Westerville, OH, USA
From New Beginnings, Vol. 25 No. 6, 2008-09, pp. 15-16
My husband and I had been married for 10 years before we decided to have children. We wanted to be financially ready for me to stay home, and emotionally ready for the responsibility. We talked about what we would do. We read every book. We thought we were so prepared. When our daughter was born, she was perfect. I didn't have a particularly difficult labor. My mother-in-law stayed with us for five days. My husband had three days off work. I thought we were adjusting well.
Then, the day before my mother-in-law was leaving, it suddenly hit me that I would be in charge of this precious, helpless creature all by myself. I started crying, and couldn't stop. I would start to calm down, and then my mind would race to thoughts of how I would get through the next 18 years. It makes me laugh to write that now, but at the time it was so hard to make myself focus just on the moment.
I made an appointment with my doctor. My husband took a few extra days off work, and we started making a plan. We'd recently moved to a new town, and didn't have any family or friends nearby. My doctor told me I had postpartum depression (PPD) and that I needed to start taking anti-depressant medication. Some of my symptoms, including tingling in my hands and feet, racing heart, aversion to food -- not just lack of appetite -- are classic signs of anxiety. I know that medication is helpful to many women, but I preferred to try non-medical techniques first. At the time, I didn't realize that most anti-depressants are compatible with breastfeeding, and breastfeeding was very important to me. I also worried about potential side effects of anti-depressants.
I started working with a therapist, who suggested that anti-depressants might make it easier for me to manage my symptoms, but said she was willing to support me trying without medication at first. We both felt comfortable with this. I never felt like I might hurt my child or myself.
I joined every organization I could find to meet other moms, including La Leche League. My husband took as much time off work as he felt he could. I called in some family to stay for a couple of weeks. I also started looking on the Internet at how to manage depression and anxiety. I read books that taught me coping skills and supported me in my goal to be an attached parent.
The most important thing I did, and the hardest, was to let go of my pride and get over my shyness in order to ask for help. The number of people who genuinely wanted to help surprised me. I was also surprised to learn how many other women had suffered from postpartum depression or anxiety, and never asked anyone for help. Even the people who didn't help me directly still offered sympathy and never seemed to judge. I had to make sure I asked for the right kind of help from the right people. My friends and family were great for help with meals and laundry, or for reassuring me that I was a good mom, but their advice about "fixing" my lack of sleep was not helpful to me. We co-slept and couldn't imagine letting our daughter cry alone.
La Leche League was always a safe place to talk about exactly how I was feeling, and to receive nothing but support. The friends I made at the meetings are my closest friends still.
I actively worked at managing my anxiety for several months. It was the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. There were many days when I wished for a magic pill to fix all of my problems. Even with anti-depressants, there can still be a lot of hard work involved in dealing with a major mental health issue.
I didn't enjoy holding my baby daughter. It's hard for me to admit that. I'd read that many mothers don't fall in love instantly with their babies, but actually not doing so, especially after waiting so long for a baby, and being so in love with the idea of having a child, was hard. I had fallen in love with my baby in those first few days before the anxiety hit me, but then I lost that feeling. I kept my daughter close to me in her car seat as I went about my day. She slept between me and my husband, cuddled against him. I nursed her on demand, and there were many, many days when I felt like nursing was the only thing I was doing right as a parent. Looking back, I know that this wasn't true but, at the time, it was my lifeline.
My daughter's pediatrician once reminded me that when you nurse a baby, you do hold her, and connect with her. If that was all that I could manage at that time, it was enough. One day, as I was leaving his office, he said: "Keep up the good work!" Those words meant so much to me. I had to let go of all of my expectations and accept myself and my situation for what they were. As the days and months went by, things slowly got easier. Her first smile, at six weeks, was a major milestone. Suddenly, it was easier to realize that she was not always going to be such a bundle of needs. She could give back to me; a little bit then, but more and more as time went on. Once we could play together, it got easier still. At some point, and I didn't even notice exactly when or how it happened, I fell in love with my daughter again. I learned that even though I'm still not the perfect mother that I'd like to be, I'm always doing the best that I know how, and that's plenty good enough.
My daughter is now six and has two younger brothers, four years old and 16 months old. I experienced some postpartum depression and anxiety with both of the boys, but am thankful that I now have the tools to manage.