My postpartum depression came as a surprise to me.
Although I hadn’t wanted children at all, when my husband expressed a wish for them we were able to negotiate and finally come to an agreement that we would have one or two.
The pregnancy was fairly easy from a physical standpoint, but I did have some problems with the emotional and psychological aspects of it. My identity as a childless-by-choice woman was harder to shed than I had anticipated. In addition, I had some depression during the pregnancy. It was expressed mostly in tears and unreasonableness toward my long-suffering husband. Once, I got angry with him for being called in to work on his day off, and I stayed up all night cleaning the kitchen, “just to show him!”
The birth of my son was traumatic in that he was two weeks overdue and had to be surgically extracted via C-section. I had strong fears of needing a surgical delivery, and my fears came true. I was terrified.
The procedure was not as bad as I’d feared; however, when the nurse shoved this scowling, slimy bundle of human flesh at me, she was met with a look that made her withdraw the baby instantly. If my husband hadn’t stepped in and taken the baby, he would have been whisked away to the nursery.
The whole breastfeeding thing was unpleasant. Painful and awkward at first, it gradually evolved into an unwelcome duty that I had to do. Besides, I hated washing dishes and didn’t want a lot of extra bottles in the sink, but we soon discovered that formula of any kind made my son violently ill.
La Leche League assured me that nursing would become a magical bonding experience. That was not the case. In fact, I didn’t have any magical bonding experiences with my son. I fed him, bathed him, and took care of him, but not with any sense of love or wonder. It was more out of a sense of duty, devoid of any passion.
I still remember a woman at church approaching us to coo over my son. She clasped her hands over her heart and asked, “Did you ever think you could love anything this much?” I didn’t know what to say, mainly because I didn’t know what she was talking about. I loved my family and friends at least as much as I loved my baby. I loved my son because I was supposed to.
Gradually I came to love my son, especially after he started smiling and playing—that is, when he began to “give back.” Even through months of detachment, though, I still didn’t have any depression. I had been expecting it, considering how emotionally difficult the pregnancy had been, but I was fine for months.
Then it hit.
My son was just shy of ten months old, and suddenly I was completely useless. It wasn’t just sadness and tears with dashes of insanity like the pregnancy had been; it was rage, hopelessness, and despair. My son became the cause of everything bad in my life. Money was tight, and I blamed the baby. My husband was distant, and I blamed the baby. My friends stopped calling, and I blamed the baby. My parents nagged at me because they were concerned that I never left the house, and I blamed the baby. My carpal-tunnel flared up, and I blamed the baby.
My beleaguered, patient husband gently pointed out what was going on, and I went to see a doctor. I started taking Paxil, an antidepressant, and started going to a postpartum depression support group at the local hospital. I joined a respite care organization for home parents who just need a few hours a week away from the baby. These changes improved my moods greatly—and I was even considering going off the Paxil—until I had a huge setback.
My husband got a job overseas and he took it for two reasons: 1) he’d been unemployed for some months, and 2) when I was in my right mind, I really wanted to go. So when my son was fourteen months old, we sold off most of our household, packed up what was left, and went to live in the Netherlands.
In the big cities over there everyone speaks English; however, we ended up in a tiny, historic Dutch village where very few people did. Isolated not only by language but also by culture and transportation, my depression drastically worsened.
We didn’t have the money for me to go into Amsterdam all the time, where everyone spoke English and there was a big Mothers of Preschoolers group. I tried to learn some Dutch from watching the subtitles on the television shows that aired in English, and I did achieve a basic conversational level—enough to ask directions or tell someone where the bathroom was. But it wasn’t enough to begin or sustain a friendship, or describe to a doctor my son’s symptoms when he got sick.
Traveling with a baby in a pedestrian society was insanely difficult for me. We didn’t have a car, so I mostly biked everywhere, though sometimes I took the bus or train and brought my son in a stroller. The simple logistics of traveling with my son often defeated me. When he had a blowout in his diaper, we often didn’t have a change of clothes. When he got hungry, we didn’t have a lot of snacks.
I didn’t realize how much it would complicate travel without a car full of essentials for the baby. I had to carry everything I might need for the whole day, from groceries to clothes to diapers. I longed to travel more, but it was just way too much work to make it happen. I continued to take the Paxil, and I think that’s the only thing that made it even somewhat bearable.
