I need to talk about something important. We need to. Because it’s the only way – the first step – in outing something so vile. It’s the ugly, dark, shaming existence of living with and through postpartum depression. And I know something about it. I lived it. And I got through it and to the other side of it. I didn’t think I could, but I did.
The Love of Motherhood
Every day, I look at each of my beautiful children and my heart smiles. It smiles for so many reasons and for none at all. They are such incredible little persons. My heart swells with love when I check on them when they sleep or when they snuggle close to me or when I watch them striving to be their truest and best self. They (and I hate the overuse of this world in today’s culture, but I’ve got to do it) amaze me. They are so different from one another; yet so connected. There is so much I’ve learned from each of them. So much I’ve learned about myself.
When my first child was born, I knew nearly nothing about how to proceed. I truly believe that he taught me how to become a mother. I was on cloud nine that this beautiful creature was my own to take home and to love and teach. I learned as I went, often stumbling, but always striving to listen and trust my inner voice and to pay attention to the beautiful bond that was created between us. Sure, there were tough times and stress. My husband and I didn’t always see things eye to eye; I was struggling with learning the ins and outs of breastfeeding, I had a ton of weight to lose, and I wasn’t getting the same kind of sleep I once did. So yeah, there were some teary days and nights those first few weeks, but the joy always won and the mother-child bond sustained me. That bond would signal to me what he would need – to be fed, to be held, to play, to connect and grow. There was so much love and joy and connectedness. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more alive.
And when I became pregnant again, I think there was an assumption that I must have made about how I would ‘be’ after his birth.
I was wrong.
Leaving my role of breadwinner behind…
This pregnancy certainly had its stressors. Three months before learning that I was pregnant, I had left my full-time career as a corporate salesperson to become a stay-at-home-mom. Doing this meant that my husband would be at the helm for providing the income and paying the bills while he was launching a new career in real estate. We had saved to cover about seven months of expenses to provide for the transition, and he was seemingly driven to make this work.
I remember one of my first nights as a stay-at-home-mother. My husband and I decided to watch a movie neither of us had seen while our son slept. It was called ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’. It is the story of a financially struggling couple with a young son. The father is desperately trying to make a better life for the three of them. Things get much, much worse before they get any better and the story is riddled with loss and a deep sadness. It was a great movie and rather inspirational – and I found myself drawn into its story. But by the conclusion of the movie, I found myself seeking reassurance from my husband that THAT story wouldn’t be OUR story. It stuck with me. REALLY stuck with me. But he told me that we had a plan. He was going to make this work. And he was going to do whatever he had to do to take care of his family.
Disappointment and Resentment
But by that seventh month of using that transitional savings fund, and my fourth month of my pregnancy, he told me that he hadn’t been working as he had promised. He hadn’t been as committed or as focused as he had told me. He knew he could do better. And the money was gone. Gone. And he was sorry. But, NOW….he was ‘ready’ to buckle down and make it happen….but the money had been spent. And now I had to help clean up the mess. In order to survive, I would need to go back to the employer where I had given my notice – while attempting to come from a position of dignity and strength and inquire if there was some sort of role I could do in a part-time capacity, even though I would be on maternity leave in just a few short months. It was humiliating. And I didn’t want to do it. I DID NOT WANT TO DO IT. I just wanted to be with my son.
I was so worried about adding a new baby to the dynamic bond that my son and I shared. Nursing had recently ended (yes – I breastfed my child until he was two and a half years old. No, it’s not weird. Yes, it’s natural and the weaning process is as natural as it gets.) And I know it was time for the nursing to end, because he was ready. And because he was ready, I was, too. My pregnant body made it more difficult to keep nursing and it just naturally ended. He was done. And it was ok. I couldn’t imagine loving anyone like I loved him. And that frightened me. I wanted every spare moment with him before the baby came. And I wanted to enjoy this pregnancy as much as I could. My first pregnancy had also been peppered with stress – maritally and financially – but once he came, I was overjoyed. I wanted to enjoy this time. I wanted to soak up as much time as I could with my son before this baby was here.
But now – I had to go back to work. Back to work at the place I had just quit – the place that had bent over backwards trying to convince me to stay – and me repeatedly declining as graciously as could. I had been one of their first employees to get the company going. I had been recruited to do big things. And big things I did. I had been nicknamed the ‘Bulldog’, ‘The Bird-Dogger’ and ‘The Heat-Seeking Missile’ because I made things happen. I got deals done. And I was instrumental to bringing that company to the next level. When I had given my notice to become a stay-at-home-mother, it wasn’t without leaving a shockwave in my path. People called and emailed. The owner tried to convince me to stay. Even the primary angel investor of the firm sought me out and talked to me. But my mind had been made up. Nothing was as precious to me as time with my son. And my husband had committed to becoming the breadwinner so that we could make that happen.
