It’s a freaking miracle I didn’t get postpartum depression. I had so many risk factors. Silently, throughout my pregnancy, I worried. I tried to strengthen my resolve. Through the disquiet I focused on a future of hope, remaining keenly aware of my feelings. My mood is one of those things I keep careful tabs on. To say I am an introspective person might at times be an understatement. In my life, I’ve always needed to be conscious of how I’ve felt in order to gauge how I was faring in terms of mental health and my ability to function. The funny thing is, in reality, I have often kept track of those feelings because they are very hard to ignore anyway. With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I wanted to explore a mental health issue: the postpartum mood.
I have a long history of severe depression and anxiety, things like that. Since I was 12, and I am now 34. I haven’t had a major episode since my early 20s. I have been off of medication for over 3 years; I slowly weaned off when we started trying to conceive. Not being on medication makes my introspection a little more vivid, powerful, and all-consuming. We all have our internal dialogue, thoughts, but I’m led to believe some of us are more easily pulled into the web of our own minds. We feel the weight and intricacies of the world around us just a little more, and it is difficult. But I really, over the years, grew, and I really managed to keep myself away from the brink once I was no longer on medication, despite dealing with life’s difficulties — such as worrying about getting pregnant. Some of the other circumstances of my life while pregnant and postpartum were risk factors. My paternal grandmother had what seemed to be postpartum depression; her ‘treatment’ was horrific electroconvulsive therapy. My beloved maternal grandfather passed away during my pregnancy, and my maternal grandmother’s dementia worsened. There were other losses and disappointments I faced. My own history of mental illness, my family history of mental illness, and some of the situations I was dealing with at the time, and even now, were risk factors. Thank goodness I had a smooth pregnancy, delivery, and journey into motherhood itself. Breastfeeding was excruciating at first, but it generally went very well. Sleeping was decent, then on and off, but usually manageable, and when it wasn’t manageable we started breastsleeping and all ills were cured and we slept wonderfully (and still do). I think I was a bit shocked after realizing that I received no ‘shock’ — no major change in mood from my usual status — months after my daughter was born. And now it is nearly 15.5 months later. I’ve been having some more thoughts on it lately because of some difficult things I am going through, along with some societal events.
I think I came out mildly depressed on my PPD screening test at the hospital. Nothing major though. I had a social worker call me, but I never returned the call. My 6 week postpartum OB/GYN visit I think had me scoring a little better, but she did want to make sure I had mental health support, which I did, since she knew I had a history of depression. That’s been my life though. For years, especially since I stopped medication, my moods have gone along with my life. What I mean is that how I felt was a result of what was happening in my life. It made sense, and I remained content through it all with my sense of self intact. I wasn’t sad for no reason like I had been in my teens. (Not that sadness is ever truly without reason, but I mean a sadness caused by a major precipitating factor as opposed to a constant state.) My reactions, while still emotional, were more in line with happy and sad occurrences. And really, I’m still actually kind of a bright, happy person much of the time. With a bit of a dark side. The last 3 years or so I certainly had periods of manageable mild depression when times were trying; they held some sadness, lack of motivation. But the happy times were always present, and I even found myself in an almost hypomanic state for a bit while off medication and before becoming pregnant. It was all related to what was going on, but I managed to learn how to keep myself content and functioning at my core. That was one thing that I felt proud to realize, even if simply functioning never feels truly good enough for me. I believe that is how I’ve continued to be. I have residual symptoms that frustrate me more than anyone knows; I fear that they are insurmountable and woven into the fabric of my being. They make certain tasks much more difficult for me. Sometimes they affect the way I eat or sleep. Yet every time I start to feel frustrated with myself and hopeless at not being able to win against my demons, I gradually find light. When I feel alone, I know I will soon find someone reaching out. And most of all, I find my child. So what if my faults are a part of me? We cannot always have complete control over certain things, and coming to terms with that is challenging. You are a great mother. You are not doing something wrong because you became depressed. Brain chemistry and emotional pain are complicated things. You have been through a lot. You are not a statistic. I am not a statistic; I am not just a collection of risk factors. We are constantly changing complex individuals who love, grow, and mother.
