When I ask moms to share their experiences with any number of subjects — pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, parenting, and so on — I'm always tremendously grateful and honored to hear their stories. The best part, though? Not infrequently something truly lovely happens. In responding to my questions, women — who don't necessarily know each other — begin to talk to each other. And not just talk to one another, but open up and share some really profoundly personal stories and support each other. This happened when I asked moms to share the one emotional postpartum issue they couldn't talk about and, I must confess, it felt both uplifting and melancholy at the same time.
Of course watching women come together in solidarity and support is beautiful. (It's basically, like, the goal of feminism, and that's kind of my thing.) At the same time there was a sort of unspoken sadness at the periphery of these wonderful conversations. Because these women were all discussing something that (at least at one point) they hadn't felt empowered to divulge at all. In choosing to share, however, many found not only support but intimate understanding from other mothers. It made me somewhat sad, to essentially ask myself,"Why are we afraid?" It's not that the fear is silly (all emotions are valid) but so often the silence is so much scarier than what's out there once we talk.
Thankfully, postpartum issues, such as postpartum depression (PPD) and postpartum anxiety (PPA) are being discussed a little more than they had been in the past (if not frequently enough). In those discussion, one often hears the plea, "Don't be ashamed to ask for help because you have nothing to be embarrassed about." That plea can feel like a hollow, though, as all well-meaning platitude sometimes do. Like, "I know I need help, but I'm still ashamed and embarrassed because I'm going to be judged." Tragically, there is still stigma attached to postpartum issues society as a whole would rather not delve into. However, it's worth remembering that there is another society: a society of moms who have been there. I know from my own experience, time and again, that they get you, they have no interest in judging you, and they want to help you.
"Every time I weaned a child off breastfeeding, it always sent me downhill for a couple months into a horrible depression. Once my hormones evened out, I would go back to 'normal.' Nobody warns moms that this is a real occurrence. Even my therapist (who has been in the field over 30+ years) had never heard of such a thing until we saw it happen with each of my kids and she actually informed her staff to research into it more for any other clients that were new mothers."
"With my first child, I thought the emotional roller coaster that I couldn't seem to get off of was just due to my husband deploying at the same time as I gave birth to our first child. I had a lot of intrusive thoughts and my brain often went to 'what if' and worst-case-scenarios. I generally toughed it out and pretended I was OK, because I didn't see another choice since I was on my own and I had to at least appear to be holding strong.
With my second child, my husband was home, but I was still an emotional wreck. It was a rough pregnancy, with a delivery that ended with her being transferred to a NICU at another hospital over an hour away, so I didn't even get to see her for more than five minutes until the next day when they discharged me 24 hours early after a c-section. After we got home few days later, I was surviving, but I would get really irritated over small stuff and cried at nothing. It kept snowballing until one Sunday night about five weeks after birth when I just had a complete come-apart. I'd had a really rough day with a very clingy baby, and I just wanted to sit and eat without having to hold her. She started crying when she was in her bassinet, but I refused to pick her up so that I could eat, and when my husband picked her up, I lost it. I went outside on the back porch and broke down for at least the next 45 minutes because I felt like such a horrible mom for wanting a few minutes to myself. When I did return inside, I picked her up and took her to the glider in her room to rock in the dark. That was probably the lowest point since her birth — I was actually trying to figure out how to make it look like I'd 'had an accident' so that they could at least still get my life insurance money, because I was honestly feeling like they'd just be better off without me.
I called my OB-GYN the next morning and they got me in that afternoon to get some medication for postpartum depression (PPD). After a few weeks, I was feeling better. I started feeling more like myself, which was truly a relief. PPD isn't something to play around with, and there really needs to be less of a stigma attached to actually getting help."
"I'm experiencing some severe anxiety (it comes and goes depending on the day/situation), but I have no problems talking about it. In fact, I talk about it every chance I get since it helps me feel less anxious. It started as horrible nightmares the first two weeks postpartum, but has morphed into feeling anxious when the routine changes: if I have to leave the house with the baby or if my husband has to travel for work I'm thrown into a tailspin until I realize, 'Oh, this isn't so bad.' There are a lot of intrusive 'what if' thoughts, and I tend to go to the worst case scenario in my mind. Therapy and exercise are helping though; it gets better every week!
"I had a lot of guilt after the birth of my son. Guilt for being sick throughout his entire pregnancy and unable to give him the nutrients other babies received from their moms. Guilt I had to take medicine to stop the constant vomiting. Guilt that I dilated at 23 weeks and had to be on bed rest. Guilt that he was a c-section after a long labor with many interventions and an unusual spinal inflammation. I would go to newborn mommy groups with people who really pushed the natural birth mantra and would leave feeling awful because that was not our experience due to my crappy body (this is how I felt at the time, not now). I was literally the only one in a room of 12 moms who had a c-section.