But everyone is replaceable in the business world – I have always known that. And I had no delusion that now I had mud on my face. I was crawling back and asking if I could do something part-time for the next few months because I would be gone again – on maternity leave. Anything that they were doing was really a favor to me. I mean, sure, I was offering up my talents and that is of benefit to the company – but they certainly no longer had the illusion that they needed me for their success. They had gone on for the last seven months without me just fine – everyone is replaceable. I understood that. I had been doing this too long and had seen too much to not realize that. So the president of the company and I did a little dance. I would pretend I was doing this because I missed working and that it was in my blood while he pretended to not know that my husband had disappointed me. He allowed me to hang on to my dignity and swiftly put together a role that could accommodate me. He was kind and generous when we would negotiate my flexible schedule and how I would be paid. Paid for a job that I was so sure of leaving seven months prior. As grateful as I was for his kindness, it was a humiliating fall from grace.
Attempting to Right a Sinking Ship
It was about halfway through my pregnancy when all of these changes unfolded. The savings was gone. My son was done nursing. I had to go back to work. And my husband had to live up to his promise of working hard. The past was behind us and he was now ready to give it ‘his all’ and buckle down. With all of this, we embarked on a new schedule. Upon waking, and even while making our bed, we went to work. We thought that if I could coach him – transfer my knowledge and skill set, so to speak – he had a better shot of bringing this business up to speed quickly and begin to make up for lost time. And because of my prior success, I knew what to do and how to do it. I had always figured out how to make it happen – even in market lulls and crashes. But now, with a baby growing inside of me and a toddler attached to me and wanting me to care for him full-time, there was absolutely no desire within me to do it again. My husband needed to do this. He needed to do this because my babies needed me and I needed to be there for my babies. So I coached him. I shared my expertise, techniques and strategies that took years to fine tune.
So, starting at the beginning of each and every day, I took on the responsibility of coaching him on sales generation, presentation, closing deals and pipeline management. Together, we would review his call scripts, role-play sales generation phone calls, and then organize his tasks and goals for the day. It was a lot of work and I put my ‘all’ into it. This coaching carried over into our son’s breakfast time, and getting him ready for his day. So, after each morning’s coaching session, my husband would go to work on turning this real estate business of his around while my son and I would go about our busy morning. My son and I always had lots of stuff going on – playing outside, taking walks, running errands, attending playgroups and play dates, creating with arts and crafts, and lots of learning time.
Then it would be lunch. My husband would come back – either from his home office or from being out – for lunch. Again, and during lunch, I would coach. Review, plan, fine-tune. There really was no room for error anymore. The savings was gone. And it was tough on our marriage. There were times that he wasn’t up for or interested in my coaching and I found that maddening. I resented him for not working hard in the first place. I was angry that the savings was gone. I was scared that unless he really followed through with what he knew he needed to do and had promised to do, that I would lose even more time with my babies. I couldn’t just depend and know that he would do what it took. My confidence in him was weakening. It got to a point where I felt the only thing left I could do was to constantly make sure he was following through. The entire balance of our relationship was off.
After lunch, it was time for our son’s nap. Ideally, this would have been an ideal opportunity for me to rest, too, but I had decided that if I HAD to work, that I didn’t want to miss any more time with him than necessary. Since a large part of the afternoons were his nap time, I would work during that time to help get us through this financial crisis. So now, every afternoon, my husband put him down for a nap. Not me. And while our son napped after lunch, my husband was to be prepping his evening real estate calls and appointments. By about 5:30 or 6:00, I would wrap up my afternoon’s work and eagerly come back to my son. Sometimes, we would all eat together and then my husband would make his calls or go out on his appointments while I took care of our son. Sometimes my husband would ‘take a break’ and come help at bedtime or bath time before going back to work, but for the most part, it was me. And by day’s end, with my son sound asleep, I had put in a full day with little-to-no rest. But at least I had maximized my time with my boy. And I really just wanted to be with my son.
I would lay on the bed and wait for husband until he was done working, often not until after 9:00 PM. Hopeful and anxious that this was the day for good news of real and actual progress, I would anxiously ask him if we were going to be ok – financially. Every night. Every single night. As our heads hit the pillows. My nightly routine of asking would wear on him. He would do his best to somehow convince me that we were going to be OK, but the reality was that every night that he came home, he hadn’t come any closer to securing a transaction.
No money was coming in.
I kept anticipating that it would, but it didn’t.
