It’s a beautiful picture, isn’t it?
A new mama, glowing and happy, nuzzling her little bundle’s cheeks and breathing in that unmistakably sweet newborn smell you wish you could bottle up and keep forever. A new mama, tired but so smitten and in love with her baby, grateful and blessed to be given the chance to even mother her in the first place.
If only a picture could speak to what was really going on in my heart.
It’s taken me almost four years to say out loud that I didn’t like my own baby.
This picture was taken a few weeks after my daughter was born, and in this picture I actually didn’t even want to be around her. I had to force myself to hold her. I was exhausted beyond human comprehension, couldn’t stand the sound of her cries, and felt no bond or attachment towards this little stranger I was holding. I cancelled this photo session twice before and almost made it a third because I wasn’t sure I had it in me to get out of bed and get myself ready and quite frankly, I was too hollow to even care. That smirk on my face? Well, it’s the best I could muster up.
I went through the motions and took a beautiful picture I knew how I was supposed to act.
In this picture, I was facing the hardest battle of my life. I had just arrived at the bottom of an abyss so dark and scary that I wasn’t sure I’d survive the ugly monster waiting for me at the bottom, the monster who wrapped itself around me so tight I couldn’t breathe, the monster who hijacked my brain, turned my own heart against me and tried to steal my motherhood. The monster I’ve come to know as postpartum depression.
Let me rewind and tell you a little about before this picture was taken.
I struggled with anxiety since childhood, although it wasn’t until adulthood that I learned its name. I constantly worried people were going to die. I feared I had diabetes or that I was pregnant…even though I had no idea what sex was or how you even got pregnant in the first place. I had awful separation anxiety and would lie awake late at night with the covers over my head because I was constantly afraid people were going to break into my house or stand outside my window while I slept.
I told no one. I’m still not quite sure why. My parents were (and still are) so loving and supportive and would have done anything to help me. I think I was just so little I didn’t fully understand what was happening and didn’t have the words to talk about it. I was so young that I didn’t know any better; I grew used to the thoughts and normalized them as a part of me. For those unsure of their position in the nature vs. nurture debate, let me lay your uncertainty to rest. Both are to blame. My age was in the single digits when the anxiety started. It was the hand nature dealt me.
The panic attacks came along with adulthood. I was sitting in a meeting at work when the first one came out of nowhere. I ran to the bathroom and called my mom, crying hysterically that I needed to go to the ER because I was dying. I had no idea what was happening to me. My dear sweet mama, she talked me through it. I don’t know what I would have done without her.
I tried to manage the panic attacks with changes in my lifestyle. I exercised, practiced yoga, went to counseling regularly, and tried my best to minimize exposure to what I knew would trigger stress and anxiety. Still, the attacks became more frequent and intense until finally I lost control over them altogether and had to take time off work to figure things out. I stood firm in my resistance to medication. I felt like needing it was unnatural and would signal my own weakness and failure. I also felt deep down that what I was doing wasn’t working, and when that happens…welp, you try something else. At that point I had nothing to lose.
It took some time to unpack the tremendous amount of baggage I had around what mental illness actually was and the idea of how I thought it should be treated. I reached a point where I just couldn’t live life like that anymore. I deserved better. With the support of my village, I found a medication that worked and I never looked back. It wasn’t a magic fix but my head cleared enough that I was able to learn new ways to manage my anxiety and still live a happy life.
Thank God for therapy.
This is where I first learned about anxiety and how it manifested itself in me as a young child. Those thoughts weren’t normal, but they also weren’t my fault. That hit me like a lightning bolt. An enormous weight lifted off my shoulders when I let go of the lie that I should have been able to heal myself. Lady Gaga would be proud to know that I was just born this way. I accepted the anxiety as a part of me, learned to use it to my advantage, and worked with it instead of against it.
And it worked. I was happy and fulfilled. I married a wonderful man and after five years of traveling and gallivanting around, we decided we were ready to start a family.
Actually, I was never ready to start a family. Not 100%, at least. People with anxiety are NEVER 100% ready for ANYTHING, EVER. We overthink and overanalyze so much that at best we’re 75% in. I knew I wanted kids, or at least I thought I did…maybe…so with my doctor’s help I weaned off the anxiety medication. I was on the kind you can’t take while pregnant. I braced myself for non-medicated life but it actually wasn’t half bad. And so, at 75% in, I threw the birth control out the window and tried to get pregnant. We were eager to start a family so I figured it would happen pretty quickly.
Someday I’ll write about our years-long fertility journey but in a nutshell, my ovaries are stubborn and had to be roughed up by a cocktail of needles and hormones to get with the program. This one time when they finally did, I held that positive pregnancy test two weeks later. Because of my hormonal issues I only had a 50/50 chance of hanging on to the pregnancy and thankfully, I did. Once I recovered from the anxiety of the first trimester I was able to enjoy the anticipation and excitement of preparing for the arrival of our beautiful baby girl, our sweet snuggly newborn.
