I couldn’t find a pair of pajamas for Daphne that fit.
That was all it took.
Chris was changing her diaper, complained a little about the straps on the diaper sticking, so I took a diaper out, screamed as loud as I could, and proceeded to hit the diaper against the dresser over and over and over again until it had quite literally dissolved in my hands and I was covered in absorbent cotton diaper innards. I overturned the entire bin of baby clothes onto the floor until I found a pair of pajamas, all the while screaming word combinations I didn’t even know I knew.
Then I started sobbing.
I knew something wasn’t right. Chris did too. This wasn’t “tired.” This wasn’t “exhausted.” This wasn’t “getting used to two kids.” This was more.
This was postpartum depression and anxiety.
I never considered postpartum depression as even a remote possibility with Daphne because I hadn’t experienced it after Connor. For reasons beyond my comprehension I thought that postpartum depression was something you got or didn’t, and once you didn’t get it with one kid you were out of the woods from then on.
I wasn’t out of the woods. I was lost in them, scrambling to get my balance and not even realizing what was wrong.
Then, in my (apparent) never ending quest to fool myself out of the woods I thought that once you hit 12 weeks postpartum you were “clear” from postpartum depression.
Wrong again. As I learned later, postpartum depression is defined as hitting any time within a year of the baby’s birth. Chris had a 6-week paternity leave and perhaps that extra help around the house and with Connor held back the symptoms for a while. It turns out all we had done was delay my trip to the woods. It was 12 weeks after having Daphne and things kept getting darker.
Nothing was breaking the cycle of apathy to anger to anxiety to weepiness to happiness to apathy. I was becoming more and more anxious – my chest would tighten in spurts and I wouldn’t have any idea why. When Chris texted me that he would be late from work it was enough to send me into a crying fit on the floor of the kitchen at the thought of having to put both kids down to bed by myself. Even though Daphne was sleeping through the night I felt too exhausted to move most of the days.
Around this time I happened to have an appointment with my family/primary care doctor scheduled for an unrelated reason and the night before I went something dawned on me. I was struck by a rare moment of clarity. It was a full moon in the woods. I Googled postpartum depression and realized this was it. I had it. Full blown. The more I looked into it the more I saw that was undeniable. And the number one thing to do, every single website confirmed, was talk to your doctor, as soon as possible.
Have I mentioned my doctor is wonderful? My doctor is wonderful.
I didn’t know where to start, so when she asked me how things are going, I sat there, took a deep breath, and in a pitch of voice so high I was worried only dogs could hear it, I started telling her what I knew.
“Um, well, um…so…”
(This is going well so far, eyeroll.)
“…I just think, maybe…I just…have been feeling…”
(Oh, for goodness sake, woman, use a tone of voice that resembles a human! No? Okay, just keep going then.)
“…so I looked into it and I’ve been feeling…horrible…and…”
(Are you crying? Already? How are you crying already? Okay, well, she knows what’s coming now so out with it.)
I explained to her that I had been feeling extremely sad and that I couldn’t connect to the kids, which made me feel horrible, which made me feel horrible I was feeling horrible, ad infinitum. I explained I was crying a lot. “How often are you getting weepy?” she asked. Her eyes filled with empathy when I said I was crying every day. At every pause and “um” I made she assured me there was no judgment, and eventually I didn’t know how to describe it anymore.
“So here’s the thing,” she started. “It does indeed sound like you have postpartum depression, and I wish people understood just how common it is. If you take anything away from this,” she said, “just know that you are not alone.” She went on to explain that her sister had postpartum depression, and during that time she went to stay with her because her sister’s husband was unable to be around very much due to work, much like Chris. She slept in her sister’s bed with her and helped with the baby, because getting up was simply too much sometimes.
She asked me right there what I would do if I felt like I couldn’t take care of the kids. Call Chris immediately. He would stop working for that. She wanted to have that answer ready to go in my head. Had I ever thought about harming the kids, perhaps not feeding them? No, definitely not. Okay, good.
Then she started talking about options to feel better. She told me that the best indicator for relief is a combination of antidepressants and therapy.
“Is there any chance of this just going away? I mean Daphne is already 12 weeks old, so maybe it will just go away.”
“If you’re crying every day now, almost always this will get worse before it gets better.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was lucky if I was crying just once a day.
She promised to do two things: look into which antidepressants were safest for breastfeeding, and then also refer me through my insurance to a therapist. It would take a long time (probably around 6 weeks) before the antidepressants kicked in because she wanted to start with an incredibly low dose for a while before reaching therapeutic levels so my brain could adjust safely and with minimal side effects. She promised there was a light at the end of the tunnel, even if I couldn’t see it, and a combination of therapy and medicine would produce the best results.
I struggled to talk to anyone about it, but everything was a struggle. Chris had gone from being home all day on paternity leave to working 12+ hours a day at the office. He left by 6am and got home around 7pm. Even though Connor was going to school three days a week, I was in charge of the house (cooking, cleaning, organizing, planning, grocery shopping, etc.) and alone from the time the kids woke up until they went to bed. (This is how things are still, it might be worth noting.)
It’s so hard to describe exactly how I was feeling during this time.
Every parenting anxiety I had was amplified. The doubts, insecurities, and angsts every parent seems socially-bound to feel (and goodness gracious, do we feel them), were no longer lurking in the back of my head nagging at me like gnats ready to be swatted away. Every single one of those insecurities instead was on loop on a loudspeaker, blaring at full volume, drowning out all other feedback, both internal and external.
“Too much screentime.”
“Read to him more.”
“It’s your fault he has a speech delay – you didn’t and don’t narrate his actions enough.”
“He’s better off and has more fun at school – why am I even staying at home then?”
