CW: Postpartum Depression & Anxiety
“Did you ever think you could love something this much?”
Sometimes the most innocent words spoken at a particular moment can pierce your heart and expose the shame that scurries to the shadows, trying to remain unseen. My smile felt awkward and unconvincing. How could I tell the pediatrician—a wonderful, gentle elderly man whom I loved and respected—that my brain knew the right response but my body was crumpling into itself from the shame of how I really felt? I held my newborn for her one week check up, anxious for the topic of conversation to turn away from me and onto her. If we could just get through this appointment…
When I was pregnant, I had heard a friend’s husband warn my husband to be on the lookout for postpartum depression. I had had an almost visceral reaction to the idea that I, of all people, would ever struggle with depression. That was something that happened to other people. Not me.
It came anyway, although I didn’t know “depression” was the word for what was happening to me. I thought becoming a mother had fundamentally changed who I was, and I didn’t like the new Lindsay. She was anxious and on edge, desperate for help but incapable of entrusting the baby to anyone else’s care. The days and nights rolled together in a months-long haze of trying to get my baby to eat and to sleep, often to no avail. I tried to force myself into the joy and gratitude I knew I was supposed to be feeling. I can’t imagine that has ever worked for anyone, but I had to try rather than face the fact that I felt, deep down, that I was Not a Good Mother.
|This is what depression looks like.|
The worst moment was ten years ago, and I still think about it. I was rocking my colicky, sleepless baby while she cried, and I began to cry, too. An insidious thought crept into my mind: She would be better off with a different mother. The thought scared me, and through my tears, I began to sing the most desperate plea through halting gasps, “Jesus loves me… this I know…” I was trying to mother myself while I held my baby girl. I was unable to console her, or myself, again. Still. If attachment forms through cycles of distress and relief, how do you develop a healthy attachment to an inconsolable baby? All I could do was remain present, but often, it didn’t seem to make a difference.
When I summoned up the courage to mention that my mental health was not great at my six week postpartum check up, the doctor dismissed my concerns with a flippant, “Oh, that’s just the baby blues. Everyone feels that way.” What I took in was the message that motherhood made people feel this way, it was normal, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I got better, slowly and gradually. I didn’t realize how bad it had been until about a year later, when I started to feel like myself again. I was relieved that I could be a mother and still feel like me. When my second daughter was born, I was at least less surprised by the experience. I knew better what to expect, and that it would eventually get better. I felt more sure of myself as a mother.
The new doctor who had delivered my second daughter took one look at me at my six week postpartum appointment and said she wanted to give me the the screening for depression. When she left me alone in the room to fill it out, I felt almost smug. I knew I was doing significantly better this time around than the first time. I couldn’t possibly be diagnosed with depression this time. I approached it like a high school math test I had been studying for for weeks, sure that I would ace it.
After she scored it, she said the words I’ve learned to dread hearing from doctors: This is not normal. She said it wasn’t “the worst she had seen,” but that it wasn’t normal, and she offered me a prescription for an antidepressant. Once again, I realized how dire the state of my mental health was the first time I had postpartum depression, by comparison, if what I was experiencing now still warranted a diagnosis.
In my experience, the sneaky thing about mental illness is the shame attached to it. The anxiety and depression were hard enough to deal with, but the shame lingered long after my mental health began to improve. I had turned it all into a performance, hoping that if I tried hard enough and had enough faith, prayed enough, and did all the right things, I would learn whatever lesson I was supposed to learn and could move on with my life.
At this point in my journey, on the other side of two rounds of postpartum depression as I still live day to day with anxiety disorder punctuated by panic attacks, I would say that the lesson is to let go of the expectation that I can overcome any difficulty and put a bow on it before moving on. Some things are never resolved. Sometimes, we have to keep living, day to day, moment to moment, with really hard things that we can’t control and that may never get easier.
I’ve learned to stop the seemingly positive self-talk of telling myself how “well” I’m doing on days or in situations when my anxiety is unexpectedly low or absent because I don’t want to reinforce the oh-so-tempting belief that my self-worth is tied up in performance. I’m working on noticing and welcoming the moments when the struggle subsides and I can embrace joy and peace with ease and gratitude. When my anxiety is high, I remind myself that I am just as loved in those moments as in any others and that anxiety does not equal failure. God loves all the parts of me—even the squirrelly ones!—so I guess that means that I can, too.