I had a secret. One I kept from everyone; from my boyfriend, our families and closest friends, my doctors and myself. Following the birth of my daughter, I suffered from Postpartum Depression, something I didn't realize, however, until the darkness had passed. When you're stuck in the middle of the whirlwind, it's hard to see clearly. I knew I was spinning but I wasn't sure why.
I gave birth to a beautiful little girl on March 8th, 2013, after 36 hours of unmedicated back labor. Our plan from the beginning had been an all-natural childbirth and we prepared for this with classes, choosing a supportive provider and daily exercises. My child and my body, however, had other plans. I labored for almost 24 hours at home before heading off to the hospital. I labored in the tub, I baked muffins, I puttered around the house. Once we got to the hospital, the pain was unimaginable and there are no classes, videos or stories from other mothers that could have prepared me for that experience. I had also been suffering from a back injury, making the pains of labor so intense, I felt paralyzed. Everything that I had learned, all of my preparation, went out the window. I forgot to get up and walk. I forgot how counterproductive it was to be on my back. All I could focus on was the fact that I could no longer feel my left leg or support my weight with it and that, despite having been in labor for over a day, despite having been fully dilated for hours, my daughter wasn't greeting this world.
I was overwhelmed by the hospital staff who kept encouraging an epidural, despite my personal beliefs. I didn't feel like the most important person in the room at that time, yet I should have. Wasn't I the patient? Yes, of course, this was about the birth of my child, a miracle of life so much bigger than myself. But that miracle of life was trying to come out of my vagina so, in my book, that puts me at the top of the list of importance in that room. Yet everyone was talking around me. No one was asking me what I wanted. The doctors wanted to "move things along" because I had been laboring for so long. Yet, there were no signs of distress to myself or my baby. What was the hurry, after all? Babies come when they're ready. I know of many women who have labored for longer than I did and, eventually, their babies decided to say hello. But, when you're lying there, writhed with pain, naked, with a bunch of strangers poking at your most private places, it can become difficult to speak up, to remember to stand up for yourself and to not be pushed around. And so, I was talked into an epidural. Which, true to the statistics, slowed down my labor to a near stop. In came the Pitocin. I was devastated. Why had no one reminded me to walk? To get up and move around to get labor started again? Why is the immediate answer always to use medications? After several more hours of labor (38 in total), I was told I would have to have a C-section. The doctor could see the baby's head but she wasn't coming any further on her own, despite all of my efforts. After a nurse pushed the button to increase the amount of pain medications I was receiving through my IV, without my permission or desire, I was wheeled into the room in hysterics.
Of course, hearing my daughter cry for the first time, hearing her father say "It's a girl!" (I had waited to find out the gender), was the most amazing feeling in the world. Being disappointed in my birthing experience doesn't mean I love my child any less. It simply means that I wish I had been able to experience her being born on her own, mother and daughter working together to bring her beautiful face into this world, instead of a bunch of strangers ripping her out of a giant laceration in my gut. My daughter wasn't handed to me for several minutes after her birth. Despite our birth plan being immediate skin-to-skin contact, to not have the vernix cleaned off of the baby, delayed cord clamping and to have all testing done while she was with me, none of this was respected. She was placed under a warming lamp, cleaned off and given an Apgar Score before I ever even saw her. I can still hear myself crying "Where is she? Where is my daughter?" There was no medical reason for it. She was perfectly healthy. Why had our wishes mattered so little?
When Adrianna was placed on my chest, I felt an instant sense of euphoria. How could you not? This was new life, this tiny little person who ceased to exist outside of this moment, other than kickboxing my insides for nine months. But that sense of euphoria soon faded. This time in my life, which was supposed to be so joyous, was wrought with all of these other emotions. I couldn't pick my daughter up by myself to feed her -- helplessness. When I was holding her, feeding her, snuggling her, I didn't feel that connection any longer. I didn't feel any differently than when I'd held other people's babies -- guilt. After returning home, my pains were so bad that I couldn't walk to the bathroom without support. I wound up back in the hospital exactly one week after my daughter was born. I had an infection -- defeated. Adrianna could only stay with me if someone else was with me 24/7 -- scared.
The challenges certainly didn't end there. Becoming a new parent is filled with challenges, even if everything does go according to plan -- breastfeeding, lack of sleep, major changes to your relationship, unwanted advice from everyone and their mom (and your own mom, too). You leave the hospital with this teeny-tiny little bundle of joy and basically, not a clue in the world. You get home and you hope for the best. During pregnancy, doctors talk to you about postpartum depression. They talk about the warning signs (wanting to hurt yourself or your baby) and they tell you to seek help if you feel that way. Before leaving the hospital, they give you the same talk. But, if they're anything like me, every new mom thinks "it can't happen to me," especially if you didn't have any mood swings or depression during pregnancy. Smooth sailing. As a new mom you think, "I got this mommy thing, I can handle this." And no one talks to you about the other warning signs.