This was all intensified by a two month period when doctors were ruling out pediatric cancer because he has different sized pupils (possibly due to his failed suctions but maybe not - we will never know). I used to stay up at night Googling neuroblastoma over and over and crying for my baby. I did not enjoy those first few months with him because of it. But, we are the lucky ones who went into Children's Hospital and came out with a healthy baby. And, I am forever grateful but didn't fully realize how hard that period of uncertainty was until I had my daughter and had none of those issues. Baby blues and a cancer scare with an infant was an awful experience. And, even now, I can't talk about it or go into Children's Hospital without an emotional reaction."
"The fear, guilt, and anxiety associated with bringing a new person into this world shocked me, both times around. With the first one everything was so new, and so much harder than I was prepared for. Breastfeeding was awful in the beginning, but I was determined to make it work. I cried, she cried, lots of crying. No one slept. If she was awake, I was awake. If she was sleeping, I was having nightmares that she stopped breathing or that I had rolled over and squished her (even though we didn't co-sleep very often and it was usually just my husband's arm). She started having bloody diapers, I was afraid to eat and terrified that she'd be sick like me. I was afraid that if I didn't eat the right things she wouldn't get the nutrients she needed. If I ate the right things I was sicker. I felt so, so guilty about not being able to go out and socialize my infant and wondered if she'd be emotionally ruined from spending 25% of her first few months nursing while mommy was on the toilet. I made it through the first couple of months, but I remember calling my doctor and leaving a message saying, 'I don't think I'm OK.' and when she called me back I was driving on the highway and burst into tears saying, 'I need help!'
I started Prozac that evening for 'postpartum anxiety.' The Prozac dampened my fears, and my daughter seems to have turned out perfect (except for a food allergy, which I'm still convinced is my fault). The breastfeeding improved and I happily breastfed her for 17 months, stopping only because I couldn't deal with the energy drain during my second pregnancy. The second time around, I thought it'd be easier, but I was wrong. I had a very rough pregnancy and my son came 5 weeks early and spent a couple of weeks in the NICU twilight zone. Talk about emotions - that place really brings them out. Overwhelming feelings of guilt, that my body failed this beautiful baby boy, joy that he was here and would be OK, anxiety about whether he really would be OK, guilt over not being with his sister, guilt over being so sick (chronic illness), and guilt over not being able to breastfeed. I tried and tried and tried, but those damn pumps don't work for me (and I didn't know about hand expression). I tried everything, off-label drugs and supplements, you name it. I smelled like maple syrup for four months [a side effect of fenugreek]. And cried. And so did he - super colicky. I didn't eat, he still cried. Finally we tried some special formula and the crying stopped. I was so sick... I gave in. And I still feel like a huge failure... even 2.5 years later. No Prozac this time, but the mom guilt just grows..."
"I have some anxiety normally, and have it mostly under control, but I've just noticed that now, with my little one 4.5 months, I'm starting to teeter on the edge of some anxiety episodes. Often imagining scary mistakes in the house, hating the way everyone else drives... just wanting to cry. I admitted it to my husband the other day and he was great — immediately took the baby and told me to go lay down. He's been great about making sure I get even just a few minutes of alone time every day since. It helps a lot."
"I walked into my 37 week appointment and my water broke. I remember standing in the parking lot of my OB-GYN's office just sobbing. I wasn't ready yet. I still had more ... to prepare. Then his birth progressed very quickly and boom, I was a mom. I was terrified and even though I was surrounded by family and friends, I felt so incredibly alone. The hospital felt like a cold place, I just wanted to go home, but he had some issues at birth and we stayed for four days. I loathed every minute at that place. Nursing was a nightmare and after weeks of exclusively pumping I stopped and went through so much guilt I still get a feeling of sadness when I see a mom nursing her baby or discussing how easy it was, because I was having so many problems and spending hours pumping even when my baby was asleep. It also didn't help that my husband was working 72-hour work weeks on the night shift and my mom was six hours away.
I spent months just feeling overwhelmed and I put on a brave, fake face, telling everyone I was fine. But I wasn't, not at all. Finally at the seven month mark I called my OB-GYN and felt immediate relief, just admitting I needed help took a huge weight off my shoulders. I had postpartum depression (PPD) and went on a low dosage of an antidepressant. My life started to feel less overwhelmed, lonely, it was wonderful! After the birth of my second son I felt the same feelings weeks after his birth, had the same nursing issues and immediately went back on my antidepressant, and refused to feel guilt for how I fed my child. I was not going to put myself through seven months of pain again. I also asked for more help with my second child, I was much too prideful after I had my first. It really does take a village! My boys are older now, five and three, and I still struggle with depression. As much as I don't want to be on an antidepressant, it is what my body needs right now. I'm a better mom and wife when I am taking that little blue pill daily."
