I was twenty years old when I became pregnant with my first child. Although my partner Robby and I had been living together for less than a year, we were in love, and wanted to have a child together. We will all be fine, we thought.
Looking back, I realize how truly unprepared we were for the whole thing. We had no experience as parents. We had no family or friends nearby. We had not a shred of support that we could rely on.
At the time, it didn’t seem like such a big deal. I had been researching natural childbirth options, tuning in to my intuition, and just knew I wanted an unassisted childbirth, one with only Robby and I present.
This choice, however certain I was about it, alienated us from our family and friends. Most of them were either not okay with my decision, or at best, unsure about it. The rest were just kept out of the loop. With so many negative reactions from those we did tell, Robby and I had chosen not to even mention it after awhile, which isolated us even more.
The birth went relatively smooth, and it was an extremely empowering experience for me—so empowering, in fact, that it ended up masking other issues that were affecting me more deeply.
My relationship with Robby gradually lost stability. I felt unable to safely communicate many of my feelings with him. When I did try to express myself, it came across as complaining. I felt criticized, invalidated, and confused. I was irritable, resentful, and depressed. I felt powerless in our relationship, which affected the way I behaved around him. All the while he was dealing with his own set of insecurities and unhealthy ways of expression. I didn’t feel supported, and I don’t think he even knew how to support me.
There were many dark days and sleepless nights. We experienced a spiral of negativity. Robby moved from job to job, unsatisfied and under pressure. There were a lot of factors involved that added stress to our lives. We ended up moving in with his mother at one point, which, despite its advantages, was ultimately the breaking point for me. So we decided to move back home to Guam and in with my parents, which was the breaking point for him. It was right around this time, when our little one was just over a year old, that I discovered I was pregnant with our second child.
The new discovery brought part excitement, part devastation. Really, it was a knock out punch. While the image of our first child having a sibling pleased me, the thought of being thrown back into the world of pregnancy, childbirth, and babycare terrified me. I couldn’t help but think, Wait, no, not yet!
I felt like I was losing myself. I had flashbacks of my up-and-down depressive state that occurred during and after the first pregnancy, and I feared that Robby wouldn’t support me emotionally through the second one. A part of me distanced myself to where I just wouldn’t turn to him for emotional support.
The second pregnancy was indeed both beautiful and rough, though not as stressful as the first. Our second child was born at home in the water, unassisted—exactly as I had wanted it to be. Despite the feeling that I had learned from past mistakes, and had done a decent job the second time in setting up more postpartum support, I still found myself reeling. I felt alone and overwhelmed.
Our firstborn was about to turn two and was very demanding. I was malnourished and plain wiped out, feeling alone and hating the world, stuck in survival mode and just trying to make it through one more day. I had this massive sense of defeat and often wondered what it would be like if I could run away and die, though deep down I knew I could never do it—which made me feel even more hopeless. It was getting out of hand, to the point where I sometimes expressed rage toward my two-year-old. That’s when it dawned on me that I was experiencing postpartum depression.
There were many resources available on the subject and I found comfort in other mothers’ stories. They helped me realize that I was not alone, and I was beginning to understand the extremely complex nature of PPD, with all the biological, social, hormonal, environmental, and psychological factors contributing to my overall distress. I tried to adapt on my own, but I just didn’t have the energy or mental clarity to see my needs, much less prioritize them. It was time to get some outside help.
I had contacted a few different therapists, even a psychiatrist, and found some help with one of them, but it wasn’t long before I realized that this person was not quite what I needed. Something didn’t feel right. That’s when I remembered seeing the phone number for therapist and author Dr. Shoshana Bennett in her book, Postpartum Depression for Dummies. I looked up the number and immediately contacted her. With a proactive tone in her voice and a way of lending validity to what I was experiencing, she instantly made me feel comfortable and safe.
From the get-go we came up with an action plan to address my most basic and immediate needs—we couldn’t fix everything all at once. First, I needed to concentrate on getting myself nourished, a process that began with something as simple as making sure I was drinking enough water. I also started making better food choices. Getting my strength back was the top priority. Next, I allowed myself some sacred time, which for me often comes with the simple pleasure of taking a shower. I also made it a point to take a breath once in a while and step outside whenever I started feeling a sense of overwhelm. These minor adjustments went a long way toward making me feel whole again.
Ever since I made the critical move to start taking care of me, so that I could have the energy to give to my family, my entire life changed. It was all very dramatic and emotional. Robby and I stopped acting out of desperation and found ourselves more in control. Sure it was rocky for a while as we made the transition, but the peace I was able to find in moments by myself was an indicator that I was on the right path.
