You never know that it’s happening until it’s happening. The sadness, the desperation, the mourning. The overwhelming feeling that you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing, that you barely know how to hold him let alone diaper him, dress him, feed him, parent him. You don’t know that it’s not normal to be quite so troubled, because damn, aren’t all newborns hard? Isn’t every new parent going without sleep, without a shower, without food, without exercise? This is just a difficult time; you just need to get on the other side of this nightmare and everything will feel better.
You don’t know that it’s not normal until … well, until you do. And oh, how I wish there had been a light shined in my face long before I finally had my breakthrough. It wasn’t for lack of trying; the midwives asked me lots of questions and had me evaluate myself with the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale. They asked, “How are you?” and I said, “Oh I’m good! You know, chugging along!” Big smile, normal me, positivity abounding. My baby was gaining weight and look how precious he is! I knew the signs of Postpartum Depression (PPD) as defined by internet doctor-speak: unwanted thoughts, anxiety, insomnia, feelings of sadness. That wasn’t me.
But then I was sitting with my second newborn, an incredibly perfect baby girl, and she was happily sucking away on the breast while my 20-month-old slept in his crib, and I felt it coming on again. It was like a storm front in the distance, rumbling and dark, coming this way unstoppably, and my stomach sank to the floor with fear. It was only after that moment that I began to look upon my first year as a parent with 20/20 hindsight: Without a doubt, I’d had postpartum depression and anxiety. I just hadn’t realized it.
My first baby was small but beautiful, and though we had a bit of a rocky start with breastfeeding, my milk came in with abundance a few days later and he plumped right up. No reason to be unhappy there. He didn’t sleep much, but he didn’t have colic or cry unnecessarily. He needed phototherapy at home for a few weeks, but he sure looked cute wrapped up with his disco light. Only difficult births and difficult babies bring on postpartum depression, right? I had no real reason to be struggling, I told myself.
So I did what I’d always done and soldiered right along, pushed on through it while looking for the silver linings, only this time it didn’t work. My husband returned to his job, my childless friends drifted away one by one, and all at once I found myself isolated at home with way too much time on my hands. The silence in my house was deafening, so I would turn on music and dance around with my infant, because what else was there to do? I remember wondering why I was the only one who never had anything going on; why does every other mom look so busy, so fulfilled?
And then there was the fear. So. Much. Fear. I was absolutely certain my little boy would die in his sleep if I didn’t check on him before I went to bed myself … bed, where I would lay there ruminating on apocalyptic scenes from books and movies that I wished I’d never watched or read. Summertime thunderstorms, once beautiful and interesting and kind of fun, became a source of overwhelming anxiety for me, mostly because there were power outages involved and what would happen to us if the air conditioning couldn’t run in this tropical heat? What would happen to my backup breastmilk supply in the freezer? What if a tree came down on our roof and smashed the baby in his crib? Or smashed his windows and sent glass flying everywhere? Watching his sleeping face while a storm raged was memorably heartbreaking, somehow the saddest thing I’d ever seen. I cried and cried and cried.
My husband tried his level best to help, asking many times whether I was going to be ok and confessing how worried he was, but like many new dads he had become obsessed with productivity since we decided to become a single-income family (the thought of putting my child in the care of another left me breathless with terror). He was away at work 90% of the time, and I hated it. I felt like he had a reason to live, and I didn’t. “My life is over,” I said to him one night, after he’d asked me innocently yet provocatively whether I wished we’d never had a baby, and then I wept again for the third time that day. I had no idea if I was doing a good job and got fully zero affirmations from society, but there he goes to a soccer game with the baby strapped to his chest, and a stranger says to him, “Wow, you’re dad of the year!” I was so angry with him, so very much aware of how burdensome my problems had become but frustrated that he couldn’t say anything or even do anything to bring the relief I needed: Someone else needs to be this baby’s mom. Not me. I can’t do this.
And so it went on. I eventually started seeing a therapist (which felt like a huge failure at first) and slowly pieced together that my brain was playing tricks on me. But even after an entire year passed and I began to feel better, it wasn’t until that moment with my new baby girl that it finally hit me how clearly I’d been suffering from actual postpartum depression and anxiety, not just “baby blues.” I called Willow immediately and explained that I had no interest in going through that mess again, and ever since then I have been one of the thousands (millions?) of medicated moms who wish they’d acted sooner, gotten the help they needed before things got really bad.
I need to confess: I was not looking forward to writing this piece. The pain of it, yes, but also the bold face stigma, the judgment simmering quietly behind people’s eyes when I tell them I had a rough go of things in the beginning, and that I continue to be medicated. We need to make it ok to grapple with mental disorders, but I wasn’t sure it was up to me to foster that change. And yet, I couldn’t ignore the fact that it might help. It might help you. So if you’re feeling anywhere near the way I was feeling, even if you’ve dismissed the medical jargon and the symptoms you’ve read about online, take action. Don’t wait to have that difficult conversation with yourself, because you don’t have to suffer; it’s not part of the deal when you become a parent. That’s PPD.
Shelley DeWees is a three-time Willow client who spends her days chasing her toddler son and almost-two-year-old daughter around her home in South St Paul. She’s currently expecting her third baby, another boy, and loves reading books and going to workout classes.