So, to start your week off with a light and airy topic, I’d like to tackle something that’s been on my mind a lot lately. After having three babies, I’ve finally managed to kind of wrap my mind around postpartum depression and the fact that it is a serious reality for me.
Light and airy!
I recently had a conversation with my sister about my struggles with depression and she reminded me that I’ve been dealing with this since Maggie was born. It wasn’t until she mentioned it that I realized how long this has been an issue for me. I mean, I knew it’s been a long road, but I had honestly forgotten how rough it was even back then.
Before Maggie was born I read in a book that having a newborn was like living with a merciless dictator. When I initially read that, I thought, “Oh, how witty and hilarious! Those demanding newborns, ha! ha! ha!” And having the fortune of being brought up in America, I had no idea what it’s really like living with a merciless dictator.
It’s less funny when you’re pushed to the absolute limit by a little animal who just. won’t. stop.
It’s not funny when your nipples are blistered, and cracked, and bleeding and all the baby wants to do is eat. Again. And everybody keeps telling you that breastfeeding should hurt, but even after visits to and from lactation consultants, it does hurt. A lot.
It’s really not hilarious at all when you sleep upright every night holding a ticking time bomb of a human, and then go to work to pump in a closet, alone and bitter.
I loved my new baby and had several midnight moments in which I caught glimpses of us in the mirror down the hall, a dimly lit girl holding a gorgeous newborn, possibility and peace covering us like a veil, and I had the thought, “Now. Now I have everything I’ve ever wanted.” And I meant those thoughts. But while I had those beautiful moments, there were an equal number of angry moments.
There were also bitter moments, moments of frustration, fear, and uncontrollable waves of tears, feelings of doubt and failure, and, most frightening to me, physical outbursts.
Now, I have never been tempted to harm one of my children. Never. Heck, before they let us leave the hospital with Maggie we had to watch a video called “The Purple Cry” and sign a contract in which we vowed to, “Never, never, never, never, never shake a baby.” I’m not kidding on the amount of never’s. Texas don’t mess around.
So, while I didn’t want to hurt my child or even myself, really, I had these outbursts in which I’d scream into pillows or throw things.
I had completely forgotten about how bad these outbursts were, but when I talked to my sister the other day, it all came flooding back: Maggie’s uncontrollable crying, my frustration, screaming into the pillow, throwing my glasses and breaking them, being furious with myself for breaking my glasses, kicking the couch in an angry fit over it all, and hopping around the apartment like a maniac because I practically broke my toe on the couch (never question the integrity of Swedish furniture, trust me). And then putting Maggie in her crib, shutting the door, walking away and calling my sister.
And I laughed about it at the time, because really it was all pretty ridiculous and if you can’t laugh at depression, then your depression is deeper than you think. At least for me.
I couldn’t laugh at my depression much after Lily was born. I had mentioned the possibility of postpartum depression to my medical provider and she basically acknowledged that I had spoken and it never came up again. My fears hadn’t been validated in the least, so I never brought it up to her again. Instead I punched myself in the legs until I left bruises.
I’ve never felt more alone or more helpless. I was too ashamed to ask for help from anyone because I really felt like I should be able to handle it. We were already surviving almost solely on the generosity of family and I just felt like I couldn’t ask for more. Obviously, I knew that when it came down to it, I really could ask them for anything and they’d never deny me, but I didn’t know, you know? I wouldn’t let myself know, I guess.
And I was furious with my friends and family at the same time. I felt like they should be able to see how much I was suffering. I shouldn’t have to ask, it should be obvious.
The problem is, my parents paid for this really great theater degree, and I’m a way better actor than I even give myself credit for. I put on a damn good show for months and months, pretending I had my shit together when, in reality, I was falling apart. Even my husband had no clue as to how severe the situation was because I just didn’t let anyone know. When I finally showed him my legs, he immediately urged me to get help, and I did. I talked to a therapist and things eventually got better.
When I found out I was pregnant with Everett, I cried. Not because I didn’t want him, I’ve always wanted him. I cried because I didn’t want the struggle all over again. I didn’t want to fall into the mess of myself and I was really, really scared of that. I had recently gotten back to feeling more like myself since Lily was born and I think the clarity of having been through the worst made me very determined not to go back there.