"I had heard a lot about PPD, but not a lot about PPA, which is what ended up happening to me. The first night we brought her home from the hospital, I refused to turn off any lights in our room because I needed to see her breathe. I laid down with my head at the opposite end of the bed so it was as close as possible to where she lay, and if I drifted off for a moment, I startled awake when she made the slightest movement. That hyper-vigilance continued on and compounded with the normal lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn made me a total mess. My anxiety manifested mainly in having a very short temper, especially with my husband, and making me really lose out on any enjoyment of those early months. It wasn't until she was around a year old and I started to come out of it that I realized how bad it had been and promised myself I'd ask for help if it happened again with future kids. With baby two, I walked into my six-week checkup and burst into tears when my midwife asked me how I was. I walked out with a prescription for Zoloft and it made such a difference. I've been on it ever since."
"After my daughter, I had anxiety so bad that I would drive around after my husband left for work because I was convinced the house was haunted. I was embarrassed to get help. I hoped that it wouldn't happen again with number three, but the staples from my c-section caused an infection. My ultimate low was when the incision opened and fluid just leaked out everywhere. It was so humiliating, especially with three kids at home. I spiraled back down to the same anxiety and it has never left."
"My first child was breach, and it caused the plates in her head to fuse closed in the womb. She had to have major cranial surgery at two months. She's seven now, but sometimes when I see moms out with newborns and they are carefree and hanging out with their kids and I wonder why I wasn't like this with [my daughter]. And then I remember her surgery and how scared I was, and how I didn't really voice that fear when I was home alone on maternity leave. I hardly took her places. Some tiny part of me always feels like I wasn't as happy as I could have been with her while I was home on maternity leave. I know this sounds incredibly stupid, because obviously we bonded and all is good. But that doubt creeps in sometimes. Especially since my second was a completely different experience."
"A few months into trying to get pregnant, I was diagnosed with PCOS. It took lots of ultrasounds, blood work, two medications and 11 months to get pregnant. I was one cycle away from being sent to a fertility specialist. When I found out I was pregnant, we were elated. Everyone who knew about our struggle to conceive was overjoyed! I had been on medication for anxiety and depression off and on for about 15 years. I stopped taking medication (doctor-approved weaning) once I found out I was pregnant, and I sought out a therapist 'preventatively.' I was very fortunate to have an overall happy and healthy pregnancy, but I was still on 'high alert,' knowing I was at risk for postpartum depression.
After birth, it was unclear if I was experiencing typical 'baby blues' mixed with sleep deprivation or postpartum depression. A few close mama friends I opened up to were quite certain it was PPD. I wasn't eating, I wasn't sleeping (even when I could be sleeping), and I fluctuated between hopelessness, dread, worry and fear. It turns out I was dealing with both postpartum depression and postpartum anxiety (which I didn't even know was a thing).
There were times I just wanted to crawl into bed and stay there, but most of the time I was super anxious and my mind was always racing. I wasn't enjoying motherhood, and I felt so guilty for it. I thought I was a terrible person and I had made a mistake thinking I should have a baby. I got chest pains if I heard [my baby] crying and I wasn't right there with him. I was beyond exhausted, and dizzy and weak, but I couldn't just 'sit still.' If someone was holding the baby, I had to be washing bottles or doing laundry or freaking pulling weeds in the back yard! Who does that?! I was only away from [my son] for a total of three hours in the 13 weeks I was on maternity leave before going back to work. I dealt with bouts of crying and panic attacks my first few weeks back to work. My therapist and PCP both thought I should take more time off to get used to the medication I'd finally started taking, but I was scared and embarrassed. I didn't want people to know I was struggling. I love kids! I have an educational and professional background in child development. I wanted so badly to be a mother. Why wasn't I loving motherhood?? I felt so guilty!
By reaching out to a select few, starting medication, and being open and honest about how I was feeling with nurses, doctors, the social worker who was sent by my OB-GYN to visit me in recovery after a traumatic c-section, [my son's] pediatrician, lactation consultants, a doula, my therapist, and my husband, I survived. When [my baby] was about four months old, I started to have hope. Then I got my appetite back, and started sleeping better. And finally, I started enjoying motherhood. I'm thankful every day that I made it. But not everyone is so lucky. Some women suffer for a lot longer without getting help. My plea? Don't suffer in silence. Don't be ashamed. Don't be embarrassed. Don't feel guilty.