I’m sitting on the couch when it happens the first time. There’s music playing in the background, and I’m listening to my 4-year-old tell me a story about her day, about her world, about her life — it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I am listening and showing her that her words matter. They are important. She is important. The 2-year-old is playing at my feet, quietly pondering her toys. It’s mid-morning, and it’s peaceful.
Then the baby begins to cry. I move off the couch to pick him up, and the girls begin to shout.
I’m repeating the mantra of my motherhood, “I’m still listening. I am listening,” but the layer of fragile calm has already been broken.
My teeth are clenched so tightly together it feels as though my bones might shatter. Suddenly an overwhelming wash of hot anger flashes through my body and my hand smacks down hard on countertop with a massive burst of sound.
Let me start again.
I’ve dealt with depression my entire life. It is a terrible, furtive disease that reaches out with long, hooked tendrils and sinks them into your very being. It comes on slowly, secretively, and grows within you. For me, it’s the sort of disease that progresses visibly. I felt changes happening within myself and saw them getting worse, so I could make my peace and then address the problem.
Postpartum depression is different.
I was given a thorough rundown and warning during my first pregnancy because carrying a depression diagnosis meant that I was at a higher risk for PPD. I listened, but I was also confident that I would notice if it happened.
I got lucky.
I had my first and second babies with nothing more than the typical “baby blues” period. My children were amazing. I loved them each from the moment they were laid on my bare chest, still covered in afterbirth, looking up at me with adoring eyes.
My third was different.
Everything about him was different.
I was diagnosed with preeclampsia at 34 weeks pregnant and wound up in the hospital on bed rest. They wanted to keep him in as long as possible — it didn’t seem to matter how much pain I was in. I begged with my midwife to speak with the doctors about inducing me. I cried. I panicked, because my husband was stuck at home alone with two toddlers and was missing work. It took three days, but when it was clear my symptoms were not going anywhere, the medical staff finally decided to take him out.
By emergency C-section.
My husband had an hour to get to the hospital before I was wheeled down for the surgery. They cut our baby out. I threw up all over the nursing staff. They let me see him for a few seconds, then they whisked him away to the NICU where he was poked, and injected, and tube-fed. For 24 hours, I was not allowed to see him because I was confined to a hospital bed receiving magnesium for the preeclampsia.
It’s not the worst birth story ever.
He was huge for his birth age (just over 6 pounds). He only stayed in the NICU for three days. I traveled to him from my hospital room every three hours to bring the small amounts of breast milk I had pumped, and by the second day, he was already trying to feed and latch. He was absolutely amazing, and I loved him with my entire being.
But we went home, and I felt robbed. I missed out on my perfect moment with him. I missed out on holding him skin to skin as soon as he was born, on gazing into his beautiful liquid eyes, on changing his first diaper. My daughters were a complete disaster after having their mom gone for a week. We hadn’t told them anything about how things might change once I went into labor — we thought we had time.
We had massive hospital bills looming on the horizon, so we tried to pick up the pieces of chaos and stitch them back together with threads from our already worn-down morale. My husband went back to work after the first week, and I held it together with the help of some amazing family and friends.
I healed. I cleaned the house. I cooked food. I went back to running my business as though nothing had happened, and my husband and I managed the transition from two to three.
I had days every now and again where I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t function. I burst into tears.
It was the hormones and the traumatic birth experience. It had to be.
More days would pass, and I would load up the toddlers into the jogging stroller and put baby boy on me in his carrier, and we would walk two miles to the park, laughing and singing the entire way. I loved them all so much, and I was an amazing mom. I was the mom to beat. My social media presence was still perfection, of course.
Then I had a moment where I was suddenly so rage-filled at all the crying and constant mess that I picked up a metal puzzle container and threw it with all my strength at the kitchen cabinet.
I started teaching my 4-year-old to read. I played superhero with the 2-year-old. I held the baby whenever he needed. The laundry started to sit for longer periods of time. Sometimes I didn’t get around to cooking dinner.
I had two days in a row where I felt unable to get off the couch. When I did, I spent my time yelling at the toddlers. They were too loud, they were too disrespectful, they never listened, they were awful.
I was unwilling to admit that I was the problem. It felt as though most days I had my life completely in control, but then I would have these moments, hours, days when I went into a sort of manic fugue state. It felt like my medication stopped working for these periods. It felt like I should have never given birth because I was completely unsuitable for motherhood. It felt terrifying, and it felt unreal because the next day would always come and all those emotions seemed as though they had been part of a horrible dream.
This was not the depression that I knew. That depression — the sneaking, slithering, progressive kind? That I talked about freely. That is something people understand. It’s all right to admit that when you were 16, you struggled with feelings of low self-worth. It’s all right to admit that at 20, sometimes you had trouble functioning, trouble working, trouble leaving the house. It’s all right to admit that you are on medication, that medication is amazing, that modern medicine has done wonders for the mental health spectrum.
It’s not all right to admit to your friends that you picked up your 4-month-old as he was screaming and had the sudden, unbearable desire to throw him with all your might against the wall.
It’s not all right to admit to your friends that in the middle of your 2-year-old’s typical hourly tantrum you swung your hand back in anger with intention, almost striking out.
It’s not all right to admit to your friends that you desperately want to leave your family. That you desperately want to die.
I called my midwife.
It took me four months, but I knew something was wrong, and I called.
If I hadn’t struggled with mental health issues in the past, I am not sure that I would have known to make the call. I certainly wouldn’t have recognized the problem so soon. I would have thought that I was just a horrible human being — that being a mom was something in my life I was genuinely terrible at. That I was selfish and undeserving of my children’s affection.
Here is the thing: They warn you about postpartum depression when you are pregnant. They talk to you about it when you are in the hospital giving birth. They question you relentlessly about your mental state at your 6-week postpartum checkup. They tell you that if you ever have thoughts of harming yourself, or your child, then you need to seek help right away. They tell you of the stories — the horrible, sad, unfortunate mothers who harm themselves or their children.
It doesn’t start out that way.
It might start out that way.
It’s different for every single woman.
And it’s alright to tell our stories.
If you or someone you know is experiencing postpartum depression, anxiety, or having suicidal thoughts, there are many resources and ways to get help. Most importantly, know that you are not alone. Click here for resources to seek help.