She flew into the world with both middle fingers blazing.
I wasn’t looking forward to childbirth. I don’t like hospitals and I don’t like pain but there was no way around either one this time. The epidural brought me sweet, sweet relief and with some extra oxygen I fell into a deep sleep. That’s the last thing I remember before the nurses and my husband were shaking me awake, telling me the baby was coming NOW and I needed to push NOW. Disoriented and still half asleep, I pushed twice and my healthy baby girl was born.
They laid her on my chest and I looked at her in total shock. It happened so quickly that my mind couldn’t process what just happened. This is when I first met the ugly monster.
Something felt off the instant I delivered. I struggle to find the words for how I felt the first time I held my daughter, but the best word I can find is nothing. I knew I loved her in an instinctual, protective kind of way but beyond that, I felt nothing. Nothing negative, but nothing positive either. No connection. No bond. No joy. It was like this hazy out-of-body experience that happened in slow motion. In connecting with other mamas who experienced postpartum mood disorders, I found that many others also felt something off while still in the hospital. It’s just so hard to explain.
The ugly monster whispered to me for the first time as I held my daughter. This isn’t your baby. This a mistake. Give her back to the nurses now. The nurses took her to get cleaned up and my husband followed close behind. He was head over heels for her from the moment she was born. You see? He loves her, just like you should. What’s wrong with YOU?
Me. And then there was me.
My body physically went into shock after I delivered. Having grown a human for the past nine months, my body didn’t know what to do after in a matter of seconds that human was no longer there. My blood pressure dropped, I spiked a fever and was so cold I was shaking uncontrollably. The nurses worked to stabilize me while the OB stitched me up. My daughter came out so quickly and forcefully that there wasn’t time to cut, so I tore and I tore GOOD. To make matters worse, I started throwing up mid-procedure with such intensity that I popped the stitches already in place, worsening the tear and the recovery time afterwards. I ended up with a 3rd degree perineal tear with stitches from you-know-where to you-know-where. It was lovely.
My daughter needed to be fed and I barely cared. I felt like I’d just been in a car accident and the last thing I wanted to do was take care of someone else. I was so weak that the nurse had to help me hold my daughter up to breastfeed. The monster whispered to me again. What’s wrong with you? You can’t even feed your own baby. You’re not a mother. You’re broken. This was a mistake, give her back. Memories from post-delivery are still foggy but I remember family and friends coming in and out to see the new mommy and the beautiful new baby who, I guess, was mine.
That beautiful new baby also had a beautiful set of lungs. Her colic started in the hospital.
Most babies are sleepy and drowsy in the beginning. I think it’s God’s way of giving mom time to recover from childbirth before the real fun starts. Boy did we miss the the boat on that one. My daughter’s eyes were wide open right out of the womb. Even the nurses and doctors commented on how alert she was. She catnapped here and there but mostly…she was crying. I thought something might be wrong with her or she that was hungry or in pain, but the nurses and doctors assured me her crying was normal.
NORMAL? Nothing felt normal. I was completely lost. I sent my daughter away to the nursery both nights in the hospital. It was the monster’s idea. You can’t take care of her. You have no idea what you’re doing. She’s not safe with you. Give her back.
I dreaded the moment it was time to leave the hospital. I took comfort being there because I knew my daughter was safe and cared for, and it felt nice to have someone caring for me too. I didn’t want to go home with this strange, fussy little human I didn’t know. I sobbed as they wheeled me out to the car and when I hugged my mom goodbye I wouldn’t let go. I was a total mess. Please don’t send me home. I have no idea what I’m doing. Can I just come with you so you can take care of ME? There was the monster again. Your baby needs you right now. You are so selfish. You don’t deserve to be her mother.
Our first night at home was brutal, as were the next six weeks. We were in and out of the doctor’s office trying to figure out why she was crying so much and making sure she was okay. It turns out my little one was just a sensitive baby who had a hard time adjusting to life outside of the womb. She cried for hours on end and my rockstar of a husband walked her back and forth while I laid helplessly on the couch. It took me two weeks to walk without leaning on someone and a month to comfortably walk on my own. You’re already a failure, the monster said. You can’t even comfort or rock your own baby.
The days and nights blurred together. The sleep deprivation was so awful I started to break with reality, imagining that movies were real life. I stopped eating and dropped my baby weight in just under two weeks. I picked my lips until they were swollen and bleeding. Our villagers were amazing, though. They brought us food, helped us rest, and offered support whenever they could, but still…the monster grew stronger. I sobbed when it was time for my husband to go back to work because I was terrified to be alone with my daughter. You don’t know how to take care of her. She’s not safe with you. Something will happen to her and it will be all your fault. You don’t know what she needs. You’re an awful mother.
