Crocheted hearts by Sabahnur.
I have read countless birth stories and spoken to plenty of new mothers and each time, I am scanning the page or scanning their eyes in hopes of finding a story like mine. One that isn’t beautiful or precious or ends with a picture of a blissful mother cradling her child. And not one where the child is unhealthy or, God forbid, doesn’t survive. I am looking for the one where the baby is perfect, the delivery was textbook and yet the mother holds her new baby in her arms and feels…nothing.
Let me back up. I struggled for over a year to get pregnant, finally turning to IVF. I was very lucky and got pregnant on my first try. My pregnancy was the absolute best time of my life. I was healthy the whole time, rarely tired and stayed active. Years of struggling with my body image and appearance gave way to a feeling of absolute peace with myself. I felt beautiful for the first time in my life. A life where I often hated even looking at myself in the mirror was replaced with one where strangers were complimenting me on the street!
The world just rose up to greet me, in so many ways. I loved having my belly touched (I know so many don’t!), I loved discussing my due date, baby’s gender, name choices…you name it, there wasn’t any intrusion into my personal life that I resented. I was so proud, so excited to bring a baby into this world that was so full of loving people.
At 2am on December 15th, I started having contractions. I had been working a night shift the evening before, so I had only gone to bed a couple hours before. What I didn’t realize at the time was that that was the last time I would so much as shut my eyes for the next 48 hours, a fact that I think played a major part in what was to follow. I labored at home for a little more than a day (after being sent home on my first attempt to be admitted) but I was blindsided by back labor, which made it impossible to even get out of bed. Any loss of counter pressure on my back was excruciating and even with it, the pain was constant. My partner finally convinced the hospital to take me the next day. They started an epidural and I had immediate and complete relief. My desire to have a natural childbirth faded when given the option to end the excruciating pain! The next 12 hours were a return to my blissful pregnancy. I felt no pain. I loved the kind attention of the staff and the excitement that we would soon get to meet our baby.
At 11:33 on the night of the 16th, my son was born. When my partner placed him on my chest, my first thought was that his nose was huge. Really, that’s it. I felt no connection to him, through a bit sad that he was no longer a part of me. It felt perhaps like a bad arranged marriage…you are supposed to build your life with someone who you just met and you’re having reservations. Everything leading up to this moment had convinced me that there would be an instant connection with my baby and a part of me immediately sensed something was very wrong.
We finally got to our room around 2am on the 17th. At this point, I had been awake for a full 48 hours or, since I had only been asleep for a couple hours when my labor started, I’d had two hours of sleep in the last 56 hours. Looking back, I was clearly somewhat delirious from sleep deprivation but I didn’t know enough to take care of myself. My world as I knew it had ended and the idea of putting me first to heal before I gave my whole self to my baby was so contrary to everything I thought was appropriate. This theme would continue for months.
I spent the first night in the hospital plotting my escape. My son was a horrible sleeper initially and couldn’t be put down for more than about 20 minutes before he’d wake up crying. This theme would also continue for months! But having only been a mother for mere hours, I was too afraid to sleep while he slept in my arms so I continued my sleepless stretch. When my partner was holding him, I was in the dark, crying, wondering how I could leave, whether my friends and family and partner would forgive me for leaving my own child. I cried most of the remainder of my hospital stay. The nurses chalked it up to the “baby blues” so I did as well. I had read somewhere that they usually last for about two weeks, so I was secretly holding onto that timeframe. It’ll just last a couple weeks and then it will be better.
Things didn’t get any better when we returned home. I cried more often than I didn’t. My son refused to be put down so we held him in our arms all night and day. I was afraid all the time. I dreaded the long, scary, lonely nights and the fear would set in every day at dusk. Considering this was the middle of December, dusk came way too early every day. I dreaded the long lonely days after my partner returned to work. I had no appetite and barely ate. I continued to wonder how I could leave, desperately wanting to fall down the stairs or contract some horrible illness that would force someone to take care of me, to fix me and to give me a break. But I wouldn’t allow myself any breaks. My mom and sister came to visit after about three weeks and, while they did allow up a couple nights of blissful sleep, I insisted on always being with my son. I really believed that I might never want to take him back if I allowed someone else to care for him without me. The idea of not taking care of him was so tempting; I was convinced that I had to be there all the time. I didn’t trust myself. I honestly believe I would have given him up if I hadn’t been so afraid that my friends and family would ostracize me. The idea of this now is so horrific and shameful to me, but it truly is how I felt.
I knew about postpartum depression but it seemed too convenient an excuse. Having a diagnosis would mean this wasn’t my fault and I was convinced I was a monster. I was convinced I was too selfish to want this baby and that I was not the good person I always thought I was. But a part of me hope, desperately hoped, that it was PPD, which meant I could do something about it. That part of me reached out for help, thankfully fairly early on. I started seeing a therapist who specialized in PPD and went on medication. I was hoping for immediate relief but that wasn’t to be. The medication actually made my anxiety worse initially. But I was too desperate to stop so, with help from my therapist, my dosage was adjusted until things began to improve. I’d have a string of really good days, only to be unable to get out of bed on others. But slowly, things began to shift for me. I was absolutely convinced I would never be able to love my baby but gradually, it began to happen. Within four months of giving birth, I was feeling joy again and the overwhelming love for my son that I expected in the beginning.
Post partum depression took so much from me and my son and my partner. What should have been a time of celebration was a time of such darkness. My son was formula fed because the stress of breastfeeding was crushing me, pushing me further from him. And while I am pro-feeding-choice, I would have loved to have that time back to make my decision about breastfeeding with a clearer head. I’ll never know what my son felt in those early days, whether he knew on some level that my love wasn’t there and whether he carries any of that with him today. On most days, I feel confident I masked my feelings enough to provide him with everything he needed in those early days but on others, I can’t help but question each thing he does and wonder if it is a reflection of some disconnect created right after he was born. That doubt is my depression’s darkest legacy.
My experience did have some positives, however. I do believe I see the world differently. I will never know what kind of mother I would have been had a not been depressed; however, I do know that I really don’t sweat the small stuff anymore. Once I made it through the darkness, things in the light just don’t look that bad. I have also developed great empathy for others and a better awareness that none of us really know what anyone else is going through. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say that if I could go back and do it over again, I wouldn’t change a thing, but I have definitely squeezed as much good out of it as I can. Take that, depression.
So that’s my birth story. I just reread my first paragraph and I realize that my birth story does end with a blissful mother holding her child! It took a lot longer than expected but here I am!
From Colette Sanborn.
Note from Design Mom: throughout my 6th pregnancy, I posted reader-submitted advice, memories and stories about pregnancy, childbirth, adoption and growing a family. My baby is hardly a baby anymore — here’s her birth story and her newborn photos — but the series has been so popular that I’m continuing it indefinitely. You can find all the stories in this series by clicking here. Have a story you’d like to share? I’d love to read it. You can send it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.