I loved pregnancy. I hope to write an entry about that someday. In the context of the current topic, however, I was nervous that after I had given birth, I would melt into sadness because of that love of pregnancy. I was certain that a regretful longing could easily and very likely overwhelm me once I no longer felt that astonishing life, that baby, moving inside my body, so connected to me. I felt sad thinking about losing that when my daughter was born. I already missed the connection before it was even severed; I thrive on deep connection. But after she was born, I was busy, I was tired, I was recovering, I was emotional about other things, and I was keeping track of her feedings. I was thinking about my sore nipples and body. I was bonding with her, with my husband and my mom and my sister and my grandmother and my family and friends and caretakers. And she was adorable, and I loved her more and more as time went on. It was, in so many ways, better than being pregnant. I feared change. A lot. I still do. I often avoid changes, put off action, and dread. Things often go well, but it has never been easy for me to get over that hump of inaction. Well, labor forced me into action and forced one of the biggest changes of my life. I didn’t end up sinking into depression because I missed being pregnant. I recall pregnancy so fondly, and would be so blessed to do it again someday, but I have thankfully been able to see it for the stepping stone that it is, and prize my daughter and myself for our accomplishment. I now feel like that development from zygote to toddler is so timely; the detachment is so quick but somehow perfectly gradual. After birth, I still fed her with only my body; she needed my hugs to feel safe. I think one of the most moving moments was something that happened after seeing that she would very often only sleep on my chest from early on. I know there’s that beautiful meme that goes around about the relationship between a mother and her children, “No one else will ever know the strength of my love for you. After all, you are the only one who knows what my heart sounds like from the inside.” It’s a beautiful sentiment and let me tell you, an even more beautiful emotion. I certainly knew I would miss the feeling that my very life was also keeping her alive, and the very special bond that fostered. Then, one afternoon, she had been sleeping on me for a while, quite deeply, and I had dozed off as well. When she started to wake and move her head, I saw an imprint of her ear on my bare chest. It was perfect; every curve was defined on my skin. And it was directly over my heart. I could feel it. She had migrated ever so slightly to her perfect spot after she was done suckling. To see that imprint was one of the most tender and warming sights I could imagine. It was the most beautiful feeling. She was so content and safe in my arms, on my chest; she still needed me. My body was still her guardian, her life, her steady, rhythmic comfort, teaching her how to be. They sell pillows that imitate a mother’s breathing and heartbeat. I wasn’t able to put my daughter down very much as a small baby, or even now at times, as I have learned she very much needs and thrives on human contact. It woulda been great if a pillow could have calmed her when I needed to go do something, right? I know we can’t always be there, we need breaks, but I really think so many of these types of experiences saved me from falling into too much anxiety or depression during the postpartum period. I am very thankful for allowing myself to value these interactions with my daughter, including breastfeeding and breastsleeping, interactions which have made the transition from pregnancy to increasing independence a lot easier thus far on a mom who feared it. I think maybe the oxytocin has helped. I still fear that continued transition: eventual weaning, school, separating from one another, facing problems that the sound of my heartbeat or the taste of my breast can’t solve. And as much as I know they will come slowly, I can’t help but still fear it at times. I do have anxiety about the future and making peace with it, anxiety about my ability to parent her, about our ability to thrive, about the state of her family, her friends, her society, and her world. Maybe there will never again be that peaceful interplay our bodies had when she lived inside me. And I am afraid, anxious, and sad in fearing the future, just as I was before I got pregnant, when I found out I was pregnant, and when I feared no longer being pregnant. That is my personality that must be worked on. On a side note, I saw someone in one of the breastfeeding groups I am in on facebook recently get an ear mark tattooed on her, so I know I am not the only one who loved that. May we all have so much oxytocin that our hearts explode….