Maternity leave was very isolating for me. I missed adult interaction and I developed this weird claustrophobia. I felt trapped in my own home and had to have the curtains, blinds, and front windows open at all times, even if it was 95 degrees outside. It drove my husband crazy but I needed the air. I needed the light. I feared any darkness in my environment. It reminded me too much of the darkness lurking inside of me.
There are no words to describe the severity of the guilt I felt. Guilty I wasn’t more grateful to be a mom, especially after struggling to get pregnant. Guilty that my baby was so wanted and now I didn’t want her. Guilty at how much I was looking forward to going back to work. Guilty my daughter was stuck with me as her mom. At my lowest point the guilt was so bad I considered leaving my daughter with my husband while I went to stay with my parents for a while. I felt so guilty I could hardly look at the beautiful baby right in front of me. You don’t even deserve to be around her. Do her a favor and just leave.
Out of sheer stubbornness and a burning desire to stick it to the man, I stayed. I was scared and confused but there was just something that always kept me with my daughter. We made it through those early days together and I interacted with her as best I could. We took walks, did tummy time and played with rattles and toys that played music. I smiled and laughed and cooed, even if I was faking it. She always just stared at me with her big, beautiful eyes. I don’t think she was quite sure about me either.
I muddled through a quicksand of darkness for six weeks. Six weeks of pitch black.
And then…the light.
My husband and mom knew I was struggling and were as supportive as possible, but the monster kept me quiet about how deep the darkness really was. Don’t tell anyone. No one else will understand. They’re going to think you’re an awful person. I know my own mama felt protective of me. It broke her heart to see me struggle so badly. She sat me down one day and told me how much she loved me, but that from someone standing outside of the darkness it looked like I was experiencing symptoms of postpartum depression (PPD) and anxiety (PPA) and that I should think about talking to my doctor about it, and that it was OKAY.
The crazy thing is I knew all about PPD and PPA. Professionally, I worked with postpartum moms every day and even screened them for symptoms. I knew I was at a higher risk for developing perinatal mood disorders because of my pre-existing mental illness yet still, I hadn’t seen it in myself. I thought it was the kind of thing that happened to everyone else, just not me. The denial is just what the monster wanted. A light in the darkness would expose its ugliness, so it never ever wants to be found.
I didn’t have all the answers but I knew I’d do anything to make this go away. I very reluctantly spoke with my doctor and made the decision to go back on medication. I took the decision pretty hard. It brought up all my old feelings of failure and dysfunction and I was too exhausted to process anything else emotionally. I was just trying to survive.
The day of my doctor’s appointment was rough. My daughter had been crying all day with no nap and my husband had to work late. The darkness was making my chest heavy so I wrapped my daughter in the Moby and walked up and down the sidewalk outside my house, sobbing and shushing and patting and praying to God I had to the strength to make it until my husband or mom could relieve me.
I didn’t realize my neighborhood’s community garage sale was going on around me until I was almost back home. Baby clothes and toys in the garage right across the street caught my eye and I was always up for a good bargain, so I popped in before I went back inside. That’s when I met one of my angels. I met a nice couple around my age who had a daughter about a year older than my own and they offered me some of her old stuff for free. The mama was so warm and kind and said if I ever needed anything to let her know. I think she saw the exhaustion and desperation in my red, puffy eyes. I was floored I’d never met her before when I could literally see her front window from my front window.
Everything in its own time, I guess.
A couple hours after I got home my daughter had finally fallen asleep in the wrap. SILENCE. I tried to stay away from social media because it just made me feel worse but that day I needed a distraction from my own head. As I scrolled along with my daughter sleeping on my chest, I saw a message in my inbox from someone I’d never met before, so I thought. I studied her picture closely. It was the mama from across the street. She sent me a message saying that I might be feeling totally fine, but that if I wasn’t, it was okay and I wasn’t alone and she was there to talk any time. I couldn’t believe she reached out that day, of all days, because I was actually feeling the furthest thing from fine.
We messaged back and forth and she shared how she too struggled immensely with PPD after her daughter was born and made it her mission to reach out and support other struggling mamas, mamas like me. Our friendship sparked immediately. I still don’t think she fully understands what she really did for me that day. She threw me a lifeline when I was drowning. There was a certain level of comfort and connection I gained from someone who walked my walk, my deep, dark walk, someone I knew would understand free of judgment because they’ve been there. She gave me light in a sea of darkness. The ugly monster still lingered but now…now it was scared.
A couple days later I was sitting with my daughter in our front window seat. This had grown into one of our favorite pastimes together. I needed the light and the air and she loved to watch the cars and the birds. I propped my daughter up on my legs so we were face to face, and that’s when it happened. She smiled for the first time…AT ME. She smiled at her mama. She cooed and squealed and drooled and smiled at me all day long. She didn’t cry at all that night, nor did she cry any day or night after that. She came out of her darkness that morning, and she was loving me right through mine. My heart grew a thousand sizes that day.