I forced myself to be proactive and found a new midwife who actually cared about my well-being. When I told her about my depression, she took it very seriously and checked up on it at every visit. Together we came up with a plan and decided that medication was probably the best course of action for me.
I’ve gone back and forth a million times about whether or not I should be breastfeeding Ev while on medication and I’ve read a zillion articles in favor and against. Ultimately, with Vin’s help and encouragement, I came to the conclusion that it’s a risk I’m willing to take. Everett will be better cared for if I’m better cared for, plain and simple.
And I really can’t speak highly enough of my husband at this point. He’s encouraged me to take the longest amount of maternity leave possible, even though it makes the budget tight, just so I’ll have the time I need for this transition. When it took me a while to get used to the medication, he reminded me that it was the right decision and he’s stood by me every step of the way. He’s taken me seriously and hasn’t judged and he’s put up with my meltdowns and he’s my best friend and my total favorite.
So, at this point, I’m not reaching out for attention or pity. I reach out for accountability. I’m going public, so to speak, so others know that this is a thing with me, so they’ll notice if I’m not doing my part. I tell people because I want to be honest with myself and I don’t want my pride to get in the way of my health. I’m just not going to do that to my family anymore.
And I guess I’m also opening up a lot because I know I’m not the only one.
One of the lies of depression is that you have to keep it a secret. Society has come a long way in normalizing and de-stigmatizing mental health issues, but we’ve got a long way to go. Being honest with others and myself is part of what makes me feel better. I know how hard it is to admit to others or yourself that you’re struggling.
Shoot, sometimes people don’t even believe you when you reach out to them. I’m a naturally positive person and I’ve actually had people say things to me on my bad days like, “You’re in a bad mood? You’re not allowed to have a bad day!” I understand they were trying to say that it’s out of character for me, and I get that. But because it is out of character, it should be taken that much more seriously, especially if I’ve just had a baby.
If you’re someone like me who is known for being bubbly, who is a great actor, and can cover well, but you’re really struggling after having a baby, let me just give you permission to have that bad day. It’s okay. You’re allowed.
And if that bad day gets worse and lasts for weeks and then months. I give you permission to give yourself grace. You’re worth it. You’re worth the effort it takes to get yourself back on track. Nobody will think any less of you if you need a little extra help. In all reality, people are dying to help. They might just be afraid to overstep their bounds. If they offer, take them up on it. You just had a baby and things don’t just go back to normal overnight. They just don’t.
There’s no right answer for postpartum depression. What works for me might not be the answer for you and that’s okay. I’m definitely not a doctor and I truly don’t have a clue about anything half the time, but what I do know is this: you have to do what’s best for you and your family. Nobody else can completely understand the complexities of what you’re experiencing and therefore you just gotta do what makes life livable for you.
If it means medication, so be it. If you stop breastfeeding because it’s just not working for you, fine. If listening to Joanie Mitchell is the answer, rock out. As long as your baby is fed, clothed, and semi-clean, consider it a win. Your mental and emotional health is worth that. We’d all like to be perfect for our kids, but we all know that’s not really attainable. We’ve got shining moments, sure, but ultimately what’s perfect for us isn’t necessarily what that little voice in our head would have us believe.
And if you’ve got a friend who is struggling after the birth of a child, for Pete’s sake, go clean her bathroom. Go hold the baby so she can take a shower, like an hour-long shower. Invite yourself over and kick her out of the house for a little sunshine, fresh air, and a break from the madness. Make her family dinner and bring over a trashy magazine so she can see what all the fuss is about Pam Anderson’s hair. Bring cookies and companionship and a shoulder. Be a listener. And, if for some reason she decides that medication is the best choice for her, validate that decision and be as encouraging as possible.
The birth of a new baby is always, always a gift, but a lot of times there’s a heaviness to that gift that makes it hard to receive. Be aware of that heaviness. Absolutely dote on new babies, that’s what you’re supposed to do. But dote on new mamas, too. They may need your love a lot more than you -or they- even know.