Hello new friends, people I don't know. And a few people I do. I want to get raw with you for a moment in the hopes that it may help someone else out there in the internet land. It feels vulnerable to talk about these things, so I want to ask you all to be kind. (CN: Postpartum rage, suicidal thoughts, intrusive thoughts)
I read an article this morning that threw me off balance in a big way. I found myself tearing up and feeling nauseous in the middle of my kitchen in Brewster, reading it on my phone while my four year old asked for a glass of juice and my puppy tore up the living room carpet. It's this article: Naked. Please go read it. It's short, but it spoke to me in a way that few things do.
After the birth of my twins, I was battered. Traumatized. Their birth and early infancy went exactly the opposite of what I had been dreaming of: unwanted cesarean birth, NICU stay for respiratory distress. My sweet, precious babies were so tiny, so vulnerable, and I couldn't provide them the most basic comfort of my touch because the nurses warned me that it would overstimulate them, and besides that they were wrapped in a cocoon of wires, tubes, and monitors that I didn't know how to interact with. They couldn't breastfeed, and instead of holding my babies I was hooked up to this milking machine that I hated every three hours round the clock. I had been literally opened up from my center, and the pain was blinding as I staggered across the street to visit my babies, because we had to be discharged from the hospital.
But I was ready for this; I did it happily because it meant that my boys could come home. And when they did, it was amazing. The first thing we did when they both were home from the hospital, after three weeks of worry and tears and sleeplessness, was to strip them down to their diapers and put them skin to skin with each other, and then all three of us together. And I thought that was the beginning of our happy story; I thought everything would be okay then.
But as the weeks and months went on, everything was not okay. I was not okay. I was getting through each day and each interminable, tortuous night. My babies were getting their needs met, and they were growing and thriving. Outwardly, everything was okay. And I used that outward measure to gauge how well I was doing. I was so pleased because as the winter went on, I wasn't feeling depressed in my usual manner. I told my family, when they asked about my seasonal depression, that I thought I was 'just too busy' to get depressed, that motherhood was good for me. I was too busy to worry about myself. I believed it, then. During the day. When I was smiling at other adults.
But in those long nights, in the long lonely days when I was alone with two tiny babies who never slept and only stopped crying if they were being constantly, intensively soothed, who needed and needed and needed, as all babies have to do, I did not believe that I was doing okay. I found myself crying almost as often as my babies did. I found that at the slightest hitch I was triggered into an incandescent rage that I chalked up as a personal failing, a deep character flaw that no one could ever know about and still love me. I had thoughts that didn't seem to come from my own brain, about how much better off my babies would be without me, about how what they really needed was a mother who could take care of them well and I should just kill myself so that they could have that opportunity. I was drowning, but in the light of day, when I was talking to another adult and the babies were quiet, it felt like I had blown everything out of proportion, like I was making a big deal out of nothing. I thought I was just being crazy.
The quote that opens the article I read this morning, from Kleiman's The Art of Holding in Therapy: An Essential Intervention for Postpartum Depression and Anxiety says so much about this:
"Vulnerability is not new for a postpartum woman. She has most likely opened her heart, she has opened her mind, and she has opened her legs to various levels of invasive inspection. She has learned how to bleed, discharge, defecate and lactate in front of strangers with little regard to judgment or consequences. I’m not saying that is easy to do, but she does it. It goes with the territory of giving birth. However, the vulnerability that comes with admitting you don’t feel like being a mother, or you regret having your baby, or you have thoughts of harming your baby, well, that is a state of nakedness that is simply too hard to bear."
This is so, so true. I had been exposed in every way imaginable throughout our experience of birth, but the idea of admitting what felt like my most basic and profound failings was too much. Unbearable.
And yet. Twice, I reached out. Twice, I shored up my courage and told someone I trusted how I was feeling. Those two moments were some of the most raw, vulnerable moments of my life. The most true. Moments where I dared to open myself up to whatever might come next, trusting that I would be met with love and understanding.
It pains me to say that that's not what happened. In both cases, I was met with outrage and anger. I was told that it was a cardinal sin to talk about my beautiful children that way, that I should be grateful for what I have because other women would kill for it. It was made clear to me that that kind of talk would not be tolerated. (And I don't want to vilify my loved ones with this; I feel the need to share that I have done a lot of processing about those two moments in my life, and I have come to grips with the fact that these awful responses came from a place of fear and worry and from the patterns that we have set up in our culture. They were told these same things, and they passed them on to me.)
And so I buried those feelings. I had let myself be vulnerable, and it had backfired. I pulled up my bootstraps and carried on. And, after all, we made it through. And there are some who would say that that meant I didn't 'really' have a postpartum mood disorder, that it wasn't that bad after all.
But. Let's unpack that a little bit. Here I am, eight and a half years later, still reeling from that feeling of being shut down because I needed help. Being triggered into crying by an article on Psychology today. Am I okay today? Yes. But it was a terrible way to learn how to mother, and there have been long-lasting effects, on both my mental health, and on my relationship with my first two children and with my partner. We've all had to do a lot of processing after the fact. A lot of picking up pieces and trying to heal them after the fact. A lot of recovery.
I want to propose an alternate scenario. What if, when a mother screwed up her courage to voice those deep, dark, terrifying feelings, we held her? What if instead of shutting her down out of our own fear and shock, we sat with her in that darkness for a while? What if we asked how we could help? What if we asked how much sleep she is getting and how we could help her get more? What if our community circled up around her so that she could feel loved, seen, supported? What if. What if.
What if we could do that starting now? What if, instead of asking the new mother in the grocery store if her baby is sleeping through the night yet (which is, frankly, a terrible question to ask), we took January Harshe's advice and asked her how she was doing? What if we really listened to the answer?
What if we took such good care of mothers that they never (or rarely) had to feel isolated, alone, exhausted, and judged? What if.
What if mothers knew that the trademark of a postpartum mood disorder isn't necessarily feeling sad or the inability to get through the day, but the emotional cost of getting through the day?
So I want to say this: If you love a new mother, and she opens up to you about hard, complicated feelings she is having, you have been honored. It is a mark of her trust in you that she is able to make herself so vulnerable. Please preserve that trust. Maybe you don't know how to respond; maybe you don't know how to help. That's okay. Just listen. Just love. Just sit with her in that darkness and do the next right thing.
And if you are a mother who feels like you are drowning, if you don't know how to ask for help, I see you. I hear you. I am you. Instead of gauging your feelings by what it looks like from the outside, instead of telling yourself that you're making a big deal out of nothing, reach out if you can. Keep reaching out. Your safe people are out there. We are waiting for you with open hearts.
Liz Libby is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and Certified Lactation Counselor, as well as a CAPPA Certified Childbirth Educator. She lives in Brewster, MA with her three wild boys, canine sidekick, and her partner . Find her at firstname.lastname@example.org