Motherhood is exhausting — we all can attest to that. One day, I was so tired that I couldn’t remember if shredded cheese needed to be refrigerated, and my husband discovered it in the microwave later that night. Another time, I neglected to take off my nursing bra and underwear before I stepped into the shower. And, for a brief moment, I even forgot my own son’s name.
We all have those moments as new parents when lack of sleep begins to poke holes in our minds. “Swiss cheese brain,” as my friend calls it. We neglect to do this or overlook that. All of that happened to me. But I was also overrun with crippling postpartum depression (PPD). As a result, most of the first year of my son’s life never registered in my mind. When I look at photos of that time, it’s about as personal as seeing a stranger. I have no idea who the people are in that moment.
Mentally, I was never there.
PPD has been a defining force in my motherhood journey. It darkly underscored the majority of the first year of my son’s life and parts of those that followed. But only now, five years later, am I finally coming to terms with all the ways it affected my life.
One of the more heartbreaking things I’ve been struggling with lately, something I know I’ll probably never make peace with, is the time I lost with my son that I’ll never get back. Sure, I was physically present every day of his life, but the early days of motherhood were mechanical for me. I wasn’t able to be emotionally present and enjoy him. I was depressed, ready to end my life and my only goal was to keep my son healthy and growing. I never had any mental capacity left over to actually be happy and embrace my new role as mother to an amazing little boy.
I am so f*cking pissed off about it.
Tragically, my experience, while unique to me, is far from rare. Research shows that 1 in 7 new moms are stricken with PPD—and that is just the ones who are diagnosed. Very few women escape new motherhood physically or emotionally unscathed. And I was no exception.
My PPD began manifesting its ugly little head about a week after my son was born. It’s sneaky, though. It creeps into your brain slowly and it’s easy to mistake it as effects from general exhaustion. In my case it would show up as lies my brain told me (“You’re a terrible mother”) for a day or so, then I’d have a great day and pass it off as part of the whirlwind of chaos that comes with being a new mom. But a day or so later it was back with a vengeance (“Your family would be better off without you”). After a few of those starts and stops I was drowning in depression before I realized what had been happening.
I also fought insomnia, bouts of rage (never toward my baby or myself, but my walls and the contents of my kitchen cabinets were never the same again) and thoughts of suicide. I was afraid that if I asked for help, I would be hospitalized and separated from my child or, even worse, that he would be taken from our home. I struggled to bond with my baby and was so emotionally shut off that I was incapable of enjoying motherhood.
I was all about survival.
Feed the baby, change the baby, get the baby to sleep, repeat. I had decided that my only value was in breastfeeding my son and once I was able to wean him, I would end my life. I had a date on the calendar in my mind and knew exactly how I would do it.
Luckily, I got help before that happened. I started medication and therapy, and with the right support I slowly began reclaiming my life. I finally began to enjoy my baby and was, at last, wholly ensconced in motherhood.
It would be nice if my journey ended there, all wrapped up neatly in a bow. It didn’t. As anyone who struggles with mental health can attest, it’s rarely that simple. I faced setbacks, medication breakthroughs and the challenges of daily life. Just as PPD entered my life in a series of starts and stops, its exit was the same. I take daily medication and might do so for the rest of my life. I am a constant work in progress.
Lately though, I’ve found myself longing for the baby with chubby legs and kissable cheeks. I couldn’t enjoy it then; I willed the days to pass. I’m healthy now, and for that I am grateful. I’ve pieced back together the shards that were left after I broke. I’m whole now, but the baby has grown into a boy.
And now looking at baby photos and videos feels like a punch to the soul when I see his tiny face and hear that sweet baby talk, how he adorably mispronounced words. I miss that baby, the one I sometimes feel like I never knew.
I try to give myself grace. I remind myself that there’s the exhaustion, pain and suffering all moms endure. It wasn’t just me. On top of that, my brain wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. I don’t want to go back and live it all over again. I’m not wishing for an entire redo. I just wish I had been healthier and able to appreciate it more. Or at all.
But I’d give anything to see him at that age one more time. To feel that tiny baby in my arms and marvel at him. To be completely present in a way that was never even a possibility for me back then.
Motherhood changed every part of me down to the foundation of my soul. It split me open in the best way, but then it painfully tore me to pieces. And it will continue to do so in a myriad of ways. But in this moment, the thing that hurts me most is that little baby that I never had a fair chance with. He’s so perfect now. But he was perfect then, too. I just wasn’t able to know that at the time.
Becky Vieira been wearing mom jeans since 2016. She writes for a variety of parenting outlets, and can often be found oversharing intimate details of her life on Instagram. She's immensely proud of the time she thought to pee in one of her son's diapers while stuck in her car, as opposed to her pants. Becky's debut book about the real realities of the first year of motherhood will be published by Union Square & Co. in May 2023. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, son, dog, three cats and a partridge in a pear tree. Find her on Instagram at WittyOtter.