Postpartum depression isn't always as extreme as wanting to hurt yourself or thinking about hurting your child. And it can be difficult to distinguish depression from "normal" post-pregnancy "baby-blues," a term I would like to have banned. Pregnancy and child-birth are filled with surges of hormones as well as changes to our physical and mental beings. We are told, and rightfully so, that it is "normal" to have feelings of sadness, mood swings, bouts of crying. So, how do we distinguish between what's "normal" and what isn't?
I remember being on the couch one day, feeding Adrianna, and crying with all my might. I was telling my significant other that "I'm having a really hard time." I was overwhelmed with my child's needs, with the sometimes only 15 minute breaks between the end of one feeding and the start of another. I was exhausted mentally, emotionally and physically. I went three days between showers because I simply didn't have the time or energy to take one. In the beginning, I never knew when Adrianna would need to eat next. Showers were a luxury. Several times, I would sit on the floor of the shower at 1:00 a.m. and cry while her father would rock her. I often ate dinner, leaning over her head while she ate. Still suffering with my back injury as well as healing from the surgery and infection, I had a great deal of difficulty moving around and caring for my daughter. I felt like a failure to her. I had one job, to care for my child, and I couldn't do it. Not without help. Still, almost six months later, when she cries to be fed at night, her father has to get her from her bed and bring her to me. I can't pick her up on my own.
My relationship suffered from all of these challenges. Her father became overwhelmed with the amount of responsibility he had to take on around the house because I was unable to cook, clean or lift anything. I was rarely happy although I didn't realize it at the time. I enjoyed my daughter's milestones; her first smile, laugh, rolling over. But everything was just hard. Everything seemed like a challenge. So certain of the choices I wanted to make in raising my daughter, every comment anyone made about my style of parenting sent me into a tailspin. My mood swings were epic, including throwing things during arguments (never at anyone). I was not in control of my emotions. At some point, I realized this, but it only made things worse. Having felt so out of control during my labor and birthing experience, I desperately yearned for a sense of control over anything in my life. But I had none. Not my child, not my body, not my emotions nor my relationship. I no longer had a sex-drive. I would hear about women who just couldn't wait the recommended six weeks to get busy again with their man. Me? I never wanted to be touched again. Imagine the toll that takes on a relationship! And, when only her father could soothe her cries, I thought my daughter didn't like me. (I later discovered that this was because babies can smell their mother's milk so, if I was holding her but not feeding her, she would cry to be fed.)
I knew there was something "wrong" with me. But who in the world wants to admit that, even to themselves? I just kept thinking that these feelings were normal after childbirth and that millions of women deal with adjusting hormones and major life changes, why couldn't I? This was just one more thing I was failing at. I was so ashamed to admit what I was going through that I slapped a smile across my face and pretended to be Mary Poppins.
Why is there so much shame surrounding depression, though? Why should any woman feel like a failure for asking for help? If we break a bone, we get it fixed. Most of us wouldn't just hobble around on a broken leg, smiling and pretending everything is okay. (I say most because my significant other probably would!) But when it comes to our minds, our spirits, we are ashamed to admit when they are broken, when something isn't working right and needs to be fixed, so to speak. I wasn't a failure for suffering from depression. I hadn't done anything wrong. I was simply suffering from an illness, one that needed love and attention, starting with admitting that it existed.
My daughter and I are now connected in a way I could never put into words. I am still exhausted most days but I no longer feel like I have nothing more to give. Her father and I have built our love back stronger than it's ever been before and my family is the most incredible and important part of my life. All because I finally said, "I need help. I'm having a really hard time."
It goes without saying that, if you are considering harming yourself or your child, you should seek help. Tell your significant other, your doctor, anyone you trust who can help you find support. (If it's your significant other you're thinking of hurting, well, that's probably normal!) But, just because you may not be feeling like hurting someone, it doesn't mean that you have to just suffer in silence through feelings of guilt, fear, sadness and anxiety. If you are feeling overwhelmed by emotions, if getting out of bed in the morning to care for your newborn child seems as challenging as climbing Mount Everest, it's time to speak up and find support. Becoming a parent should absolutely be a joyous, incredible experience. Break the silence. Stand up to the stigma.
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