Trigger warning: postpartum depression, suicidal ideation
“Get in the bathroom and turn on the water!” I yelled at my befuddled husband from a hospital bed over a bulbous belly strapped with elastic and a monitor, like a plump turkey tied with string.
“I might pass gas or poop when I push and I don’t want you to hear.”
After years of trying to conceive, tests, shots, expectations and disappointments, then months of growing and aching, days of contractions, and hours of pushing, the creature inside was too snug in the familiarity of my uterus, it didn’t want to move. Yet somehow, breaking wind in front of someone, even the father of this little lifeform, or crapping somewhere other than the toilet, were still high on my anxiety list.
The doctor on-call said it was time to get the baby out. Within moments things were in motion. I was surprisingly calm about switching into C-section mode. Being preoccupied with the idea of public flatulence, and the safety of my baby, prevented me from thinking about the fact that I would soon be splayed naked and ripped open with a roomful of strangers gawking and crowding around my bare body. Somehow the situation was manageable, that is, until my body started getting numb.
Suddenly, I couldn’t move. I started getting flooded, panic squeezing sharp talons around my lungs. Perhaps because I watched my dad decline from ALS, his atrophied body unable work while his mind was still intact. Or perhaps from when I was drugged and assaulted as a young woman, or the other times I was held down and felt trapped and helpless.
Once again, I was no longer in control of my body or functions. I noticed I could still feel my toes, so I started focusing on inhaling and exhaling, and wiggling what I would soon be calling “little piggies.”
When the tiny, wet, squirmy girl was pulled from my red seams of flesh, she was folded in half with her tush sticking out, as if stretching for yoga class or sit and reach in P.E. She was handed to me with inky hands, and big pink cheeks and lips. The first thing she did was stick out her tiny tongue at me and scrunch her nose like a bunny. I stuck out my tongue back, marking our first cordless exchange. My red eyes glistened with held tears and disbelief. Panic’s talons loosened and tightened as I oscillated between adoration and fear.
When the old familiar dirge of depression started swaying my lumpy, milk-filled body, I felt the heft of guilt in my chest. Guilt that meds prevented me from feeding her from my breast for long, guilt for bringing her into this world and giving her a bad mother, guilt for having to force myself to smile, guilt for the guilt.
I became a spit-up covered sloth in the weeks and months that followed. My speech and movements slowed; I felt numb and detached. I thought baby blues lasted a few weeks, but at six months I was crying nonstop and didn’t want to leave the security blanket of my house. I had a beautiful baby who I constantly felt like I was failing.
I was not the mother I wanted to be, the mother I saw in sitcoms. I was no Carol Brady or Claire Huxtable, mothering gaggles of kids while working, all with perfectly coiffed hair and smiles. I was certainly not Samatha Stevens, with a magical nose whose twitch solved all problems. I didn’t take daily stroller walks through the park, in dresses (or blazers with big shoulder pads), or go to mommy groups and classes. She deserved a better mother.
Over the next year, my struggles moved from melancholy and malaise to thinking regularly about the reasons I should end my life. When therapy and medication were not enough, I agreed to go to a hospital so I could stay alive for my daughter, even though I thought she was better off without me. I had committed to her, even before she was born, so I was going to try anything to escape the darkness, even if that meant leaving her for a month.
I was released two weeks before her birthday. I was still adjusting to new medications and struggling with mixed emotions, but I was slowly connecting with my daughter in new ways. I quickly set up a musical tea party to make her birthday special. I got her a bright pink tutu and Minnie Mouse cupcakes. Life was moving forward. I was learning that I could face challenges and also be present for my daughter. That I could smile when she would stick her tongue out, or wiggle her tiny toes. That I could giggle when she would “toot” or have “poopsplosions” on the changing table, and that it was also okay to not smile sometimes. That it’s important to be my authentic self, even if that makes me the weird mom sometimes, the sad mom, or the kookie mom who embarasses her in front of her friends.
I was never going to be a perfect mother. There’s no such thing. I think expectations need to change, and transparency. We need to share our crap, literally and figuratively, so we know what might be coming and don’t feel ashamed. Mothers sometimes pass gas and poop on the table, just like babies do. It’s a fact, and should be celebrated as part of the birthing process, not feared or cause shame. Mothers sometimes get depressed and have trouble functioning or connecting. It’s okay to talk about it and get help.
We should be shouting these things from the rooftops, not keeping silent. “I birthed a human. I may have shat in the process, or gotten fucked up emotionally and physically. I may have scars, and leaked blood, pee, and milk, but it’s worth it. I created life and holy crap, that’s amazing!”