It has taken me 3 and a half years to write this, and I’m still panicked as I think about putting the words on the page.
This is my postpartum depression story.
I’ve kept it to myself because of the shame that creeps up every time I try to tell the truth of how bad it got.
First, it’s worth mentioning that postpartum depression symptoms vary widely. Some women report mild symptoms more commonly known as “the baby blues,” crying at the drop of a hat, or feeling like they’ve lost their spark. Some report feeling lazy, tired, uninvested, or disengaged. Some report feeling inadequate – to the point that some mothers convince themselves that their family is better off without them.
And then there’s the postpartum anxiety side of things, which some scholars assert is more prevalent than postpartum depression. Most new moms have some degree of anxiety – some of which is a normal, evolutionary and biological response to the need to keep baby safe. Normal anxiety becomes classified as postpartum anxiety when the fears extend beyond the expected concerns of keeping the baby fed, clean and protected. I’ve heard stories from women who describe an unhealthy fear of the dark, or a fear of driving, or anxiety so crippling they literally hid in a closet. I’ve heard of mothers developing postpartum OCD and obsessively checking to see if the baby is breathing or avoiding bathing their baby altogether because they are worried about burning their child.
One common, yet often unspoken, symptom of postpartum depression and anxiety is the intrusive thoughts.
Intrusive thoughts can come in many different forms – from terrible visions of something awful happening to your baby, to constant, debilitating “what if” statements that end in tragedy, to convincing yourself that someone is out to get you.
We all have a voice in our head that narrates our experiences and shapes our perception of reality.
When you’re healthy, well-rested and hormonally stable, that voice is usually pretty easy to understand, even if it’s not always 100% accurate. But when you have postpartum depression, sometimes that voice goes rogue, and starts to weave a story that will scare the living bejesus out of you.
See, here’s the thing about intrusive thoughts: in the cloud of exhaustion and hormonal flux, you can’t always tell which thoughts are yours and which thoughts are intruders.
You will think to yourself how much you LOVE your child, you would give anything for her. You can’t imagine how you would live if anything happened to her. Then suddenly and often without warning, your mind tricks you into thinking you might be the one to cause her harm. In that moment, you become your own worst fear.
You might be scared to talk about what’s happening in your head, either because you worry you might speak it into reality, or because you’re ashamed that your thoughts have taken such a terrible turn. That shame may linger long after the intrusive thoughts have gone.
And that’s why this has taken me 3 and half years to write.
I have two daughters. My first birth was, with no exaggeration, downright amazing.
After 19 hours of labor I pushed her into the world vaginally. She arrived into a calm, dim room with music playing, and I had my husband at my side. The nurses placed her on my chest and I felt a bliss I never even knew was possible. In that moment I felt empowered, triumphant, and so in love.
We had a few hiccups to work through with breastfeeding, but what I remember about the postpartum period after my first birth is just pure wonder and amazement. Sure, I had some mood swings, but nothing near postpartum anxiety or depression. I remember feeling like I never wanted my maternity leave to end. I was smitten.
My second birth and immediate postpartum experience was much different.
After an easy pregnancy, my second daughter turned breech at 37 weeks. Not just any breech position, but footling breech, with one foot stuck in the birth canal. We had no choice but to do a C-section. I was a good sport, and of course remained as positive as I could throughout the experience, but it felt cold, clinical, detached. I wasn’t prepared to be the last one to hold or see my baby. I wasn’t prepared to be so drugged up that I wouldn’t remember her first 24 hours. I fell asleep with her on my chest in that drugged up state, and woke up hours later, realizing she could have fallen off the bed at any moment. I hated myself for that.
Shortly after she was born, we realized she had a lot of oral issues that were preventing her from feeding effectively. She was tongue-tied, lip-tied and bucchal-tied on both sides: she had not one but FOUR oral ties that made it nearly impossible for her to eat from breast or bottle. Her sheer exhaustion in trying to eat combined with the pain medication I was taking meant she would fall asleep almost immediately every time she nursed. I stopped taking the pain meds the day after major abdominal surgery in an effort to help her gain weight, and though that pain was unlike anything I had ever experienced, in my mind I had no choice.