In an effort to replace my overwrought emotions and anxiety with a plan and factual information, I had even put together an excel spreadsheet of our financial outlook to carry us through the rest of my pregnancy and into my maternity leave. In it, I was forecasting my part-time income and conservatively projecting his real estate income – given his newly found commitment to a better work ethic. I would comb through the numbers almost nightly – obsessively – hoping to find comfort in its projections, so that I could begin to enjoy this time – this passing time that was closing in.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I was consumed with worry.
The Joys of Pregnancy – Or Not
I have never enjoyed being pregnant in the way a lot of woman do. In an effort to be transparent as I share my story, it is worthwhile to note that I have never embraced change – of any kind – well. Pregnancy is constant change. Change of mood, outlook, body, life forming, and family changes. The only constant is change. The only parts of pregnancy – besides the prize of a beautiful new baby to love at the end – that I really enjoy is the eating, finding out the gender, and the choosing of a name. I love the name part. It’s so much fun. I think every little girl has names that they grew up loving or pretending to have or imagining as the name of a future baby when they grow up. The naming is just so joyous and so much fun. I love dreaming up what we might call the baby. I love going through lists and coming up with the perfect name. So much so for me, that it helped me get through the constant changes of pregnancy. My husband and I had always agreed to never share the names of our babies until they were born. We never wanted to be swayed or influenced by people’s reactions or words. It was ours. And I felt like this baby should be called ‘Luke’. I loved the name. It was beautiful.
But my husband had a less-than-enthusiastic reception to it. He was concerned that people would associate the name with the TV show, The Dukes of Hazard, or Star Wars when they heard the name. I would counter that only people of our generation might do that and that this baby’s generation would not make that association; and that it was a great name. And it was. I really loved the name and felt a deep connection to it. I felt that my husband should defer to me when it came to naming the baby. After all, the baby would have his surname and we had agreed that the baby’s middle name would be my husband’s first name. I was the one who had gone through the physical and emotional toils of pregnancy – please give me this. But I didn’t want him to ‘just give me my way’ – I wanted him to genuinely defer to me – and be supportive, gentile and enthusiastic with whatever I felt our baby’s first name should be. Whatever name to which I had emotionally connected.
I was crestfallen.
It was clear he didn’t really want that name and I didn’t want to disappoint him. So, I went back to the drawing board to see if I could find a different, perfect name. There were several names that I liked; particularly the biblical names. I also liked the name ‘Theodore’ with the nickname of ‘Teddy’. I started gathering teddy bear themed and brown colored items for my baby, so maybe this could be the perfect new name that we could both love. But I couldn’t get the name ‘Luke’ out of my head. I still felt like I needed him to be a ‘Luke’.
My husband would somewhat concede on the name; yet clearly never loving it. And like a yo-yo, I would then AGAIN go back to ‘Theodore’ or some other name…but always hoping for his enthusiastic support of ‘Luke’. Back and forth. Over and over. The reaction I had been seeking never happened. At least not genuinely. I just wanted him to love the name I so desperately thought it should be.
The whole thing dampened my joy for one of the few things that I enjoyed about pregnancy and it shifted something inside of me. The naming was no longer exciting and joyous and it began to consume me. My head began to spin. Nothing was right anymore. I hoped that by the time the baby was born, all this name anxiety would go away and everything would feel right, like it did when my first son was born.
And then there were his parents.
They had somehow, seemingly, written us off – or at a minimum, dramatically distanced themselves from our lives. When my first son was 10 months old, we had relocated back to my home state, with them feeling left behind and several states away. It had been about a year and a half since doing so and communications were limited and forced. It was strange, bizarre and hurtful. They were clearly angry and hurt but wouldn’t openly talk with us about it so that we could resolve whatever the problem was. Their avoidance – of us, our son, their problems with our move – was so extreme and I felt that I could no longer trust them the way I once had.
But they were still his parents and my son’s grandparents.
And there was the occasional phone call or email.
But my husband hadn’t told them that I was pregnant. I kept wondering when he would. I would plead with him to reach out to them. Regularly. Eventually, in what felt like a lifetime, he drafted an email to them toward the end of my pregnancy. But he still hadn’t sent it. I kept wondering when he would tell them. He kept telling me he would, but never did.
Until the night my water broke.
I had put my son to bed and was lying in bed watching American Idol, about to have my nighttime snack of cheese, triscuits and chocolate when I had a major contraction. I wasn’t due for nearly a week, but had been having pains for a few days.
