February 7, 2014
Today was the 1st day I felt anything besides guilt.
I kept a thick, black journal as a baby book. It contained a few sparse notes, a balloon from her first birthday, our hospital bracelets and the above entry. The baby was born on January 21st, 2014. I was 24 years old and she was 15 days overdue.
I wanted so badly to have a natural home birth, for something to go as planned. The conditions of my pregnancy were ripe with stress, and I needed something I could control. I saved up tissue paper and ribbons from the post holiday return spree at the upscale women’s store I worked at to make the apartment warm with puffs and twinkle lights. My husband and I splurged on a bottle of champagne wrapped in pink cellophane to pop when I did. We waited.
My due date came and went. The midwife I was seeing said that she was comfortable with me waiting the full two weeks. She wasn’t concerned because I was healthy and young. I did everything I could to get the baby out “naturally.” I had my membranes swept so hard I had to brace myself against the wall above me. I walked, ate dates and, over the course of the last three days, buddied up to the toilet and drank three whole bottles of caster oil. Much to the chagrin of my midwife, none of it worked. On the 15th day past due, I was admitted to the hospital and induced.
Five hours later the baby was born. Her 9 pound, 21 inch frame was placed on my chest, and I thought something along the lines of: “Huh. So that’s what you look like.” All I wanted to do was sleep.
The next morning, I was given a 10 question survey to determine if I was a risk for postpartum depression. Was I scared, sad, stressed? Was I having trouble sleeping or struggling to connect to the baby? I answered in the affirmative for most of the questions and nothing really came of it other than my own suspicions that something was wrong.
It’s common to experience something similar to PPD in the first three to four days postpartum. The “Baby Blues” mimic the symptoms of PPD: sadness, fatigue, irritability. This condition clears up on its own fairly quickly, whereas PPD can stick around for as long as three years after the pregnancy and may require medication to manage.
After my first week with the baby, I ruled out the “Baby Blues.”
There were so many visitors in the first few days. They gushed over the baby with a level of sincerity unimaginable to me at the time. The disconnect I felt from her was palpable. Everyone kept telling me how beautiful she was, how I must hate whenever someone else held her, how much she made them want to have another kid. Their coos were deafening. I was so tired.
PPD is often caused by the dramatic shift in hormones that takes place post birth. While there are some indications that it strikes those who have previously experienced (or have a family history of) depression, it is a risk for all new moms, especially if they experience high levels of stress during and after their pregnancy. Stress is one of those things that seems unavoidable in those first few months. Even if a new mom is financially stable, has insurance that doesn’t try to screw her over, a strong network of family and friends and a career situation that is compatible with her new life, she still is solely responsible for keeping a totally helpless piece of flesh alive with milk she produces from her freshly rent body. I, for one, succumbed to the pressure and no one knew how severely it had begun to affect me.
I struggled to be around people in public, was anxious about everything I said or wore. I felt clumsy, inadequate, selfish, suffocated. My memory was shot and my childhood sleep paralysis reentered my life, leaving me exhausted. I had an image of who I once was – a levelheaded Rachel full of promise — that became warped and fractured in the oppression of those first dark months.
PPD takes on many forms, from anxiety to psychosis. Some women begin to hallucinate, some hold irrational fears and some go as far as to physically harm themselves or their children. It’s like having two minds. One that knows what the actions and emotions of a responsible mother are supposed to be, and another that is purely reptilian. And for some, the reptilian half wins.
PPD can be especially dangerous– and afflict new moms at a higher rate — for those who lack a support system. I was fortunate enough to have my sister living next to me. A new mom herself, she repeatedly told me that you don’t need to feel that new-mother-euphoria to be a good mom. That she knew I loved the baby because of the way I took care of her. She provided the warmth, all soft songs and deep gazes, embracing and nurturing the baby in the way I couldn’t.
This experience peaked for me around four months after she was born, and then a subtle shift occurred. Over time I began to iron myself out and, at the end of our first year together, I could feel myself waking up to the beauty and humor of Elfa that I’d been sleeping on. It took another year after that to unlearn the negative speech surrounding motherhood that I had been playing on loop. And in this third year, my daughter and I are working on expanding both our independence and sense of selves.
The part that makes me saddest about this experience is that I have no positive memories from the first few months of Elfa’s life. She didn’t even seem real. There is a scar there. The threads of overlapping guilt that encase those months make it difficult to pinpoint a clear memory. The peaceful 2 A.M. nursing, the overwhelming love at birth, the magic of her growth — those aren’t memories I can access. Lodged in its place is a fear that this will happen again and a deeply rooted sense of inadequacy in my ability to mother.
I wish I could tell my former self: this isn’t a shameful burden you need to keep to yourself. It’s a common affliction, you are not broken. And know that as you move forward in time and your baby becomes the person they are meant to be, you will too. You’ll find your footing again. You’re a good mom.
For my daughter
My mind draws a very clear distinction between the pregnancy and you. Even the baby and you. You are my vibrant gift. My goblin sidekick. My dancing girl with cheeks so full of kisses that they spill out onto animals and cousins and your grateful mother. I want to clarify this so that if you ever read this essay, you will know that you were never a burden. You were, for a moment, a light too bright for your mother’s torch to carry. But never a burden.
Photo by Sian Lewis/N-Photo Magazine via Getty Images.