Continuing on the topic of pregnancy, I think anyone who has been pregnant can attest to the emotional craziness of that time. I actually remember having a couple very major freak outs before I even found out I was pregnant; I got way more upset than I normally might have and after I found out I was pregnant it hit me that hormones might have been getting crazy already even early on. I could cry again while I was pregnant. I’ve had a hard time crying, like, really, truly sobbing my eyes out, for many years. Initially it was a side effect of medications but I never really regained the ability after I stopped taking the medicine Even now, and ever since being a few months postpartum, I can’t really bawl my eyes out for 20 minutes like I would sometimes want to. Perhaps it sounds weird, but I miss being able to cry like that. Even when my incredible grandmother passed away when I was 6 months postpartum, it was hard to cry. Though I was very strong through her illness and death, I think. During pregnancy and very shortly thereafter, I could, and did, end up bawling on the floor if I got really upset, so the difference is so apparent. I had one major panic attack while I was pregnant that scared me. I cannot say it enough that pregnancy just does the strangest, most incredible things to you. I feel like so much of pregnancy is just praying that others will understand that they are not to piss you off in any way, because the magnitude of heart-wrenching drama they might induce could be enough to send you away. I think, in some ways, breastfeeding continues that boundless emotional energy. The negative along with the positive.
I have always had a problem with anger. It doesn’t suit me well. I know, even most people who know me probably rarely see this side of me. I think, looking back, I always just had really strong emotions. They were hard to control. Anger was one of them. I feel that, as a woman in today’s world, you aren’t ‘nice’ if you feel anger. Heaven help your soul if you actually go so far as to express it. As a child, growing up in a home where there was at times very angry male energy, I was afraid of it. It was bad. I feared it. But I dehumanized myself by stuffing my own emotions in and not expressing something like anger because it was bad, until of course it came out in unhealthy ways. I think anger became my destruction. I don’t get furious often, but when I do, a lot of what I have kept inside, for want of peace or for want of being ‘nice,’ gets expressed in what is sometimes a harsh manner. Crying, screaming, begging, cursing, name-calling. Especially in the first few months, nursing made me into a mother bear. Do not anger me. Do not threaten my relationship with my child in any way. My child will have what is best, and if you ruin my view of perfection for her, I will NOT be happy. Slights stick with me. I’m a little quicker to snap, a little quicker to not be patient with you. A little quicker to overflow with sadness and despair and tears when I am hurt, and to then blame you in my fury for your part in hurting me, and furthermore, hurting my child. However, I know that I have a high standard for myself. I don’t feel like my anger ever got to a pathological level, but I believe nursing has lowered my threshold a bit; I have less tolerance. I am angry. Maybe the oxytocin again….
Every so often I scare myself. I feel sad, I feel hopeless. The thing is, it passes. It is almost always consistent with a difficult event arising in my life. Whether or not past or current mental illness affects how I react to those stressors is another issue. Depression isolates, so when I feel that way I have learned to try to connect more with the people around me, with my own self, with my surroundings, and of course, with my daughter. Having a history of depression has a way of programming certain thoughts as your go-to calming agents. Most people don’t find disturbing thoughts or images to be comforting, but, sometimes they are the first things to pop into your mind. They provide an escape, a long dreamed-of way out of strife. When you work through recovery, it initially feels like you need to erase these ‘bad’ thoughts. They are intrusive, painful, not well-suited to coping in the world. Yet the more I thought and read, I realized the real work was not to simply eradicate them, but to give them less power over me. Let them pass, for they are only thoughts. I do not have to act on them or dwell on them. They are a part of me; they do not make me bad or sick or unworthy of being loved. To hate myself for thinking them is to go to war with myself and create more distress within me. Medication eases the pounding strength of those thoughts to make that process more manageable. For that, I will always be eternally grateful; in moments of very severe illness I don’t know I would have ever had enough clarity to find that path had it not been for medication. Now, my troubles are different. I have more perspective. The issues are more complex, involving more facets of life than I had to grapple with as a younger adult. And that is really, really hard. I try to find it worth the challenge.
I had scary thoughts a few times that passed quickly without really upsetting me beyond a momentary jolt. I think the increased awareness about PP depression, anxiety, rage, psychosis, and other disorders has led me to be more aware of what is normal postpartum struggle, what is a sign of something bigger, and what you can do about it, and when not to panic. How common it is. Thinking about that makes me feel grateful for knowledge.