Earlier, at about 32 or 33 weeks, my doctor had become concerned that I was at risk for pre-term labor due to the rigorous schedule and activities I was trying to keep. My doctor, always a friendly and favored doctor at the practice and within the community, had even gotten stern – nearly agitated – with my husband. He had all but demanded that he do the shopping and errands and anything else I needed or I was at risk for having a baby in the NICU. He had gotten stern with me, too – telling me I was doing too much. And I had been.
On top of the coaching, my working, chasing a toddler, the financial stress and all of my other worries, I had hit the nesting stage. I wanted everything cleaned. I wanted everything ready. Everything organized. I had even slipped down a few stairs and fallen at least once, trying to do laundry and get things done. My husband would become frustrated with my unwillingness to rest and the pace I would keep in order to get it all done.
But I had made it to 39 weeks and had just had a strong, definitive contraction. Next to me, lying on the bed was my husband watching TV with me as I worked on my snack. I punched his arm. Then again – a sudden, intense contraction. I punched his arm again – hard. With that second contraction, my water broke on the bed. It was time. We woke up our sleeping son in his pajamas to get him in the car. We called my parents to meet us at the hospital to take care of our son. I rushed to the bathroom and quickly got ready. My husband went to his laptop, pulled up that email draft he had composed, and hit the send button.
The three of us got in the car and rushed to the hospital . With each contraction, I was pressing my feet into the floor of the car; holding myself up and not even touching the chair of the seat. This baby was definitely not going to take long to come. And he had sent that email! When would they read it? How would they react?
We got to the labor and delivery ward and I was quickly sent to a room and given a johnny. I went into the bathroom to change as quickly as I could, but kept getting interrupted by the quickening contractions. I finally made it to the bed and they hooked me up to monitors and I was asked series of intake questions. My regular doctor wasn’t working this shift, so I had a different doctor from the practice. She was nearing the end of her 48-hour shift when I was admitted.
The contractions were getting stronger and coming faster. My parents, husband and son were all in the room with me. I didn’t want to appear in pain; and I wanted to appear strong in front of my parents. I was worried that if my parents saw me express pain that they might think I was weak and that if I did not, they would see me as strong. I also didn’t want to frighten my toddler boy or have him think the baby was hurting his mother, so I kept as quiet as I could.
But the contractions weren’t forgiving. A nurse told me to hum through the contractions and this concept resonated with me in a unique way. It worked. With my first pregnancy, I had been administered an epidural soon into my long 24-hour labor. But this time, I had wanted to hold off as long as I could and try to deliver drug-free. So, I gladly utilized this humming technique with great success.
After an hour or so, my parents said that they were leaving to take our son to their house. It was really quite late and they needed to get him back to bed. At this point, the contractions were so close together that they were one on top of another with no reprieve. I waited until I could no longer see their bodies as they walked down the hall to leave. Then I let it out. The pain – it was unbearable and indescribable. I must have hit transition. I begged for an epidural but it was now too late. We were getting read to have a baby soon. When it came time to push, it was excruciating. I had never known pain like that. It was out-of-body. I kept asking, in between apologizing for yelling or swearing, how many more pushes until I’d be done. The doctor finally said, “If you would push the way I had told you to, you’d be done by now.” I got mad, buckled down and pushed like nobody’s business. And the baby was out.
I looked at the baby and he was red and purple because he had come out so fast. Weighing in at nearly about nine and a half pounds and full of hair, my very first thought was that he reminded me of an old man. And in that moment, that thought made me think of the name ‘Alexander’. Alexander. I’m not exactly sure why I thought those things, but I did. I was exhausted and weary and for whatever reason, that’s what I thought.
‘Alexander’ had never even been a name I had even remotely considered. It wasn’t on any of my lists of names or part of any conversation to consider or debate. There’s certainly not anything wrong with the name – it just wasn’t a name that had even crossed my pregnant mind. So it striked me odd that it was my first thought. What could that mean? Then I looked over at my husband to tell him what had just popped into my mind. And would you believe this – He tells me he thought the same exact thing. How could that be? He and I had never even talked about that name! This must mean something! It’s a sign….
But I couldn’t commit to it. What about ‘Luke’? And I didn’t want to make the wrong decision.
I think I tried to nurse him, but he didn’t seem to want to right away. This was odd for me, since that is nothing how it went with my first child, and it left me feeling confused and uneasy.
It was now the middle of the night and the staff took my baby to the nursery to get checked out. I had my husband go, too, so that one of us was always with our baby while I stayed behind in the labor and delivery room.
After a little while, the nurse told me that my recovery room wasn’t ready yet. My baby still wasn’t back and neither was my husband.
I was exhausted and disoriented. The TV was on and I fell in and out of sleep.