Finally, after months of spending a week at a time without leaving the house, only leaving for necessities, things started to improve. I made a couple of local, English-speaking friends, one of whom also had children. My friends helped me get out on a regular basis as we made a point of getting together at least once a week to go to the outdoor markets. I also answered an online advertisement for an English tutor and began traveling to Amsterdam two evenings a week to teach a Spanish woman so that she could get a job at an English-speaking company.
My son was older now and could play by himself for longer periods of time. The other young mother and I began to swap off watching the children for short periods of time. My other friend decided she wanted to get some experience with children and offered to babysit from time to time. I hired a regular babysitter (or childminder, as they call it over there) to come over for three hours twice a week.
The combination of childcare, friendship, medication, and time eventually began to heal the worst of the despair. Learning a bit of the language, becoming capable of living in a foreign society, and getting a paying job, even if it was only thirty euros a week, all started making a difference.
Most helpful of all, though, was my husband’s unwavering support. All through my pregnancy craziness, the dispassionate caregiving of the early months, and the total rage and anguish of the actual period of depression, his love, sympathy, and practical assistance never wavered. That was key. He was there for me when I needed reassurance that the periods of blame and anger directed at my child didn’t mean that I would ever act on them (and I didn’t) or that I was a bad person (and I wasn’t).
The child-focused anger was bad enough, but it was nothing compared to the soul-killing guilt that I felt over that anger. I needed frequent reminders that my thoughts and feelings weren’t rational and could not be trusted. I needed reassurance that I only felt that way because of the depression, and that in my right mind I’d never have those feelings toward our child. My husband was great at keeping his head, keeping his objectivity, and keeping me sane.
By the end of our time in the Netherlands, I had gone off my medication. I had been getting out regularly and keeping my house clean. I had also gained another student to tutor. When my husband’s contract didn’t get renewed, I was fully prepared to go home. When I got home, I got a full-time tutoring job almost immediately, and life shifted back into high gear. It was wonderful. I still had brushes with depression, anger, and hopelessness—it turns out that I have seasonal affective disorder as well—but it’s nothing like it was for those two years.
Today my son is ten years old, and at each stage of development I’ve said to myself, Now this is really the best age. My painful memories of his first three years are burned into my head, and I deeply regret that I have lost those years and can never get them back. However, I think that I’m a better mom for having had that experience.
Mothering comes naturally to some women, but for those of us who really have to work at it, I think we do it more deliberately, more intentionally. Having to think about every parenting decision and constantly examine my motivations and feelings (and having to weigh what’s good for my child against what’s good for me, and, most important, to keep that balance equal and not martyr myself for my child) makes for good parenting.
I love my son more than I ever believed possible. I feel attached to him, and he to me. He has no memory of my crazy periods, and we have taken him back to Holland for a visit (and to heal some of my memories of the place), so his only associations with Europe are good ones. We are trying homeschooling this year for the first time and liking it very much. We took our son out of school this fall to make a long, three-month trip around the country in a twenty-foot RV, and we know that he’ll have those memories all his life.
We are having a wonderful time together, and I thank God daily for my son.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
Even for those who never planned on motherhood, the rewards will come. Not only is Andrea now enjoying being a mother, she feels like an even better mother as a result of going through PPD. Here are some of her lessons:
— Strong partner support can make an enormous positive difference throughout the process. Andrea received continuous, non-judgmental support from her husband—a major building block for recovery.
— Incorporating at least some type of childcare provides much-needed breaks—plus friendship—and plays an important role in regaining mental health.
— A little known fact (except among those who specialize in this field) is that PPD can begin anytime during the first year following delivery. Andrea is not alone in being surprised about the onset of her illness months after her baby was born.
— Isolation makes us high risk for PPD. Please avoid being alone with the baby, day in and day out, without support. In this case, lack of transportation and the alienation of language and culture contributed to the isolation and therefore the depression.
— Instead of martyring ourselves as mothers, we must instead learn how to find that harmony between our needs and those of our marriage and child(ren). Otherwise, we burn out and it backfires onto those we love.
Photo by Anne Worner CC BY 2.0