Day by day I grew stronger and more sure of myself. My confidence grew in caring for my daughter and I started to smile and laugh more often but this time, from the heart. The good moments started to outweigh the bad. I started to eat regular meals. The medication kicked in and I was able to catch my breath. I started seeing my counselor again and learned how to silence the ugly monster enough until one day it grew bored and left me altogether.
There’s no way I could have done it alone.
I don’t know how I got lucky enough to have such an amazing village. From my parents to my siblings, to my boss and my co-workers, to my friends and neighbors and extended family to my husband…MY HUSBAND…heck, even my dog. They had every opportunity to dismiss me, minimize my feelings, or say any of the other clever, well-intentioned things people say when they don’t really understand mental illness, but they didn’t. Not a single one of them. They knew my heart well and knew I was feeling so awful that if I could have possibly controlled what was happening, I would have long ago. They refused to give up on me and fought hard to pull me out of the darkness. They lifted me up when I couldn’t stand and helped me put the broken pieces back together again.
And there were definitely broken pieces.
The ugly monster left me with a lot of aftermath to clean up. I worked through a lot of anger and bitterness to accept the ways my brain was forever changed just because the monster chose me. Almost four years later, I still take medication and the claustrophobia lingers. I still have to have the blinds and curtains open, though I’ve settled on keeping the windows closed on yucky days. I developed a mild case of misophonia, where certain sounds trigger some pretty intense responses, like trying to hulk smash the ceiling fan when it wouldn’t stop clicking. Certain frequencies, baselines, rhythms, or clicking noises still make me grit my teeth.
I’ve grown to love my little quirks now, though. They make me me. My daughter’s mama.
Healing the wounds of postpartum depression has been the hardest battle of my life. I still have bad days where I feel the sting of resentment towards the monster for stealing those early days away from my baby and I. Good ol’ father time always brings perspective, though, one that I definitely wasn’t expecting.
I’m actually SO grateful for that ugly monster. That’s right. I’m glad it chose me and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Once it left, I had a whole new outlook and gratefulness for motherhood, and for life in general. I was able to fall in love with my daughter in a way only a rough start like ours could bring. Had I not experienced the darkness on the other side, I wouldn’t know how bright the love between a mother and her baby really feels. Once I crossed over, my daughter and I were like honeymooners. We made up for lost time and spent every waking moment together. I never took a single moment for granted. I developed a resilience and fierce inner strength I never knew I had. Any problem life threw my way was nothing compared to the hell on earth I’d already been through.
I was on top of the world because in all the ways I was changed by the monster, I was changed by her love even more. And for that I’d go through it all over again in a heartbeat.
Now my daughter is literally the air I breathe, the life in my lungs and the blood in my veins. She is my beating heart walking outside of my body. The smell of her head still makes me weak in the knees. I daydream about her, play hookie from work to spend time with her, travel with her, plan special days with her, and race to pick her up at the end of every single day. We take mommy and me photos together every year not just because it’s cute, but because it’s my ultimate middle finger to the monster. I fought the good fight and I won the greatest prize of all. I don’t have to fake it in pictures now. I’m head over heels for her.
If you’re struggling with PPD, PPA, or any other perinatal mood disorder, there’s a few things I want you to know., from someone who’s been there.
I want you to know that you’re not alone. There are so many of us out there. If you’re guilt-ridden by your thoughts please know there is literally nothing you could think that we haven’t already. Don’t do this alone. Lean on your village and lean on them HARD. If you don’t have one, we need to find you one. If you don’t feel safe enough to talk to anyone you’re already close to, find a support group, a counselor, a doctor, an online community, find ME. It takes a village to raise a child but it takes a village to raise a mama, too. Let others lift you up.
I also want you to know from the bottom of my heart, I’m sorry. I’m sorry the monster chose you but something else I want you to know about the monster is that IT LIES.
She’s better off without you.
They’re ALL better off without you.
You’re an awful mother.
You don’t deserve him.
You’re not doing it right.
You’ll NEVER do it right.
Everyone hates you.
You can’t do this.
You’ll never make it.
They’re all lies. I know they’re awful and you can’t help but believe them, but none of them are true. I know you can’t just toughen up and be grateful and happy. I know it’s not that simple. I know you’re fighting and I want you to know your baby will love you through it. You are amazing. You’ll grow stronger than you ever thought possible and you WILL smile and laugh again.
From someone who has come through the other side, I promise that the victory is worth fighting for. Forge ahead. If you feel like you don’t have anything left and you feel like giving up, I want you to remember one thing, the most important thing of all…
You’re a goddamn warrior mama. Don’t ever forget it.