I remember hearing infomercials.
…..Lots of infomercials.
And, still….no baby.
I don’t know how many hours exactly that I was there alone, but it now was after 6:00 in the morning when the nurses realized that there had been a communication mix-up. There was a room waiting for me, after all. Father and son had been waiting for me there all this time.
So, they wheeled me over to my new room and there I saw my husband sitting with his eyes closed and dozing off. My baby was all alone in the hospital clear bassinet. Not in my husband’s arms. He wasn’t even five hours old.
What would we name him? Isn’t this exciting? Why are you acting so tired? Yes, I know we’ve been up all night. But this is a special occasion and we just had a BABY. Should we name him ‘Alexander’? I still like ‘Luke’. What do you think? Why weren’t you holding the baby when they wheeled me in? He needs skin-to-skin contact, you know, and there had been some mess-up with my room. If I’m not around, you’re supposed to step in for me. Why didn’t you? I’m tired, too. But we have a BABY. This is so exciting! Can you believe it? Isn’t he beautiful? What should we name him?
It didn’t go well. Or at least not what I had needed at the time, so soon after childbirth. I was disappointed with the fact that he was so tired. Too tired to hold the baby while I wasn’t there. I was upset that he couldn’t be more compassionate about my growing obsession with choosing a name. It was a never-ending pendulum. I would decide on ‘Luke’ – knowing it wasn’t it first choice – and then the pendulum would swing to ‘Alexander’. Why else would my husband and I BOTH think of the same name after he was born? But then I would swing back to ‘Luke’. He was supposed to be ‘Luke’. I couldn’t decide. At this point, my husband really didn’t care what we named him. He just wanted to move past this obsession and insanity.
And his parents had not only received that email but responded to it as well. I read it in the hospital. The tone was not good. I recall his mother stating in the email that she will always be a grandmother to these boys and no one can take that ‘right’ away. ‘Right’? What ‘right’ was she meaning?
I felt threatened, sad, anxious and scared.
People visited – my parents, my son, my grandmother. Everyone was happy. I was anxious. There was no exciting unveiling of his name. He still hadn’t been named. He was sort of named, but not really. Nothing was certain. And then there was the looming long-distance anger and resentment from my husband’s parents. And worrying about making sure my two-year-old son would never feel replaced. And were we going to make ends meet – financially?
We brought our nameless baby home in the middle of a snowstorm in February. He came home ‘Baby Boy’. That’s what a hospital dubs a baby without a name
A baby without a name.
I had to name this boy. The pendulum was strong and wouldn’t stop its swinging. I asked my two-year-old. ‘Luke’ or ‘Alexander’? He immediately said ‘Alexander’. His answer, his unbiased preference, his BLESSING should have been enough to quiet the hamster wheel in my head.
But I kept asking him. Several more times. He always chose ‘Alexander’.
So a few days later, we went to the place that issues the birth certificates and named him. He was no longer a baby without a name. He was ‘Alexander’.
But the obsessions wouldn’t stop. Had I given him the wrong name? Every time I would think about it, I would be consumed and overcome with stress, panic and anxiety. I couldn’t sleep. I cried regularly. I even called the town hall and asked about the process of changing his name.
I kept an exhausting schedule. I cared for both children all day long – mostly by myself, on very little sleep – while my husband worked to catch up on how much he had slacked off before, so that we could stay afloat and pay the bills. When I should have been soaking in the time with my new baby, I was tending to everything and everyone else. I was nursing exclusively, which helped a lot, because there was a strong connection there. But I wasn’t myself.
My norm had changed. My new norm, my new reality, was constant anxiety and obsession about the name. I was constantly worried if my older son felt neglected. So much, that I wasn’t focusing on bonding with Alexander in the way I needed to. I was worried about our finances. And sick about my in-laws reaction. I constantly asked my husband about his deals at work. I didn’t want to go back to work and leave both my babies – even part-time – and I knew that I would have to. I didn’t feel that immediate bond in the same way I had felt the first time around – in fact, NOTHING was like I felt the first time around. What did this mean? Did I not love him the right way? Did I name him the wrong name? Did we start off on the wrong foot?
After a few weeks, it became clear to my husband that whatever was going on with me was far more than just the baby blues. I cried often. I was in a constant, dense fog. It was as though the world was overcast and gray and I had on blurry, dirty, dark sunglasses. I would look out my bathroom window every day at the same lone birch tree swaying in the breeze. It was tall and beautiful and I would get lost gazing at it. From my window, I had to look up to see its top and the sky above it. It was beautiful and lonely.
I stared at that tree every single day.
Alone, from my bathroom window.