For two weeks, she lost weight, steadily. We watched, hopefully and patiently at first, and then fearfully and urgently. We took her to the doctor every day for weight checks, and every day felt like the clock was running out, faster and faster. Though my milk had come in just fine, I supplemented with formula right away in an effort to turn the tide. It still wasn’t enough, and our pediatrician rushed us into a pediatric tongue tie specialist to perform laser release on her ties. Finally, at two weeks old, her weight loss plateaued.
Even still, for a month we had to make up for lost time, which meant I had to triple feed. The pattern was: nurse, pump (because she wasn’t yet able to extract all the milk), bottle feed. It was a 2-and-a-half-hour cycle that ran around the clock. That meant I only ever slept for 30 minutes at a time, for a month. The exhaustion was like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. I understood why sleep deprivation was used as a tactic for torture.
At some point during that month, we also discovered our baby girl had laryngomalacia, a condition that causes airway restriction. She would wake abruptly from a deep sleep, suddenly gasping for air. It happened so often that, on a regular basis, I was terrified that one day I would wake up and she would no longer be alive.
Recounting all of this now, it’s no wonder, really, that I ended up with postpartum depression. To be honest, though, I was so concerned with her that I didn’t even notice the early symptoms.
That first four weeks, I was in total survival mode. It was one day at a time.
All I could think about was keeping my baby girl alive, and learning how to handle two kids while caring for my still-healing body on no sleep.
But then, the screaming started. Somewhere around 3-4 weeks, it was as if the hunger our baby experienced the first couple weeks of her life caught up to her and, GOOD LAWD, was that girl hangry. She was pissed. She couldn’t eat enough, and she wanted EVERYONE to know that she was not going without food ever again, dammit. Pair that hanger with the reflux she had developed from the laryngomalacia, and the screams were blood-curling. I swear our neighbors probably thought we were hurting her.
In those screaming episodes, she only wanted me: the mom who felt like she was neglecting her two-year-old, who still had a hard time getting up and down and walking around. She would rarely calm down with her dad or a grandparent. Both my mom and my mother-in-law have always been extremely helpful postpartum: both just jump in when they need to and aren’t afraid to get in the trenches. But once, after my mom tried for an hour to get her to calm down, she brought the baby to me, defeated, and said, “I just don’t know what to do for her,” and handed her over, screaming. It was unprecedented. In that moment, I felt like the weight of the world was riding on my shoulders, alone.
So, day in and day out, my baby screamed for me in between gasping for air and eating non-stop. I felt depleted. There were no breaks. It was just 24 hours of fear, anxiety, and utter exhaustion rolling into the next 24 hours of the same, without end.
It was just before my 6-week postpartum doctor’s visit when the intrusive thoughts started.
Maybe I should have seen signs. I am ashamed to say that a few times, during her screaming episodes, I lost it. I never shook her, I never hurt her, but I raised my voice at a baby. I demanded that she stop. I cried tears of frustration and told her I couldn’t do it anymore. I told her I couldn’t help her. And then I hated myself.
The nights were always the hardest. Not necessarily because I wanted to be sleeping (though that was certainly true), but because anxiety is always more potent in the dark. Something about the still, silent darkness makes anxious thoughts come alive. And of course, nights are also the most isolating. A mom who is struggling to manage her fears and stay awake while holding her baby feels the most alone at night, with no one to call, no one to turn to, no one on the street passing by to remind her that life will return to normal, at some point.
One night, I was standing, bouncing my baby, trying to get her to settle down. I was frustrated, and at the end of my rope. In a moment of desperation and anger, I heard a voice in my head say, “You could just let go.”
A vision of me releasing my grip, my baby dropping to the floor, and walking out of the room tore through my head like a tornado that I couldn’t outrun.
And then, just as quickly, another voice. This one sounded different – calmer, safe. “Put her down and walk away,” it said. I started sobbing. I gently laid my baby down in her crib as she kept crying, and I walked out of the room.
I have no other explanation for that voice of clarity except that it was the work of the Divine, intercepting a very scary situation.