My newfound energy led to a renewed enthusiasm for learning. Through my studies, I further explored the idea that creating my own happiness was a choice, which was a major shift for me. Granted, someone looking at my circumstances from the outside could easily deem them dire, but my attitude was quite the opposite. Even when I was crying on and off all day, feeling distressed, I knew deep down that I had turned a corner and that being happy was my choice. Again, that’s not to say that I always knew where I was going, but I was certainly more comfortable with the journey. Eventually, I regained faith—a hope that things were going to be okay, even if I couldn’t always see how.
Further empowerment came from not only taking some time to enjoy life but making it a priority. I picked myself a bouquet of flowers when I was feeling unloved or lonely. I read books that Robby would have made fun of me for reading. I joined a dance class for a few weeks. I allowed myself to “veg out” in front of the TV all day, and feel not one ounce of guilt for it.
If I ever slipped back into a pattern of unhealthy behavior toward my children, I did my best to own up to my actions. I apologized and let them know that I was trying to change my behavior. I included them in my transformation. I even asked for their help (yes, they were only one and three at the time) and let them know that the way I treated them sometimes was not okay, and it was safe for them to tell me so. I got out of my head and talked about how I was feeling—whether or not anyone was listening—and incorporated journaling into my daily routine.
Going to work full time was also a life changer for me, even though it took me a while to get there. During one of my darker periods, I had taken a job at a restaurant and lasted only four months. I was pumping breast milk, even giving into formula at one point—something I swore I would never do—and generally felt out of sorts. I had been struggling to balance responsibilities to my partner, my children, and myself, and a lot of my ideals surrounding motherhood were being thrown out the window, which caused pain and confusion.
It took me a while to discover that I am the kind of mother who, in order to keep my cool and focus on the bigger picture, needs large chunks of time where I am not being tugged on. It was extremely difficult for me to put my kids in full-time preschool, as it went against my ideals of being present with my children, but I finally recognized that it was best for all of us.
At present, I am loving the ages of my boys, now three and five, and we have a wonderful time together. Admittedly, I still have moments of anger, but I don’t feel out of control. I am able to better communicate with my children and anticipate my needs before things get out of hand. Best of all, I allow myself to feel down when I feel down, rather than feeling down about feeling down. I trust that any feelings of negativity won’t last for weeks on end if I just allow the feelings to be there. I give myself emotional support. I acknowledge when I’m having a rough time or when I have too much on my plate. And I let myself cry. I journal about it. I am proactive and look to things that might make me feel better, like blasting my music and getting some cleaning done, or allowing myself some time to relax for an hour—or even a day if I need it.
Our collective happiness is the result of my putting more effort into myself so that I have more energy to give to others, and releasing much of the guilt that comes from believing that I am being selfish for it. In short, seeking relief has finally become a priority and I now have the will to do it. I have come a long way in accepting what is me, all of me. I now know that I have no defect and there is a reason and blessing in everything. Sure, releasing that guilt is still a work in progress, but I know in my heart that even though my kids are away from me for almost ten hours a day, the reconnection that we have at night is worth it. Besides, I know that I am still healing, and my PPD won’t be forever.
Robby and I get along fine, though we now live apart. We still spend family time together, and disagree about some things, but there is definitely a different level of respect between us. I am proud of how he is making strides in his own life.
As for me, I am going back to school and it feels awesome. I’ve also been doing some activist work in my native Guam, which fulfills yet another part of my soul. As opposed to the despair that I had been feeling when looking forward, I now see infinite possibilities in my future and am taking one step at a time (okay, sometimes five) in consciously creating the life of my dreams.
It has taken some time and a lot of effort, but through it all I have been able to rediscover myself, get rid of the guilt, and realize something I really knew all along: As long as I focus on loving myself and doing what I can to make sure my children know they are loved—we will all be fine. And we are.
A Note from Dr. Shosh
Many parts of Michelle’s story are common. Often it takes time to recognize that you must first take care of yourself before you can take care of your family. Restoring yourself to an even better level can and will happen with the right help. With proper guidance, you’ll get there—just like Michelle did. Here are a few lessons from her story to help you on your path:
— Poor social support, especially from your partner, is a risk factor for PPD. Do what you can to set up a rock-solid support system before the baby comes to avoid loneliness and overwhelm.
— We don’t think clearly when we’re depressed. It’s crucial to have a go-to person or a team of people on the outside to give you the physical and emotional breaks and reliable reinforcement needed for recovery.
— Partners need help too. Mom understandably needs her partner, but don’t forget about Dad. Becoming a parent can be stressful for everyone and the supporter needs to be supported.
— Express your thoughts to those who are accepting and non-judgmental, which includes yourself. Michelle used journaling as a form or positive self-discovery and communication.
— Fill your body with nutritious foods and an abundance of water. Poor nutrition feeds depression. Recovering from PPD requires fuel on all levels.
Photo by Anne Worner CC BY 2.0