Give IT – And I Don’t Mean the Baby – a Name
The sadness was ever-present and so unforgiving.
I remember hearing that Brooke Shields had been public about her struggle with postpartum depression. She had written a book called “Down Came the Rain – My Journey Through Poatpartum Depression”. I remember reading excerpts from the book and suddenly feeling less alone. As powerless as I felt, there was power in giving this awful darkness a name. I had postpartum depression. And it was awful. More awful than I could fathom. I was imprisoned by it. And every day, from my bathroom window, I stared at that lonely, beautiful tree.
I continued my grueling schedule of caring for the children, going to the playgroups, coordinating play dates and keeping up with the housework while hanging on to the hope that my husband would somehow figure out how to make an income to financially support our family. I wanted so desperately to maximize my time off before I had to go back to work and get in as much bonding and togetherness with my children – especially my older one – as possible.
I also continued to nurse my baby. I believe here – the breastfeeding – was a saving grace for me – because so many women who go through postpartum depression cannot connect at all with their baby. For me, the ability to connect with him in this way was an enormous gift. At least I had this. Of course, I was consumed with guilt that doing so – doing anything with my new baby – was somehow taking away from my other child.
I tried so hard to be normal and appear happy around others, but it was so hard. I needed support and believed that no one would want to be around me for too long if I couldn’t snap out of it. But you can’t ‘snap out of postpartum depression’. It took all of my energy and everything I had to keep going. Inside, I was falling apart. Really falling apart. My anxieties, my sadness – they was always there. Postpartum depression was an evil thief that had stolen my moments, my time and my joy.
I started to obsess that since the name ‘Alexander’ has an ‘X’ in it, it might not be Godly and may be contaminated with the evilness of Satan. I called my aunt to seek out reassurance since she was one of the best people I had ever known and was a devout Catholic and Godly woman. She was certain it was fine. But it wasn’t enough for my disordered thinking.
My OB-GYN became concerned and started to call me and insist that I come in to his office to see him. I would go, only to start crying obsessively over the name. I would desperately seek reassurance from him about my baby’s name. I would ask what was involved in changing the name. He would tell me, as an Orthodox Greek man, that ‘Alexander’ is in fact, quite Godly. That the ‘X’ bore some sacred religious significance. I would attempt to cling to his reassurance but ultimately fake my satisfaction with his answer. But it was of no use and he knew I wasn’t ok. He would hand me the box of tissues and explain what a great name it was and that the name didn’t really matter – in fact, he would say, I could’ve named my baby ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ and my son would eventually be lovingly referred to as my little ‘Ebby’.
He would have me come back in a couple of weeks, with another tissue box ready for me. He would see that I still wasn’t right and ask how much my husband was helping out. I explained that he worked a lot and he got a little terse and said, “Well, he needs to step up.” I needed to focus on sleep. My husband needed to tend to my older child and the housework to allow for maximum bonding between mother and baby. I didn’t know how to feel. Part of me knew that my doctor could be right but I also didn’t feel like my husband wasn’t stepping up. In fact, I felt like he was working hard to attempt to provide for our family so that I could fulfill my desire to be a stay-at-home mother.
Nonetheless, I needed more help. I also needed some counseling. It took all the strength and focus I could muster to start calling on therapists who not only accepted my insurance, but specialized in postpartum depression. The list was in alphabetical order and I started – and ended – my phone calls with the “A”s. I made an appointment with a psychologist named Abby.
Keeping Going – Through the Darkness
(even when you can’t see any light)
When I went to my first appointment with Abby, Alexander was about 2 months old. I wasn’t so sure about her at first; she seemed a bit eccentric and I didn’t have a lot of confidence that this would work. Her office had bright colors and was full of bold designs and patterns. Her smile was large and deliberate. I didn’t know what to make of her or any of this. But I decided to give it a shot. And I went. Twice a week I went. We talked. I struggled to say my baby’s name during our sessions. It was like I was wearing someone else’s clothes. That wasn’t my name. ‘Luke’ had been my name. We even explored the possibility of legally changing his name to ‘Luke’. But that answer wasn’t as clear-cut as it seemed it should be. It became evident that even if I changed the name to ‘Luke,’ that I might obsess that THAT decision had been wrong, too. The whole thing was awful. I felt ashamed, uneasy and unhappy.
