Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

Honestly, Breastfeeding Helped Me Overcome My Postpartum Depression

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My son’s birth was traumatic in ways I never expected. I had planned for a drug-free birth, and because I was young and healthy, I truly thought that I would get one. However, when I went to the hospital convinced that I was in labor (spoiler alert: I wasn’t), they admitted me. Although I wasn't in any real pain, the doctors proceeded to bully me into having my water broken. What followed was a torrent of interventions: Demerol, pitocin, epidural, drugs to counteract the negative effect of the epidural, an episiotomy, and a vacuum suction to remove my son. It was 22 hours of pure hell, and at the end of it, I was traumatized.

I had expected that the birth of my child would be accompanied by feelings of peace and joy and overwhelming love. Yet by the time my baby was born, I felt relieved, but also totally numb from the trauma of labor. It wasn’t until my baby latched for the first time in the recovery room that I felt a swell of emotional connection, and that connection turned out to be something I would cling to in the coming months. As I fell into the grips of crippling anxiety and desperation, breastfeeding helped keep me going through my postpartum depression.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

The truth is, it took me a long time to realize that I had postpartum depression and anxiety. Because I was the first among my friends to have a baby, there was no one I felt comfortable confiding in when my anxiety plunged my life into a living hell. So I thought it must be normal to be on edge all the time, to cry because it was all too much, to feel a deep emptiness and constantly question whether motherhood had been the right choice. I thought that all the mothers I saw on social media, long lost acquaintances from high school and middle school, were simply pretending that motherhood was great. That there was an unspoken rule among mothers that you could only express the good things about motherhood, and that the dark and terrible secret of how awful it could be was supposed to remain swept under the rug.

I would sometimes hide in my room and cry because I couldn’t stand the loneliness of new motherhood.

So I stayed silent. Friends would ask how I was doing, and I would give the same boilerplate response: “Everything is good, how about you?” When people asked me questions about how the baby was sleeping or how he was eating, I'd tell them the same things, over and over again: he's sleeping fine, he's eating fine, we're having lots of fun, and it's so adorable having him try on all of his little baby outfits. (I mean, that was pretty fun, TBH.)

I omitted the parts where I would check on him every 15 minutes when he was sleeping, often waking him because I was convinced that he had died. I didn’t say that I would sometimes hide in my room and cry because I couldn’t stand the loneliness of new motherhood. I never said any of this aloud. I never told anyone the truth: that I wasn’t sure I had made the right choice.

Keeping these things inside me, day after day, weighed heavily on my soul. It was hard to put one foot in front of the other. It was hard to make it until naptime, then bedtime. The only thing I could look forward to was feeding time.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

Postpartum depression stole so much of my son’s infancy from me, but I vividly remember the calm that would descend upon me as soon as a good breastfeeding session started.

Breastfeeding was my moment of respite from the negativity that was constantly bouncing around in my head.

Breastfeeding was my moment of respite from the negativity that was constantly bouncing around in my head. It brought me into the present moment with my baby, giving us a moment of bonding that I wouldn’t always otherwise have. Soothing him was difficult, and I would spend hours walking him around, crying and begging him to go to sleep. If he was hungry, however, I was able to lay in bed beside him while he breastfed, rubbing his back and relishing that, for once, I felt like I was a good mother to him.

Courtesy of Gemma Hartley

Honestly, so much of my postpartum depression stemmed from the feeling that I wasn’t enough for my baby. That I couldn’t keep him safe enough. That I didn’t love him enough. That I couldn’t soothe him. That I wasn’t really ready to have him. That I didn’t know enough about raising a child to do it right. All of that faded away when I was breastfeeding. I became wholly enough for him in that moment, and I knew, even if it was only for a brief time, that I was being the best mother I could be.

I had PPD for a little more than a year, and didn't realize it until the fog started to clear. I wish I had sought treatment, but during that time, I didn't know I needed it. When I eventually came to the other side, however, I felt tremendously grateful that I had been able to breastfeed my son for more than a year. It was the thread that held me together during my darkest times, and without it, I cannot imagine how much harder my life would have been. During a time when I felt I was always falling short of my own expectations, breastfeeding was the one moment my doubt faded away. It was the one moment I could say, “I am enough.”

If you are experiencing postpartum depression or anxiety, please seek professional help or call Postpartum Support International (PSI) at 1.800.944.4773.