The sun was bright—almost too bright—that late October afternoon. I pulled up to the curb in front of the hospital. My husband strode toward the car, and I shifted into park. When he got to the driver’s side, I opened the door and stepped out so that he could climb in.
“How long do you think you’ll be?” he asked.
“I don’t know, maybe 20 minutes,” I replied. “I’ll text you when I’m on my way down.”
“Okay. The boys and I will just drive around for a little while,” he said, tossing a sideways glance toward the backseat. With the exception of immediate family members, children aren’t allowed in this part of the hospital, so my husband and I had to make our visit in shifts.
I walked into the cavernous lobby. Even though I had been there before, when I’d given birth to my youngest son three years earlier, nothing felt familiar. I met my brother-in-law, gave him a quick hug, and followed him to the elevator bank. We chatted about family, the hospital, and how strange it was to be there. I talked more than necessary, trying to fill the space with words, and I willed myself not to cry. I willed myself not to fall off the cliff.
When the elevator doors opened, I followed him down a long hallway. We turned left, walked some more, and turned left again. Eventually, he stopped in front of the hospital room. He slowly pushed open the heavy door. Almost instantly, I was blinded by the too-bright room, the fluorescent lights made brighter by sunlight streaming in the tall windows. The room was quiet, but the air held an electric buzz of excitement and happiness, a trace of adrenaline and disbelief. There might have been the faintest scent of fear, as well.
“Congrats!” I said for the second time in as many minutes and rushed to give my sister-in-law a hug.
“Thanks,” she drawled with an easy smile.
The three of us turned our gazes to the bassinet in the corner of the room. I crept closer and peered in. This is, after all, what you are supposed to do when you visit new parents.
A buzz grew louder in my ears, and the light was starting to burn my eyes. The air seemed thinner, a little harder to breathe. Beads of sweat dotted my upper lip. I tried to wipe them away as discreetly as possible, but there is nothing discreet about wiping sweat. My shoulders felt heavy, as if I were carrying an invisible backpack overstuffed with pain and regret, probably a little anger too.
Seven years earlier—almost to the day—my husband and I had walked into a hospital much like this one. But unlike this bright afternoon, we had entered under the cover of darkness after speeding down Ashland Avenue at 2 a.m. In retrospect, this seems rather fitting that we entered in the middle of the night since the next few months felt like I was living in a perpetual state of darkness. After a long labor and an even longer delivery, during which nothing seemed to go as planned, my son was born. I remember looking over at my husband as he held our baby close to his chest, a tear dropping onto the blue and pink nursery cap. It was a tender and sweet moment and foreign to what was going on inside me and around me. Doctors were hovering over me, bustling about and saying words like “hemorrhaging” and “transfusion” and “retained placenta.” Visitors were hovering outside the door eager to see the new baby. I didn’t want any visitors.
The next several days were swept up in a blurry haze of exhaustion and detachment. Everything from nursing to snuggling to diaper-changing felt strange and uncomfortable. I couldn’t wait to leave the hospital and then once we returned home—greeted by our two lonely dogs who cautiously greeted the newest family member—I only wanted to go back to the hospital. This was not the home that I knew; this was not the life that I knew.
The first few postpartum days at home were uncomfortable at best, brutally painful at worst. The following weeks and months were much the same. There were moments of fleeting happiness, tiny little pockets of hope and some semblance of normalcy, but they were fleeting. Like a dream that I couldn’t quite remember, they always seemed slightly out of focus and out of reach, like I was forcing myself to remember what it felt like to feel happy.
I had heard the words postpartum depression before giving birth, but I didn’t think that these words would apply to me. I knew it was a very real and diagnosable medical condition, but while I knew about postpartum depression on an objective level, on a more subjective level, I rationalized that I did not—could not or should not—fit the definition. I didn’t want to hurt myself or my baby. I felt detached and devoid of joy, like the lights had gone out. I told myself that this was the life that I had always wanted, that I should be happy, that newborns were hard work, and I just needed to put my head down and soldier on. So I did just that.
