What Postpartum Depression Will Tell You
My daughter calls me using the magic of the future. I can see her face and the faces of my grandchildren on my cellphone. I grab a fourteen-inch, posable, superhero action figure and a small, purple, plastic vegetable with a face and pretend they are flying with each other. I make the cape on the masked man in black wave like he’s going extra fast. “Whooooosh,” I say. My grandson smiles and laughs and my day is made.
I’m incredibly lucky because I get to see their faces almost every day. Sometimes my granddaughter insists on holding the phone, which really means eating my face, and she hangs up several times before we’re done, ending with her haltingly waving to me bye-bye. I watch them coo and cry, and then start to scoot, then crawl, and then one day they say, “DeeDee! Guys!” and I go grab some toys so we can play together even though I’m two hundred miles away.
I get to see my daughter on the good days and the bad. I see her cycle through all her emotions while trying to raise small children and the way she feels battered after a particularly tough day of two small crying people who are demanding more, but unable to tell her just what the “more” should consist of, while they teethe, smear applesauce on the mirror, and sometimes just suddenly stop everything, make eye contact, and let out a heart-stopping scream to get attention before smiling widely with a twinkle in their eye.
I hear her speaking calmly, soothingly, and trying not to overreact to the shrill sounds or the intentional head-bonks carried out by plastic swords. I see her navigating her way, looking for the constructive ways to mold their behavior, while trying to overlook what can safely be ignored so she isn’t a broken record of saying, “No,” all day.
Don’t get me wrong. Some days are brilliant. The children laugh and play and poop and nap on time. They attend a story-time at a local library or head to the gym. No one runs into a table leg or a wall, she has patience in spades, and the day ends with lullabies and kisses. The day ends with those things regardless, but some days they are infinitely easier.
I’m lucky I have these daily video chats with my daughter, because as she became an adult, we became friends, and she began to see me as something other than broken. She saw me as a human being and realized my worth as a Mom, as a Grandma, and as a friend. These are things I will never take for granted.
Sometimes she calls me when they are both napping so we can really talk. She tells me about the preschool learning activities she’s setting up for the older one. He’s two and curious and ready to speak in complete sentences. She wants him to be engaged in life and learn new things. She doesn’t want to be perceived as the mom who “just” sits home, letting the kids run wild. She likes structure and schedules. She likes to work hard and see accomplishments. She worries she doesn’t do enough to fulfill them. She worries she’s lazy. She worries she cries too much and gives up too fast. She apologizes when she stays home all day and they “just” play with toys and watch movies and eat “pop pop.”
In her words I hear so much more than she’s saying. She doesn’t name these things, but I know them. Things like being a good mom, not a “good enough” mom. Or, the Best Mom, and not giving in to “just doing the best you can” that day, which is code for falling short. I feel her swimming in the ocean of Self Doubt and Fear with waves crashing overhead, when no matter how much you do, how patient you are, how prepared you try to be, you’ll never be what your kids need.
I want to throw her a donut-shaped life preserver and get her out of these dangerous waters.
These conversations have a way of transporting me back in time to when she and her three brothers were young. There were head bonks and bruises, fighting and runny noses, days with too much TV and movies with princesses singing songs we all knew by heart, and so many diapers. I never felt like I was doing it right. I was never enough.
I suffered from Postpartum Depression, although no one told me that. I had general depression and manic depression and other kinds of mental issues over the years, but no one told me the name of the one that had quietly and selfishly stolen a room in my mind and then camped out in my chest, unashamed and violent, when I was about four months pregnant with my first child and simply didn’t leave until my youngest was about fifteen. Because it went untreated and nameless, there was no way to fix it. I was simply broken with no hope of ever being a good mom.
My daughter calls me one day a few weeks ago and tells me, in tears, that she feels like she’s failing. She feels like no matter how hard she tries and how organized she gets and how many places she plans to take them and how great she researches their foods for nutritional content and how many activities she plans for preschool time at home, that it will never, ever be enough. She can’t give them what they need, she says.
It’s so close to what I used to hear in my own head that I feel my heart thud in my chest. “You are enough!” The words tumble out quickly, but as they slip off my tongue I’m aware they might not reach her. I remember what it’s like to feel like she’s feeling right now. Do I tell her that I know? Does that help her? Or does it scare her that she might be more like her mom in brain chemistry than she’d like? Their entire lives I’ve walked a tightrope with my children, wondering how much they hate being similar to me in any way, but especially when it comes to mental health. A good portion of their lives was spent hearing about how terrible I was for my failings, so having similar ones might be terrifying.
