Sebastian, my first, was born on April 3, 2004. As a new mother, I was struggling with everything, breastfeeding most of all. On my six week checkup I got the post c-section all clear from my doctor. Yay! I could have sex again! Yeah. I wasn’t randy. At all. I could have happily lived on lemonade and orange juice and American Idol. But I’m a team player. I got waxed. Got busy. And got pregnant. Whoa. My pregnancy journey was already long. My first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage at twelve weeks. Two weeks later I got pregnant with Sebastian. Six weeks after having Sebastian? Pregnant with Fritz. It felt loopy. But with a newborn in the house and a baby on the way we all settled into to a new normal.
Fritz arrived via c-section on April 4, 2005. Sebastian’s birth had been dramatic. Emergency c after over a day of labor. Fritz’s birth was so quiet by comparison. No contractions. No drama. Just me being readied and my beautiful boy entering the world. My sons were both ounces shy of nine pounds and my ability to make milk was limited. Lactation consultants advised me to bottle-feed Fritz. I had a very hard time breastfeeding Sebastian, so being told to not do it with Fritz? I felt relieved.
We took Fritz home and settled into another new normal. Life with two babies. It was harrowing and wonderful and unbelievable. I had a baby nurse and she lived in our home taking care of Fritz so I could be with my one-year-old. Sebastian seemed the logical choice to get my attention as he could ask for it, and anyone could feed Fritz due to my breastfeeding failure. Failure is a loaded word, but it is exactly how I felt. In quiet moments I thought “I can’t feed my kid?! What kind of mom am I?” But there weren’t many quiet moments. No sooner did I have Sebastian than I was pregnant. Once Fritz came there was no time for contemplation.
It all feels like a blur to me now. Babies and ‘just so’ outfits and bugaboo strollers and juggling. I was so tired. In my pajamas turning the light out at 7pm tired. I would put on the AC and the sound machine and cocoon myself in my bedroom. At three months, Sebastian slept from 7pm to 7am every night. He was a rockstar. Fritz was a more finicky sleeper but the sainted baby nurse slept with him so I was free to retreat to my bed. The days morphed into each other. When Fritz was about four weeks old a dear wonderful friend looked me in the eye and said “Something isn’t right. You aren’t you.’ My mother concurred. I didn’t disagree. It’s not like I was crying all the time. I wasn’t thinking about hurting myself or my sons. I just wasn’t ANYTHING. I was blah. Nothing excited me. Nothing moved me. Nothing struck me as funny, sad, good, bad. Blah. I won’t use the word grey because I adore the color and neutral shades thrill me. At four weeks postpartum a friend I will never be able to repay said what I felt but could not express. I wasn’t me.
Depression is pernicious. It tricks you. It makes you scoff at anyone telling you there’s something wrong. I mean, come on! I had two healthy children. Amazing friends. Of course nothing was wrong. Who was I to not be me? Depression whispered in my ear at all times ‘you’re fine, you’re fine’ while simultaneously holding me down and convincing me I was a failure. It was seductive and horrible ALL at once. I’m reminded of a passage from Margaret Atwood in The Cat’s Eye. “I don’t want to see anyone. I lie in the bedroom with the curtains drawn and nothingness washing over me like a sluggish wave. Whatever is happening to me is my own fault. I have done something wrong, something so huge I can’t even see it, something that’s drowning me. I am inadequate and stupid, without worth.” That passage ends with “I might as well be dead.” But I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. Not dead. But alone.
I called my OBGYN the day my friend spoke to me. When the lovely woman at the desk asked why I was calling I said “I’m not me”. The questions began immediately. Was I alone with the boys? Could I get to the hospital? Where was I? I took a beat and then laughed. I said “I’m not going to hurt anyone! I may get divorced…” The nurse didn’t laugh with me. I was given the last appointment of the day with a psychiatrist specializing in postpartum depression.
Dr. Miller was wise and warm and seemed so utterly confident that I was in the right place. Something about being there made me think “I’m cured!’ Of course I wasn’t. Heck. I wasn’t even sure what was wrong with me yet. We spoke of all manner of things that first night. A pattern emerged that some distant part of my brain recognized as proof that I was not quite right. Depression is VERY good at shutting up reason, but somehow in my new doctor’s office reason had a fighting chance. We talked about my not eating. My house full of babysitters and baby nurses. When I mentioned that I slept well she was the first to ask how I was managing sleep. I’d been taking anything I could to sleep at night including Valium I had taken from my Dad. NO, he wasn’t a doctor. I helped myself to his prescription. She prescribed a sleeping pill. She didn’t judge me. She had seen ‘me’ a thousand times before. She asked me what I fantasized about. Where I went in my head. Without even thinking I told her I dreamed about a white room with dark wood floors. It was elegant- almost tropical- peaceful and quiet. I was alone.
Months later Dr Miller told me something that I’m certain I couldn’t have heard on that first night. She said the moment she knew I was in trouble was when she heard that my daydreaming was always of me alone. I was a new mother with more than enough help- my village was big and strong and supportive. I had time to myself. Time with friends. The fact that my only solace and the place I escaped to most was a clean white empty room? It was an absolute sign I was depressed. And somehow depression made being alone seem wonderful when in fact it was depriving me and my sons of my life.
It took over a year until I felt myself again. Tragically, my sister passed away when Fritz was three months old. I was profoundly sad and grateful to be in treatment. With my postpartum depression came enormous guilt that I wasn’t really there for my sons. In some ways, I wasn’t. And I have to give myself a break and know that for a time it was beyond my control.
As women we are often sold a picture of motherhood that reminds me of Snow White doing the dwarves’ laundry. Remember the scene? The birds and woodland creature coming out to help, rendering laundry the dreamiest activity imaginable? Motherhood is not the movies. Even when we are healthy it can be extraordinarily hard. The vicious cycle of depression cutting off joy and then the guilt of not feeling joy can be harrowing. It can feel endless. I promise it isn’t. If you are reading this and it resonates with you? I promise you will see your way through the limbo of postpartum depression. Motherhood is a rollercoaster. Huge highs and wild turns and big dips. Therapy and medication (and in my case, spin class) can get you back on that rollercoaster and feeling everything there is to feel. I wasn’t alone. Neither are you.