I don’t know for certain that I had postpartum depression (PPD). But, since 80% of mothers struggle with depression either before or after a baby’s birth– I’m guessing it’s probable.
My story goes like this. I was 32 years old when I had my first baby. Although I had experienced success in my career and had lots of wonderful opportunities in my adult life, all I ever really wanted was to be married and have a baby. I couldn’t wait to be a mom. But, when that dream was fulfilled, I felt anything and everything but euphoria.
Truth be told, during my first pregnancy I battled ambivalence and a general feeling of malaise about the whole “preparing for baby” thing. I hated the fact that this baby was making decisions for me; like what I could do and what I could eat. I felt guilty for not being more excited. When other people were giddy with enthusiasm and offered words of congratulations, I felt even worse. I worked really hard to hold back the tears during almost every prenatal doctor’s appointment. I wondered, “What is wrong with me? Why am I so sad?”
After he was born, I cried. A lot. I felt completely overwhelmed. I was more tired than I ever imagined I could be. I was frustrated that mothering was so hard. I tried to follow Babywise and that just made things worse. It wasn’t working. I couldn’t control this 10 lb. baby. I couldn’t keep him from crying and I couldn’t make him sleep; no matter what I did. I couldn’t enjoy him because he stressed me out so much.
I can’t remember when the feelings of sadness started to go away. But, it never once occurred to me that I could have postpartum depression. I had to take a 5 question PPD quiz every time I took my baby for a well visit (that was the standard protocol at the military hospital we had to use) -and most of the questions were about whether or not I wanted to hurt myself and if I had a hard time eating. No, and definitely no. So, I decided perhaps I was just let down by my expectations, putting too much pressure on myself, or something along those lines. I was sure I had something going on, but PPD was never a consideration.
After the birth of my second child, sixteen months later, I felt just fine. I attributed it to a new found confidence in my mothering abilities. I had shredded my copy of Babywise. My little girl was a great sleeper and spent far less time crying than her older brother. I had learned to survive on less sleep and could practically do nighttime feedings without waking up. I was doing just fine and my mood seemed to match. I felt overwhelmed with love for my baby.
Enter child number 3. He was a wonderful eater and sleeper. The most calm and happy baby I had ever seen or experienced. And, yet, I was a mess. I had the whole baby-care thing down, but I felt sad most of the time. Strangely though, I really didn’t cry much. I reasoned myself into thinking I could figure out what was wrong. I could always identify the suspected “cause” for my sadness. I’d blame it on my husband, something that had happened that day, the older kids’ behavior, etc… But, it was always something. For the better part of 6 months I felt like I was on edge, annoyed, mad at the world, but, most of all, just plain sad.
Something else was going on in my head that really concerned me. Starting at about 4 weeks postpartum, I was having thoughts about hurting my baby. Not thoughts of wanting to hurt him, but thoughts that were telling me how to harm him. It was mortifying. No, make that terrifying. I was afraid to share this with anyone because I didn’t want to be institutionalized. Yet, I felt I needed to let this secret out so that if I went any crazier someone could stop me from doing something I’d regret.
I found the courage to share my challenges with my husband. Then I went to see a counselor. Ironically, the counselor suggested I go see my doctor, and when I saw her, she suggested that I go see a counselor. I was more than ready to go on meds if they would have made me feel normal again. Yet, neither professional acted as if I was saying anything really alarming. In fact, no one wanted to write me a prescription or admit me to a clinic, with one exception. I got a prescription for sleeping pills and was told to take them for about a week and see if anything changed.
It did. And, I’m happy to report that by the time my third child reached seven months, I was feeling mostly back to normal. I have since had yet another baby and am again at seven months postpartum. I have felt fairly normal throughout. I have had my days of tiredness and moods, but no apathy, sadness or harmful thoughts.
So, did I have PPD? I don’t know. But, I do know I had some of the signs. And, I also know that if I didn’t have it, and PPD is worse than what I went through emotionally, then I have a whole new level of empathy for moms who get the official diagnosis. I’m thankful that my problems were mostly gone with a few weeks of solid sleep. But for some moms, the struggle goes on much longer and runs much deeper.
During one of my dark days I purchased a book called The Postpartum Survival Guide. One of the authors is Paul Meier, M.D. — a nationally recognized psychiatrist who practices right here in the Dallas area (www.meierclinics.com). The book is interesting and it helped me a lot. It talks about what lack of sleep can do to the average Joe (example of a guy who thought the TV was talking to him and went to get psychiatric help for schizophrenia — problem was he had gone a week without any sleep watching March basketball tournaments), making it obvious that a lack of sleep combined with a new baby is going to have its repercussions. It also talks about the role of nutrition in keeping you balanced. My diet of crackers and applesauce (so as not to upset my breastfeeding baby’s tummy) was apparently not helping my cause.
Postpartum depression is real, no matter what Tom Cruise claims. If you are struggling with sadness, ambivalence, hopelessness or all of the above, I hope that sharing my story might give you the courage to open up about this topic and, most of all, get help if and when you need it.