I know I struggled wondering if I was parenting right. Then I realized that they must make those mommy heartbeat pillows for a reason. Kids suck pacifiers for years for a reason. It thank heavens dawned on me that she wasn’t using my breast as a pacifier; society created pacifiers to mimic breasts. She, and I, were doing just what we needed to be doing. The ‘is this normal’ questions about everything your baby does can drive you batty. I understand. Couple that with your responses — am I loving enough, do I have to be more strict, am I reading to her enough, did I not keep good watch over her, she keeps hitting her head while learning to become mobile — am I awful for not being able to stop this? She sees me in moments when I am grumpy, sad, angry; am I shameful? I don’t want to be a bad example, or not be able to respond to her needs. Sometimes that is hard. You mind is always stuck on that baby, but it is a mind, and body, that is only human.
I felt guilty for zoning out and doing nothing. I always feel connected to my daughter, but sometimes I wondered if I was calm around her because I didn’t care enough. I wasn’t attentive enough. I get too easily distracted. I should be able to play with her for hours on end and delight in every single smile and not just hope someone else will play with her or she will entertain herself while I go chat with friends. That’s a symptom of postpartum depression that I think doesn’t get discussed as much. It makes us feel like we could be bad mothers. We can aim for perfect, sure. But don’t take my perfect moments as signs that something is wrong with you; the comparisons and expectations can be dangerous. You get so much advice, you wonder if you just screwed everything up for your child with some small mistake, or even with a well thought-out plan. You worry about something happening to them. We are anxious.
I have felt hopeless about other areas of my life, but she makes me feel better. That is how I know I will be okay. That is why I feel that I was lucky to stave off major postpartum depression; it helps me to realize what my priority is. I won’t go on medication again especially while I am breastfeeding, which may be for years to come, who knows. That has given me so many reasons to continue on. I know we don’t all have that luxury. I want to say that it isn’t anyone’s fault. We need to do what is best to keep ourselves and our babies healthy and taken care of.
I have strong emotions. I have emotions that, if, just by name, could put me into a category of some kind of postpartum disorder. But I know myself. No one else knows how I feel now or how I have felt for the years of my life. I know I will be okay. I know that my emotions can be powerful — some are stronger than they used to be and some are less so. Sometimes I am a little numb. I think other mothers understand how things can be that way after having a baby. I know I need help to deal effectively with my life and the way I function. I always have. I am starting to realize that, especially now, that is more important than ever. I won’t be able to parent her as well if I slip and fall downward. But I have to forgive myself and accept that I am not perfect either.
I’m writing this to remind myself of how far I have come, and how far you have come. I’m writing this in solidarity with every mother suffering, whether she is diagnosed with a postpartum mood disorder or not. I’m writing to convince myself that I am not depressed, that I am so very lucky. I’m writing to let every mother know, to even let every person know, that they are not alone in struggling, whether or not there is a diagnosis of postpartum mental health problem, whether life has got you down and having a child is one more thing on your plate, or whether your child is the light in an otherwise dark life. I am writing, not just this entry, but this whole blog, in an attempt to make sense of and organize the things that overwhelm my mind and heart, to make sense out of my life and my role as a mother. I cannot let anything kill me. I try to stay active, exercise, eat well, meditate, do enjoyable things, take care of those I love, be somewhat productive and responsible. But really, I am confessing. My confession is that I am mildly depressed. I have been off and on for years. I don’t want to admit that I have a hard time sometimes, but it can be obvious. I have some really stressful situations in my life that are wearing me thin, but motherhood has been my saving grace. I have the same problems that I always did. I have new problems. I have found release from old problems. But, miraculously, I did not have a postpartum dip. For that I am eternally grateful. I have a strange postpartum mood — it’s a mix of the sadness and happiness that always filled my heart to the brim, both continually tempered or kindled by new motherhood, some moments of grumpiness and growling if I feel you might be a threat to my cub, and the best one: the post-partum-I-have-a-new-person-in-my-life-who-has-made-a-part-of-my-heart-happier-than-it-has-ever-ever-been. Thank heavens. Diagnoses are arbitrary and we all fall somewhere on the spectrum. Most of all, my heart still beats for my child, and depression or any other postpartum mood will not steal that steady comfort from us. Say it with me, pained, but loved, mamas. Let’s get help for whatever ails us.