stormy days to brighter nights
I had postpartum depression with my first baby. But not my second.
It is ironic that my baby was born breech. Because in my experience, everything that followed labour felt upside down.
My daughter was born on a late Spring Tuesday evening, following a stressful but straightforward vaginal breech delivery (rarely seen in the medical community). We were home not 4 hours later, left to our “joy” and “bonding time”. You should know that I consider myself an expert sleeper — in high school I orchestrated a last period spare so I could sneak in a nap between school and my part-time retail job. I am adept at falling into a deep, unawakening slumber in minutes. So by day 9 post-partum, with never more than 30–45 minutes of sleep in any one sitting, and no concrete REM sleep cycles even when given a long baby break, I knew I was ill and that something was really wrong. My post-partum struggle had nothing to do with the baby’s transition to the world. She was (and still is) a great sleeper and decent eater. But I lost my ability to rest. I couldn’t sleep or be calm even if I knew she was safe with my husband or another family member. I convinced myself she wouldn’t make it to her 3-month milestone birthday. I felt like every time I looked at the clock, it read 9:11.
If I’m going to support the important initiatives around an open discussion of mental illness and mental health and wellness, I’ve decided (with my husband’s support) that support means talking openly about my own experience. 70%-80% of new mothers experience some form of post-partum blues. In the days after my treatment began, so many people said to me “I have a friend with PPD, a sister with PPD, my boss had that, etc.” Yet our social streams are full of happy moments (mine included). So in fairness, here is my story of Post Partum Depression (PPD).
When I started to speak out about how unwell I felt, many people said to me, “PPD is a real thing — I believe you’re not making it up”. It’s as if somehow my concerns for her safety, my wellbeing, my inability to sleep, eat, use the washroom, experience joy, laugh, concentrate, or even sit still could somehow be explained by anything other than a crisis. I felt suffocated by the idea that “the baby blues pass” after a few days and that all I needed was to simply wait it out. A friend asked me if I was on “cloud nine” and all I could respond with were tears. I would wail louder and more severely than my daughter did at every feeding. Seemingly out of nowhere, my house felt like a storage den of danger. Everything looked like a weapon, and my mind started to run through all of the ways I needed to end my own life to be sure my baby would be safe — as far away from me as I could conceive.
It’s that word conceive that I struggle with so much now, even at 8 months post-partum. We “conceived” of the idea of a baby before she was actually conceived. We planned out our family adventures and a beautiful, natural labour. We conceived responsible financial plans, our home renovations, and my short-term career break. But I absolutely could not have conceived of how horribly dark my mind would turn once she was born. Was there something I could have done to prevent this? Did I deserve this? Mental illness has no selection criteria. The hormone shift was so unexpected and so cruel. As someone living with anxiety that began in my teenage years, I thought I had a catalogue of coping strategies. But there was no coping strategy available to me while caring for a newborn full-time. I thought for sure I’d be one-handed-eating-while-breastfeeding-because-it’s-the-only-time-I’m-allowed-to-be-awake for the rest of my life. “Sleep when the baby sleeps” felt like when someone tells you to “just calm down”. Finally during a difficult phone conversation with a close friend of mine about just how desperate I was feeling, she convinced me to get to a hospital and seek immediate help. Thanks for that, friend.
The day I decided I couldn’t take it any more was the hardest day of my life. In my eyes there was no hope of recovery. My husband, sister and I packed the baby up and headed to the Mount Sinai Hospital emergency room following instructions from my midwife. No part of heading to the hospital was planned: my sister didn’t even have a sweater. She had stopped in to visit us for a few hours and ended up moving in for 5 days. That night at the hospital, after my family returned home with the baby (rightly leaving me in the care of the medical team), I overheard a couple of nurses discuss the “Mother and Tiny New Baby case” with judgment and concern. I was devastated. I was terrified. Also humiliated. I had to pump my overly engorged breasts in front of a security guard assigned to watch over me, since privacy is not a privilege to those served with a Form 3. I heard a woman screaming from behind a curtain, begging to be released from her wrist harness, and so I lay completely still for hours, afraid that if they also tied me down I wouldn’t be able to pump enough milk for baby in the morning. A nurse who took my initial vitals cried after she asked why I was there. I could only beg her to help me.
That day was the worst. I spent 18 days as an inpatient of the psychiatrist ward at Mount Sinai. Of all the doctors, nurses, interns and students that came to talk to me, I’m still deeply appreciative of a raw and honest conversation with a specialized post-partum nurse who directly and confidently told me that taking care of myself was the only way to ensure my baby was safe — and that meant releasing any ideas of caregiving perfection in the name of rest and recovery.
My journey sounds terrible — parts were terrible — but it’s important to be openly discussed. Primarily because I know there are other new parents (mothers and fathers) who experience PPD and choose not to seek help. Maybe because of the uncertainty of what might come next. “It’s hard to get help when you’re frightened”. In our case, it was okay — I’m now okay. Better than okay, really. I was given a treatment plan that works for me. Medication is only one of several approaches I’m currently using, including yoga, clean eating, CBT, frequent friendly outings and reframing activities. I’m enjoying my days with her. Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t hard times. There are days that I think being a mother is the most impossible job. There are still times I reach out to my network for support — and look to anyone who can relieve the pressure of caring for a small infant 24/7. It’s all so very difficult but I no longer feel guilty for admitting that.
In regards to those guilty feelings, I have a request. There is a lot of guilt surrounding motherhood that needs to be released. I’d like us to start doing that. Can we begin honouring our unique journeys for what they are? I’ve released a lot of it in my own road to recovery — the guilt of having a third-party children’s protective service (Children’s Aid Society) come into my home and ask questions about our family. The guilt of whether my husband would accept my decision to switch to formula feeding. The guilt of having my family, friends, and even not-to-close friends and work colleagues come into our home to help us through the rough nights after I was released. The guilt of watching my mother and brother pull many, many, all-nighters in sheer exhaustion so I could rest. The guilt of a scary diagnosis few people want to acknowledge. The guilt of needing to publicly admit that while everything else I had ever done in my life could be looked at as a success — my education, my career, my marriage — those first few days with her felt like I had failed my family. And yes, that guilt isn’t always self-assigned. I think that can change.
My case of PPD was more rare — about 20% of mothers suffer from the Post Partum Depression that I have — but did you know that depression is the number 1 complication of childbirth? I should say that all the outpatient support was wonderful (thankfully supported by our provincial health care program). I gained confidence, support and strong connections with other moms through my group therapy. I’m now able to focus on short meditation activities.
I’m telling my story because I know you are out there — you are a new parent and you’re as shocked by this transition as I was. Or your sister or brother or partner or friend is there too. You aren’t sure what recovery and normal looks like, and you’re scared. You will get better once you start talking*. Those fears of what happens next are difficult — I had those too — but hoping you’ll “just get better” or “snap out of it” might not bring resolution. Share your story, please? You are not a bad mother. I am not a bad mother. My daughter is thriving — she’s happy, calm, growing, funny and sparkling. You and your child will too.
Be well and thanks for reading.
*There are free services — some covered by our province’s medial care (OHIP) and some offered by non-profits, Toronto Public Health, and other services. Call a support line — discuss your options and start looking for immediate help if you need it. It does work out.