But Abby and I kept talking. We developed a rapport. She was an authority, if you will, of this darkness and she was talking with me. There was some comfort in knowing that she KNEW of this darkness and had helped other women through it. She became a lifeline for me and my weeks orbited around what days I would go back to talk with her. I just had to make it until the next time we would meet. There were times, more often than not, that I didn’t know how I could make it to the next session, but I did. And I kept going. We talked about all these dark feelings. About not feeling connected. And how all my anxieties were attaching themselves to my obsession with his name. I couldn’t untangle myself from it. There was no break for me, from obsessing about the name. It was constant. I even tried different nicknames, hoping to connect to those names and feel better, but nothing felt like it fit. I was scared that I would always feel this way.
Around this time, the need for pharmacological intervention became glaringly apparent. My OB-GYN finally told me that it was time. He and Abby had connected by phone and coordinated my care. I felt worried and uneasy about taking any medication. I was a nursing mother and I didn’t want to risk the safety or quality of my milk and I didn’t want to stop nursing. It took some convincing, but he called in a prescription for an anti-anxiety/anti-depressant that was considered safe for nursing mothers. I still felt uneasy about taking any medication as a nursing mother, but I wasn’t getting any better. And there comes a point where you are so lost and vulnerable that you have to choose to trust those that can access, guide and prescribe a plan to get you through the darkness.
I started to take the medicine. It wasn’t a miracle pill and it didn’t work overnight, but it allowed me to access the help I needed. Sometimes, my postpartum depression felt like being in a tiny but tall, unlit, dark room. And in that room, the four walls met at the very top, over a story high. The room had nothing in it, except for a single window at the very top. I knew that there must be light and a whole world outside that window, but I couldn’t access it. And it was frustrating and heartbreaking. I just couldn’t reach the window to get out of this all-encompassing darkness, no matter how much I wanted to. The medicine gave me the access. It was the ladder I needed to climb to reach the window and pull myself out. Climbing that ladder took work – a lot of work – but with it, I could do what I needed to do to get better.
And I kept going. As Abby continued to get to know me and my postpartum, she became convinced that my anxieties weren’t about the name, but that in fact, it was what my OCD was attaching itself to. Interestingly, I remember times when Abby told me that she was going to take the burden of worrying about the name off my shoulders until we met again. That she would hold the name anxiety until we next saw each other. As silly as that seemed, it helped. It gave my mind a tiny break from the obsessions.
I had moments when I felt a bit better; but they were moments and didn’t last for long. But at least there were some. I so wanted to feel better and right, but those moments were often short-lived. I recall getting Alexander’s portraits done and having one portrait with him in an adorable blue plaid one-sie. The photographer put “Alexander” in a beautiful script font next to him on the portrait. It was beautiful. He was beautiful. He was perfect. That was an encouraging moment.
I started talking to friends a bit more. One friend that I had made while I was pregnant, shared that she had also experienced postpartum depression – but with her first child. She, too, obsessed about her baby’s name and struggled with her husband’s influence on the choosing of the name. I talked to her a lot; even though I was embarrassed by the fog I was in and often pretended to be better than I really was. But at least I knew that I wasn’t alone.
Time passed. More moments happened. My older son turned three. My baby learned how to roll over. I still obsessed about the name, but I had Abby and when it became too much, she would ‘hold the obsession’ to give me a break.
Out of the blue, I got some materials to attempt something seemingly random – I wanted to paint a picture. Of what, I didn’t know. But I wanted to paint. I had never done that – a real painting, but I went ahead and painted a picture with acrylic paints. I had always been a creative person – music being my primary creative outlet – but this was new. I don’t know what possessed me to take on something so different from anything I had done before, but it did me a world of good.
When I was working on my painting, I connected to a piece of myself that had been buried so deep. Everything else was blocked out – much the way I was when I would practice the piano as a young girl. When I would play, it was just me and my music. It was like existing in a different plane. Nothing could penetrate that – it was mine. Interestingly, the same thing was happening while I painted. It was feverish; something that had to be done. It needed to come out. All out. And I would know when I was done. I could trust myself in this. I was connecting with myself. I was connecting.
And when I was done, I called it “Sea of Birches”. I had painted a picture of a forest comprised of snow covered birch trees. The painting was dominated with grays and darkness. In the distance, there is a hint of an animal and a cabin, but that life – the warm house and animal – are not clear. The cold birch trees at the forefront are really the only thing you can easily see.
And then it was over….
I remember the moment when I was completely out of the darkness. It was Black Friday. The day after Thanksgiving. Alexander was about nine months old. Stores and malls were flooded with people and deals. Alexander and I went out into the madness together. Just us. I took my hip sling and off we went. We went into the craziness of the day, exploring the sales and stores. Situated close to me on my hip, we took in the sites together. The stores, the parking lots, the people.
