for my child felt like the most exhausting task in the world. I’d still count on my fingers how many months were left until I could shift his cot into the nursery, away from me. My hands would still tremble when I changed a diaper or offered him a spoonful of food, certain I was doing it all wrong. I continued to resist social gatherings because I knew it would mean struggling with a howling baby by myself the entire time. I hated how I couldn’t eat a meal in peace, the way everyone around me seemed to be able to do. I didn’t join in when other mothers laughed and joked about the pitfalls of motherhood because I knew for them, it was all worth it. They were in love with their children in a way that was still foreign to me.

And so my demons kept on knocking, I kept screaming silently for help. The first time we heard the term “postpartum depression” was from the public health nurse sitting across from me, holding the form I had just filled out which quantified depressive levels in new mothers. Her grave tone and immediate referral to a GP was enough to let me know my score. For months, the tornado in my head had plagued me because it didn’t make any sense. Now, I finally got clarification from the psychiatrist we had gone to see. What I had was a biochemical vulnerability, which when triggered by an emotional upheaval or drastic event, had led to full blown depression. In my case the event had been my pregnancy and consequent delivery.

At last, an explanation! The knowledge there were other mothers and fathers like me. There was a way out. But it took a long time to accept what I had. Postpartum depression sounded so ugly to me, an embarrassing label to put on myself.

I denied medication, claiming I could fight it on my own. And while I’m certainly not saying the only way to treat mental illness is through pills, it must be remembered depression slowly takes from you any power and control you may have. Saying you will fight it on your own is sometimes asking for more strength than you have. It’s OK to seek help. It’s OK to take medications because they do help. There’s no shame in it. So please speak out. This is not your fault. That’s the most important thing to understand. Depression makes you believe the worst in you then convinces you it is your fault you have these shortcomings. But remember you are imperfect by design and that’s OK.

It took a while, but I began seeing a therapist. At first my voice was barely above a whisper but it grew stronger as I realized what a relief and joy it was to finally be able to tell someone. The more I heard myself talk, the more I felt my burden lightening and the more sense I could make of what I had been going through. I could come to solutions all on my own and what was more, I had found the strength to act on those solutions as well.

There are still days when it all feels like too much. When my patience wears out, my temper gets shorter and I still need moments to myself so I can just breathe. But after a while, the malicious whispering in my ear gets fainter, my darkness ebbs away quicker and it’s easier to find my way out. Now my days aren’t complete without at least a hundred kisses from my son, each one melting my heart. Now I know what it’s like to lift him and bury my face in his sweet smelling neck and look into his radiant face as though I am watching the sun come up. Now I sleep with him beside me, holding his hand tightly in mine. I carry it with me in my dreams.

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Image via Thinkstock

Originally published: January 28, 2017
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