Mothers who have just been given the gift of a tiny human being usually receive congratulations, not condolences. And around this time of year we are busy celebrating all things mom, because, generally speaking, becoming a mom is a good thing -- something to celebrate and venerate. So why do the sleep-deprived faces above the Baby Bjorns and Uppa Baby Vistas make me misty-eyed?
Because I have been there (twice now), and I know how sickeningly hard it can be. There's your general complaints -- lack of sleep, no time for yourself -- but I also know about the more serious upsets that can follow the blessed event.
Nine months after my first daughter was born (and following a medically-difficult pregnancy), I was brought to my knees by crippling postpartum anxiety. It took one excellent therapist, a very understanding husband, a reproductive psychiatrist, 75 milligrams of Zoloft daily, and buckets of tears to bring me back up to the surface of normal life.
Then I settled in for the sitcom-style bumps and bruises of family life until my second daughter was born. This time, the instant she was out of my body, I went into a hormone-driven panic freefall. My OB beamed at me from between my shaking legs and asked what I was feeling as I looked over at my newborn daughter on the scale. "Overwhelmed," I said, fighting back tears.
By the following morning the pediatrician on call had given me the go ahead to take the anti-anxiety drug Lorazepam while breastfeeding, and I was on the horn to my reproductive psychiatrist. Six weeks of phone sessions later, she put me back on Zoloft. My crack team sprung into action again, and I dug back out of the hole and started enjoying motherhood with two.
And since I was a health journalist through all of that, I made it pay -- writing about my experiences, coauthoring a book on medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding, and sharing my story with anyone who would listen or looked like they needed support.
All of that open airing landed me my dream job: a part-time, from home, gig as editorial director of a non-profit dedicated to reproductive and maternal mental health, the Seleni Institute. I helped the organization envision and execute a website filled with the voices of women who had been through depression, anxiety, infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, bonding difficulties, and body image problems. I reached out to all of my friends and all the writers I knew and asked them to share their struggles with me. And they did, in spades.
Editing them is like getting an online degree in all the ways motherhood, or attempts at it, can suck -- from severe postpartum mood disorders such as postpartum depression (which one in eight mothers experience), obsessive-compulsive disorder (a new study suggests as many as 11 percent of new moms will develop it) and postpartum psychosis (a much more rare, but devastating illness that may have contributed to the tragic death of Miriam Carey) to managing multiple miscarriages and surviving stillbirth.
The cumulative effect of it makes me want to walk up to every beleaguered mom out there, hug her, and say, "It's going to be OK, let's get you some help."
Right after the horrific news that a new mother, presumably beset by postpartum psychosis, had plunged (with her child) to her death out of a Harlem apartment building, I practically accosted a new mom at City Bakery.
Over the brim of her swank Bugaboo, I met her determined, but exhausted, eyes and was convinced that she was a former career woman, at sea in the turgid waves of new motherhood and in the midst of a deep undiagnosed postpartum depression. If only I could put my arms around her, perhaps her shoulders would soften, the tears would come, and she would finally realize that there was help.
The reality is I have no idea what she was going through. She could have been having a bad day or the flu. Maybe she was just spacing out and in the space in between us I constructed an elaborate tragedy for the fixing. Fact is: I'm an anxiety-recovered convert, zealous to bring everyone else into my religion of emotional awareness and neuro-chemical balance.
But I don't think it's a bad thing to acknowledge the tragedy that can accompany this socially recognized miracle. Why do you think Zorba called having a wife, kids and a house "the full catastrophe?" That's what life is -- messy and filled with highs and lows. And, when it comes to motherhood, we need to normalize the lows. There is no shame in talking about how it sucks (albeit not around your friend who is on her second round of IVF) and in reaching out for help at any stage of it.
The blogosphere is way ahead of us on this, but not so your general cocktail party conversation. I know, because I have silenced more than a few by blithely mentioning my postpartum anxiety.
Can we all agree to expand the party line about motherhood (and parenting in general) to include topics we don't like talking about? Like how trying to make a person in this age of high-stress careers and delayed childbearing is extremely difficult and fraught with awful, bloody failure? How growing a person inside of you is an heroic physical challenge that takes an enormous biological and hormonal toll, so it makes sense that it can take weeks, months, years (and sometimes professional help) to return to a physical and emotional equilibrium?
Even if being a parent is one of your most important life goals -- it was for me. You are allowed to struggle -- a lot. And just because you signed up for a life-changing experience, doesn't mean you don't deserve help with all the changes it brings.
This week, I saw a mom at my daughter's swim class with her 2-week-old on her lap, and I knew she had a 2-year-old at home while her 5-year-old splashed in the pool. I told her "congratulations." "Thanks, it's just so much fun!" she replied cheerily. I hope that is her truth. But, I also hope she knows it's OK if it isn't. Three kids that young doesn't sound like that much fun to me. I don't know what she was taking, but it must have been good. Maybe I should have my psychiatrist adjust my meds.