We went into Toys ‘R Us and began walking up and down the aisles. Alexander noticed a glowing, music-playing, teal plush seahorse. We stopped and looked at it. We played the music and took in its light. My heart began to sing. Right then – at that very moment – I knew that he and I were going to be ok. We were ok. I could trust in that.
I could trust in the love that was always within me for my baby – for both of my babies – and for myself.
My obsession with the name had nothing to do with my love for my child. My obsession was my OCD – plain and simple. OCD comes in all shapes and forms. It disguises itself in the sneakiest of ways and will have you question and doubt and not trust in yourself. And it will attach itself in the most unlikely areas of your life. I never expected it to attach itself in this way. I can see it so clearly now – I wish I could have then. But that’s just how dense the fog is when you are suffering from postpartum depression. You can’t see the light. You can’t see that this isn’t forever. And everyone’s postpartum looks different. My postpartum was in the form of obsessions. Like a leech, a parasite – that ugly OCD tangled itself up within this sad and lonely thing called postpartum depression. Once I could loosen the grip of the OCD and give myself breathing room to enjoy my child, it gave me a whole new way to define and experience this thing we call ‘love’. What a gift. What a blessing. We were ok. Alexander was a beautiful gift; my beautiful son. Perhaps the things that are the very best for us, rarely look like what we might have imagined.
Looking for Answers
It’s been years since that dark time and I have thought about my experience with postpartum depression a lot.
Who’s at risk?
What causes it?
From what I can tell, no one knows definitively.
I’m not a doctor and I don’t pretend to be one, but from what I have read – I certainly had factors going on in my life that put me at a greater risk. I was under a lot of stress – maritally and financially. I went into labor and delivery under significant emotional duress. The physical pain of labor and delivery – a nearly 10 pound baby without any pain medication – was beyond words. Then during those critical bonding and healing hours after the birth, I was separated from my baby for a prolonged period of time and upon seeing him, I perceived his father to be detached.
But these risk factors aren’t always great indicators, either. There had been significant stress in my first pregnancy, too. In some ways – there was much worse, much more intense, marital strain. And the first time around, there was quite a lot of financial and job stress. And even though there were some initial blues here and there, I had come out on top, feeling empowered and honored to experience the love that is motherhood.
So, who’s to know? Two pregnancies – both riddled with stressors – two very different postpartum experiences.
I do know this, though: Postpartum depression is real. And it’s lonely and awful. It was one of darkest experiences of my life. The pain, the sadness, the loneliness, the shame, the detachment – it is all real. It’s not just a day or two of feeling a little blue. It’s not just wishing you could get back to your pre-pregnancy body sooner. It is so much heavier and the burden of its darkness is overwhelming.
Looking back, I wish I had known that I shouldn’t use – that it could be detrimental – my other experience with childbirth as a gauge or method of comparison. My only gauge of what motherhood looked and felt like was my nearly euphoric experience with my first child. That alone was a setup.
But more than anything – I wish I could’ve known – REALLY KNOWN – that I could trust in my ability to mother and love, no matter what.
I have so much for which I am thankful. I am grateful for the varied interventions. I’m grateful that my husband could see that something wasn’t right and said something about it. I’m grateful that my OB-GYN inserted himself into my aftercare and wouldn’t give up until I was on the right track. I’m grateful that I found the wherewithal to call Abby, to give her a chance – even when I didn’t think it could work – and to work hard at exposing my dark and scary feelings. I’m grateful that the beloved public figure we have with Brook Shields was brave enough and generous enough to share her experience – giving my shameful darkness a name so that I could deal with it. I’m grateful for my friend who told me about her experience with postpartum depression, making me feel less alone and isolated. And I’m grateful that my parents had nurtured my younger, creative self, so that I had a means to connect to myself through my painting when I was feeling the most disconnected. I’m grateful for my older son who loved and adored his baby brother and still had enough love left over for me.
And for my Alexander. I can’t imagine my life without him.
He makes every day better and the world a better place, just by being who he is.
Alexander has taught me so much about love – all kinds of love. And he still teaches me. He has taught me about forgiveness and trust in myself. Every day that I look at him, I am overcome with love for this precious soul. And that’s who he is – a precious soul that I get to love and call my child.
And I’ll call my child ‘Alexander’ because even though the naming process wasn’t the fun I had expected and wanted it to be, it pales in comparison to the years of joy and laughter and love this soul has enriched us with. He’s incredible. He’s funny and smart, creative and passionate. He is kind and most importantly, full of love for the world around him. He has taught me that I, too, am full of love and that love never runs out. My Alexander is one of my life’s greatest blessings – and there isn’t a thing I would change about him, even his name.
Please help another woman out of her darkness – Share this story. We need to talk about it.
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