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When the Real Story Isn't What You Wish It Were

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CHRISTINE ORGAN
Angie McMonigal Photography
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The other night, instead of reading a book before bed, my 7-year-old son Jackson picked up a photo album and announced that looking through old photos would be "our story" for the night.

The album that he chose consisted entirely of photos taken during the months leading up to his birth and the first six months of his life. It was filled with all of the typical baby photos -- pictures of an expectant mom proudly displaying a new crib, a wrinkly newborn, a round-faced 3-month-old flashing his first smiles, a 5-month-old on the beach. He turned the pages slowly, asking questions from time to time, but mostly he just looked at the photos, recreating the story of pregnancy, birth and infancy in his mind.

As he flipped the pages of the photo album, I was happy to see that the photos told the story that a baby album should tell -- a story of expectation, love, hope, innocence and tenderness.

But this is a story of half-truths; there is another story -- the real story -- hidden inside this typical story of baby love.

If you look closely, you can catch glimpses of this hidden story, this darker story. Amidst the photos of a mother and son napping on the couch and new parents cuddling their newborn is the real story of a woman desperately lost, struggling miserably and failing constantly.

Looking back, with some distance and increased self-awareness, I realize that the cloud of postpartum depression descended shortly after my son was born -- even though I didn't realize it at the time. Everything -- from nursing to sleeping and even cuddling -- felt lifeless and horribly wrong. Each day felt like a wave had washed over me and I was drowning, gasping for air and flailing my arms to stay afloat. Where was the euphoric new mom feeling I was supposed to have? Why wasn't I happier, especially given that this life as a stay-at-home-mom was what I had always wanted? And why was I thinking such horrible, shameful thoughts?

Depression, confusion, loneliness, guilt and shame all muddled up together, swirling and expanding to create the perfect emotional storm, a hurricane of sorts. I got pretty good at pretending, though -- so good that I didn't even acknowledge the depth of the problem until I began to resurface from the eye of the storm. I played the role of proud new mom, denied that I had a problem and told myself that I was happy -- because I knew that I should be happy. Only I most definitely was not.

Hints of the real story are scattered throughout these photos, however. You can see it in the haunted eyes that stare back at the camera on Christmas morning, in the stilted half-smiles that took all my energy to muster, and in the gloomy slouch of my shoulders.

You can see it in the worried and beaten look flickering across my husband's eyes in a few of the photos. Because the real story of postpartum depression is not a solitary story and I wasn't the only one to suffer. In some ways, my husband was suffering with his own PPD by proxy, I suppose. Sleep-deprived and exhausted, fearful of his wife's unpredictable and volatile moods, confused about what to do and how to help, and overwhelmed with his new role as "sole provider," the real story is that my husband was taken hostage by PPD too.

Fortunately, the real story is also one of recovery and resilience. Slowly -- over a long period of time, in a two-steps-forward-one-step-back kind of way -- I began to feel less like I was drowning and more like I was treading water until, eventually, I actually felt like I might be swimming. Sure, some days felt like swimming upstream, but I was swimming nonetheless. And if you look closely at these photos, you might be able to see this part of the real story too when the darkness begins to fade from my eyes, the smiles become easier and less forced, my body is more straight and sure.

But no photo album could ever communicate the epilogue of the real story either. Just like the photos don't show the extent of the desperation and sadness, no photo could ever capture the intense and downright fierce mama love that I feel for my son. There is an almost illogical protective bond between us, like a battle scar from our first several challenging months together. No photo could ever capture the gratitude and appreciation that I have for my husband, for his patience, support, and ability to always tell it like it is -- and then to love me enough to bring me back to life. No photo could contain the relief that I felt when my second son was born three years later and, by the grace of God, we were spared the dark hurricane this time around.

And, fortunately, no photo is able to capture the shame and regret that I still feel today. The camera doesn't see the tiny and oh-so-sharp knife that pierces my heart when I am around new parents, and photos don't seem to show the vice grip clutching my heart whenever I hold a baby, reminding me of all the ways that I wish my experience had been different. The photos don't capture this part of the real story either -- the part where shame and regret linger even though the sadness, loneliness and desperation are long gone. My head knows that I didn't choose PPD, but I wonder if part of me -- the heart part -- won't always feel like it was a character flaw, like I failed my son and my husband, like I was a less capable mom, and like I was robbed of something that every parent deserves -- contentment and peace.

It would be easier, I suppose, and certainly more pleasant, to adopt the half-truth story, the one that people want to see, the one that I wish were real. But I am learning that by owning our stories and accepting our stories -- regardless of how gritty and knotted they might be -- we can take the first steps toward getting over the shame and regret. And that by telling our stories we can empower others to own, accept and share their stories, as well.

Like I said, I'm happy that the photos tell the story that they are supposed to tell, that my son is able to look at them and marvel at his growth and development, and I hope that one day, when he's grown, he will look at the photos and be reminded of his inherent worth and significance simply by virtue of the fact that he was born and he was loved.

But, I pray that one day, many years from now, my son might be wise enough, confident enough and compassionate enough to look at these photos and know that they only tell a half-truth, that they don't tell the real story. I pray that he will be able to understand and hold the real story: the story of an intentional and committed love, of falling in love over and over again, of desperation and forgiveness, of struggle and triumph, of hard-earned happiness and long-awaited contentment. I pray that he will know that the beauty of the real story lies not just in the growth of a baby, but in the growth of a faithful and dedicated family.

As thankful as I am for the half-truth traditional story that the photos tell, the real story is so much deeper and richer, so much stronger and more satisfying than any half-truth story -- if for no other reason than the fact that it is our story.

So whatever your real story is -- whether it's picture perfect or dark and blemished -- own it and accept it. And when you're ready, tell your story -- with kindness and tenderness -- because inside the gnarled and complicated real story, there is a resilient peace and a quiet power. And with each real story shared comes a tiny slice of freedom.

This post originally appeared on the author's website at www.christineorgan.com.

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