I got out of bed in the morning and fed my baby. I went to him when he cried—albeit slowly and reluctantly—and I tended to his needs throughout the day. I took photos of first smiles and videos of first laughs. I also cried almost every day. I yelled a lot, and I did a lot of score-keeping. I regretted my old life and envied my friends who were still going out to dinner and sleeping in and getting drunk on Saturday nights. I questioned whether we might all be better off if I went back to work and whether or not I was cut out to be a mother at all. I missed my family and was desperately lonely. I was angry and sad.
I muscled my way through the first few months and then the first few years, and thanks to a very forgiving and patient husband, a supportive group of friends, and a renewed faith in my own resilient spirit, slowly the lights began to turn back on. Instead of flipping a switch to instant light, it was like the slow brightening of fluorescent lights in a large room—barely noticeable while it was happening, but at some point, I realized that it wasn’t quite so dark anymore.
Slowly, over a long period of time, I recovered. But walking into that hospital room on that bright and sunny October afternoon, I realized that recovery is only half the battle. I may have recovered from postpartum depression, but had I healed? Or would I constantly be trying to outrun the shadows?
“She’s beautiful,” I said to the new parents. This is, after all, what you are supposed to say when you visit new parents. It wasn’t difficult to say these words, however; she was a beautiful baby so the words came naturally.
“Can I hold her?” I asked. This is, after all, what you are supposed to ask when you visit new parents, but this question didn’t come as naturally. Holding someone else’s baby felt like an intrusion, like I was stepping into a private space where I didn’t belong. Nonetheless, I knew enough to know that when you visit new parents in the hospital you should hold the baby—and this wasn’t just any baby, it was my new niece. So I asked the question, in an odd way, daring myself to step into their dangerous waters without falling apart.
She fit easily and snuggled into the crook of my arm. I held her and made small talk, trying to fill the space with words so I could quiet the buzz in my head. How are you feeling? How was the delivery? Can you believe you’re parents now, isn’t it wild? How did you sleep last night? How’s the food here? When do you go home?
We chatted, and I held my niece. I wiped the beads of sweat from my upper lip. I talked over the too-loud buzz in my ears and hoped they didn’t notice the quiver in my voice. I rocked from side to side and hoped they didn’t notice my hands shaking. I took short, fast breaths of the too-thin air. But all the while I was chatting and holding, rocking and sweating, there was a split-screen movie playing through my mind. On the one side of the screen, there was this room: a beautiful baby, a proud dad, an ecstatic mom, and a joy so palpable that it almost felt like an invasion of privacy. On the other side of the screen, there was my hospital room seven years ago: a beautiful baby, a proud dad, a terrified mom, and an inexplicable, desperate sadness creeping in like a morning fog.
One side of the screen was in vivid, bright colors; the other side shifted from color to sepia to gray, portending the darkness that was to come. I watched these two split-screens through the distorted lens of hindsight, and while the one side stayed firmly fixed in the present, the other side of the screen—the darkening side—reeled forward through all of the tears and the screaming and the horrible, awful, shameful thoughts and crushing emptiness during the first several months of my son’s life.
This split-screen movie continued to play. A bead of sweat slid down my back. The air grew thinner; the electric buzz grew louder. Why couldn’t I have had this? Why was this taken from me? Why did the monster of postpartum depression have to crawl in and wrap its ugly tentacles around me, when it could have been like this? Why didn’t I get this, whatever this is?
After what I guessed was the appropriate amount of time for rocking and holding, chatting and cooing, I handed my niece back to her mom, with one last “Congrats!” and “She’s beautiful.”
After another round of hugs, I left the room, pulling the heavy door closed behind me. I made the reverse walk through the long hallways, rode the elevator back down, and exited the hospital doors to re-join my family waiting in the car.
“Mom!” the boys sang out happily when I climbed into the passenger seat.
“Welcome back, dear,” Matt said, as he pulled away from the curb.
“My boys!” I called back. “I’m back. I missed you.”
And then I cried, silently behind my sunglasses, most of the drive home.
I may have recovered, but the healing, that might take some time. Fortunately, I have a carload of people who make me feel wanted, needed and loved while I wait for the scars to fade.