“I can’t give any of the kids enough attention.”
“Why don’t I have the energy to clean and keep the house tidy?”
Nothing calmed nor quieted the loudspeaker. It was incessant. It started blaring when I woke up and stopped only when I went to sleep. It zapped every ounce of energy I had and made me fall further down the rabbit hole, closer to the amp.
I cried. A lot.
Then I yelled. At everyone. At no one. At myself. My cord was frayed and I didn’t feel like there was anything or anyone to catch me once it snapped. When I yelled I spiraled into a loop of shame and self-detest. When I spiraled into self-detest I retreated further.
I felt alone. Not lonely, but alone. Being a stay-at-home mom is inherently lonely, but this was beyond that. I felt alone because I didn’t get much adult-to-adult interaction, but when I did there was a disconnect. Something didn’t feel “complete” about the exchange. Everyone else was talking on a 4G network and I was stuck with a walkie-talkie from the ‘80s.
This isn’t to say I couldn’t feel happy, because I did. Connor was turning a corner in his behavior between his therapy, new school, and adjusting to Daphne being in the house. He had stopped rejecting me like he did when Daphne first came home. He was talking a lot more, and when he did talk I learned he’s actually really funny. I still smiled, found things funny, laughed, and loved the people I always loved. The problem was that I would also turn to despair without warning. Some days more than others. Some days not at all.
I lost my appetite. It wasn’t even that food tasted bad, it was almost as if I no longer had the energy to chew and digest.
It felt like my whole life moving forward had been decided. There was no turning back. No end in sight. This sadness, this life of caring for very young children, this intense loneliness, this would be what my life was forever.
Things were dark. I never felt suicidal, and I never thought about harming the kids, but things were dark. I tried to tell myself that so many families have it worse. This only led to more guilt. Connor watched way too much television, and I couldn’t stop it, nor could I get myself out of the loop.
So what happened?
After I talked to my doctor I started going to therapy. I started taking medication. Slowly, things started to improve. I went longer and longer between bouts of chest-tightening, breath-shortening anxiety. I found more and more joy and connection with both Connor and Daphne. The guilt I experienced felt like socio-normative mom guilt instead of the soul-crushing, gut-wrenching, overwhelming, debilitating worry I wasn’t up to the task of bringing up my kids type of guilt I felt before. The haze between me and the rest of the world started to clear.
So where are we now?
Things still aren’t exactly easy. Chris still works 70-80 hours a week at least. Hiring babysitters often simply isn’t an option for us. We have no family nearby. I have the kids every day from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed at night, and even though Chris tries to get home in time to give Connor a bath and put him down, more often than not I almost always eat my meals without another adult in the house.
The difference, though, is things seem possible. I’m more aware of what I need, and slowly but surely getting more able to express that to Chris before I break down in tears when I’m at the end of my rope.
I don’t know how things will go from here. I hope they keep improving. I hope I can start weaning myself off of medication. I hope by writing this I don’t alienate my friends and family. This has been – and is – my very personal experience with postpartum depression. Others might not get angry. Others might not cry. Others get OCD. Everyone is different, and, this is important, nobody is immune. Just because you didn’t get postpartum depression the first time, or second, or third, doesn’t mean you won’t get it the next. Just because it doesn’t hit you for a few weeks or months doesn’t mean you won’t get it at all.
It’s hard not to think of myself as a terrible mom. Actually, check that. It’s impossible. If I go do something for a few hours on the weekend I want to cry because I feel so guilty. This is simply how this depression makes me feel. But things still are getting better.
You may wonder what to do or say if someone you know tells you about their depression, postpartum or otherwise. And the thing I would say is this: stop telling them, “It’s okay.” When I’m upset, let me be upset, even if you don’t understand what I’m upset about. Do not gaslight. Telling someone it’s “fine” or “no big deal” is actually telling the person, “Those feelings you’re feeling aren’t real, aren’t important, and aren’t justified.” And when a person is feeling crazy, the last thing they want to hear is that the feeling they’re experiencing isn’t real. Because the feelings are real. The experiences are real. Telling someone the experience is “no big deal” tells that person you don’t care if they are happy, just that they look like they’re happy. It’s hard to see the emotions and the rage and the sadness and where they’re coming from, but here’s the thing: you don’t have to. Just be there. Say you’re sorry. Let them know their experience is real, and you’re really there. That’s what it takes, and that’s what helps the most.
I debated writing about this intensely personal experience for a few reasons. First, I want to help normalize some of the darker, harder pieces of parenthood. Second, I think there are a lot of misconceptions floating around about postpartum depression. My hope is to shed some light on it and possibly help anyone else who feels too ashamed to admit what they’re feeling is real.
For a starting list of postpartum depression symptoms, check out The Mayo Clinic as a starting point.
If you find yourself struggling with postpartum depression – or any depression – what I would tell you is this:
- You are not alone.
- You are not bad.
- You may not see the light at the end of the tunnel, and I get it.
- You are not alone.
- Reach out to someone. Anyone. Me, even. Reach out to me. I’m here.
- Ask for help. Ask for some time to lie in bed in the dark. It’s okay to say exactly what you want to do out loud. People are terrible mind readers and won’t suggest what you want unless you ask.
- Talk to a doctor. Even if you don’t know how to start. Even if your voice cracks and you start crying. Even if you are worried about it going in your chart. Even if you are worried about them judging you. They will not. They want to help. And, even though they are professional health helpers, doctors, too, are terrible mind readers. Make an appointment. If it helps, I can help you write down what it is you need to say.
- You are not alone.
*Unless the person doesn’t want to be hugged, then please for the love of everything, do not hug them.