For an instant, I felt like I was going to be the next headline, and I wondered: what happens to the moms who don’t hear the second voice? What happens to the moms who are so consumed by the intrusion that they can’t see straight? What happens to the moms who are drowning in their own shame?
After that happened, I didn’t speak a word of it to my husband, my mother, or anyone else. I was so incredibly ashamed that I had the capacity to think something so evil.
I couldn’t even bring it up at my 6-week appointment. I sat in the waiting room of my OBGYN’s office staring at the florescent green sheet of paper with all the questions they were required to ask. “Do you feel attached to your baby?” “Have you felt scared by your own thoughts?” “Have you had thoughts of harming yourself or your baby?” I couldn’t answer them. I don’t remember what I wrote, but I’m pretty sure I lied.
Thankfully, my doctor saw through it all. She knew I was struggling. Without explaining any details, I burst into tears in the examination room as soon as I opened my mouth to say hello. I told her, “I think I’m fine. I am going to be fine.”
But I was not fine.
“I think you may have postpartum depression,” she said.
“You and your baby have been through a lot. It’s common when babies have health issues – often the mom experiences postpartum depression.”
Immediately, I felt relieved. I felt seen. I was vulnerable, and she accepted it. She asked if I wanted medication. I turned it down, feeling like the first thing I needed to do before taking meds was to get some fresh air, get out of the house and get moving. I needed to feel some semblance of normal life again, to break the isolation. And if my baby wasn’t going to be calm anywhere but on my body, maybe a hike was just what we both needed. My doctor gave me the ok to exercise, even wrote a prescription for it, and told me to call her immediately if it felt like it was getting worse.
I’m thankful to say that after that day, things improved drastically for me. While I never ruled out medication, it was my last resort, and I committed myself to seeking help, writing and getting outside. I still couldn’t speak the terror of my intrusive thoughts, but I COULD put a name to what I was experiencing. I gave myself permission to admit I had postpartum depression, and allowed myself to forgive my struggle.
I didn’t need to be a warrior, and I didn’t need to be a victim. I just needed permission to believe that those thoughts were not my own.
I needed to know that I wasn’t going crazy, that I wasn’t a bad mom. I needed to allow myself out of the downward spiral of shame. When my doctor called postpartum depression by its name – something I struggled to do alone – she gave me permission to forgive myself.
So here I am, three and a half years later, taking the final step toward releasing the shame that has plagued me since those dark postpartum nights.
I’m elated to say that I have two happy, healthy daughters, who have since shown me the best life has to offer. My screaming baby has turned into the most joyous, goofy child, whose smile lights up every room she enters. She grew out of the reflux and the laryngomalacia, her appetite still floors me, and she still loves to snuggle, when she can sit still. She brings laughter to our family daily, and while she still occasionally screams when she’s adamant about something, I know that outspoken passion that will make a big difference in the world someday.
If you are struggling with intrusive thoughts, postpartum depression or anxiety, know that you are not alone, though it may feel that way at times.
You don’t have to be strong, and you don’t have to remain silent. In fact, your true strength lies in speaking the terrifying truth of what so many of us know too well. Find one person, just one, that you trust, and tell them about the thoughts that cloud your reality. Getting those thoughts out of your head is the first step to freedom.
And if you know a new mom, check in on her. Ask her how she’s feeling – even 6 or 9 months after giving birth. Open yourself to the possibility that she may be struggling, that she may not know if she’s doing a good job or if she will get through it. Hold space for her to talk if she wants to, and if you have any concerns, express that in a safe, non-threatening, direct way. Most of all, help her to realize that there is no shame in asking for help, or in admitting the depth of her darkest thoughts. In doing so, you give her permission to forgive herself and heal.
If you are looking for a village of virtual support during the postpartum period, join The Better After Baby Jumpstart, starting June 17, for FREE. Click here to sign up.
Saralyn Ward is an award-winning writer, wellness advocate, and mountain mama. She is the founder of The Mama Sagas, writes for several publications and hosts a regular parenting TV segment on Colorado's Everyday Show. When she's not huddled over edits, you're likely to find Saralyn climbing peaks or skiing down them, and reminding herself that the two little girls that call her mom are not the boss of her.