I brashly decide in the moment to tell her everything I remember from that time, even if the fear I’ve always had that she hates being more like me is true. I want her to know. I want her to remember.
And so I tell her about the time I left her and her brothers for a week and fled to Canada. She remembers it of course. How could she not? But, now she hears it from a new perspective, one she didn’t have before — that of a mom with small children who always feels like she’s never enough.
I tell her how I couldn’t stop crying for months and how I didn’t leave my bed. I tell her how at age eight she was making sandwiches for dinner and doing the bulk of the laundry and helping her brothers with their homework because I literally couldn’t say more than a few words at a time and I wasn’t able to shower for days. I tell her that she sang lullabies to the youngest and tucked him in bed after helping him say his prayers every night because the words about incompetence and unreliability and evilness and never being good enough ran through my head non-stop and the only thing that helped was to cut on my body or to be asleep, and so I slept as much as possible. I tell her that one day I woke up and knew with a certainty I’d never felt before that the lives of my children were doomed if I didn’t leave as soon as possible to make room for a good person, a Real Mom, to step in and take care of them.
And so I bought a one-way ticket and left within a week. I arranged a babysitter. I called a cab. And I left on a plane with every intention of never coming home because I knew, I KNEW, that I would never, ever be a good mom and my trying would only harm them irrevocably. I would do anything for the safety of my children.
That’s what my brain was telling me. That’s what Postpartum Depression can do.
Through the grace of family I made my way back in a week, confused, heart-broken, trying to figure out how to live without help or support in my home. I was still months away from getting help from professionals and medication. I was thought of as simply bad and a failure in the eyes of those closest to me. The deep feelings I had of being a terrible parent persisted and kept me frozen and immobile and terrified of ruining my children’s lives.
How do you ask your kids for a second chance to be their Mom? Why should they gift that to you? And yet, they did, and I tried again. And about a year later, when I went to the mental hospital for the first time, it was a lifetime of brain neglect and faulty chemicals and broken relationships that I started trying to untangle like a massive yarn-ball, but still no one said the words Postpartum Depression.
“I was in yet another mental hospital in a different state when your dad finalized our divorce,” I tell her. “The judge didn’t allow him to completely take away my parental rights, and for that I will always be thankful because it was right after that when I started really getting well.”
She’s silent on her end of the phone. “I felt like a bad mom always,” I say, “There was never a time when you were growing up that I felt good enough to be your mom. And that feeling was exploited by people who made my time with you less and less and made me feel worse and worse. They took advantage of my low self-worth and confusion. It took until you were in college for me to finally see that most of the time, I had been a good mom who had made some mistakes, and that sometimes I was even a great mom. I don’t want it to be like that for you. I want you to see you’re great right now.”
After a pause my daughter reminds me of all the fun we had when they were young. How we built forts and watched movies and ate popcorn. How we did art projects and went to the park. How I taught them things at home like science and math and reading because I loved those things and wanted to share them. How I sewed her dresses and did her hair. How I showed them how to be truly kind to each other. How I got on the floor and played. How we ate dinner as a family and shared our Highs and Lows of the day. How I was the only mom who couldn’t wait for summer so we could hang out more.
And so I ask her. I ask her if even after she had the “new and better” mom when her dad got remarried, who I had dreamt of Being Perfect for my children because I couldn’t be, was she glad? Was she secretly thinking how lucky she was that she didn’t live with me everyday? Or despite all my challenges and failings, did she wish, as a little girl, that there had been a way for us all to figure it out? Because I was her mom. I was her Mom. And just like so many other kids, would she have been willing to accept the failings of her mother who was trying to be better, because she loved me, despite those three months in bed crying and a trip to Canada? Despite all the days we spent watching movies instead of going to a museum? Despite all the frozen burritos, macaroni and cheese, and chicken nuggets instead of hitting the Nutritional Pyramid 100 percent of the time?
I tell her she’s done nothing remotely as drastic as I did, and yet she’s struggling with similar feelings of inadequacy, that left unchecked, can bloom into full-blown crisis. I tell her that I can see how any mom gets from Point A to Point B if they don’t have help and support and names for what the issues are.
I tell her that her son and daughter feel the same way about her as she felt about me, and that there is no one, NO ONE, who could ever take her place or do it better than she does. She is their perfectly imperfect Mom and that is enough. It’s more than enough. She is enough.