Real Talk: Postpartum Depression

The experience of motherhood for the second time has been such a gift. As many of you know, John and I struggled for years to conceive. Our journey to create a family included every fertility treatment under the sun as well as a healthy dose of sadness and loss before we were blessed with Oden in 2016. He felt like- and IS- nothing short of a miracle! We knew, with a little batch of healthy embryos on ice, that we’d try for a sibling for Oden sooner than later (‘cuz we’re, ahem, old). Considering our track record, we probably should have been more prepared for some bumps along the road to Baby #2. But we were surprised when our first attempt yielded a negative pregnancy test. A fluke, maybe…and then it happened again. I had to regroup and remind myself that for us, children are not a given, and we have more than we dreamed of with Oden. Still, we tried a third time.

To be honest, I know people say “It’s never the right time!”, but it was a bad time to add a new baby (and that bundle of stress) to our lives. John and I were going through some very trying times as a couple which was sort of the difficult baseline that affected everything else. We also moved into a new house, one of the most stressful things a couple can experience, and it was NOT a smooth transition. And during the period between Thanksgiving and Oden’s birthday in March, I was constantly sick. I visited the ER twice. Bronchitis developed into pneumonia and an injured rib from coughing. I was simply trying to do too much and the effects of stress and anxiety manifested into physical illness. I had piled too much on my shoulders (and heart) and my body gave out. My parents came into town to support us while I was sick in bed. I was legitimately depressed. I lost at least 15 pounds! My body and mind were not in shape to conceive or carry a baby. After the many injections, prep, and procedure, I don’t think I believed for one second that our third embryo transfer would be successful.

Because I spotted some left over in the bathroom, I took a pregnancy test on a whim one day, way before the official blood test was scheduled. I remember looking down at it as I applied makeup, blinking in disbelief at the faint second line on the test that meant it was positive. I drank a glass of water and took another test, thinking that one must be old or defective. There was that faint second line again. I went to the store and bought another brand of pregnancy test. There was no denying it- in the midst of the hardest time in my life, I was pregnant. The blood test confirmed the news and we were treated to multiple ultrasounds early on to see our little bean wiggling, its heartbeat chugging away!  It’s hard to describe that feeling of excitement and joy that I felt, paired with an unfamiliar fear in my gut. All signs were pointing to the fact that this was the wrong time to add a baby to the family. I wasn’t healthy, physically or mentally. Looking back, I think I had an unspoken expectation that I would lose the baby in those first few months. Truly, John and I would exchange glances after each checkup, silently surprised that this little being was not only growing, but thriving! With each confirmation that the baby was healthy, more and more joy and excitement filled my heart.

Despite the amazing reality that we were going to be blessed with another family member, our struggles didn’t end, and neither did my depression. I did my best to hide it. A wonderful thing about being pregnant is that it encourages you to take good care of yourself. It wasn’t just about me anymore! I watched a bump develop far earlier than it did with Oden. I ate well and spent a lot of time outside with a rambunctious 2-year-old. I loved wearing summer dresses with a growing belly, something I didn’t get to experience with Oden. My children became my focus, even if the rest of my life was not so positive. My folks visited and helped sort through baby clothes and prepare the baby nursery. I squealed at the tiny baby clothes and daydreamed about baby names and watched this belly grow and grow (and grow). I cried tears of joy when we learned we were having another boy.  I included Oden in everything I could and felt my heart swell when his little voice talked to “baby brudder” through my belly button. I was certainly trying to hold it all together- motherhood, pregnancy, supporting my husband during a trying time, staying optimistic about the future. But there was no denying the pit in my stomach that wouldn’t go away. My new baby worry list was already long, but as the months went by, I added “postpartum depression” to it.

Maybe like me, when you hear “postpartum depression,” you think about the terrifying stories of women who harm themselves or their baby. Those are the extreme cases of something else called postpartum psychosis. But I think it’s important to differentiate PPD from normal new-mom feelings. I’m not talking about being exhausted. It’s not just about having mood swings and being overwhelmed and a fresh batch of hormones. Most new moms experience some level of the “baby blues” after giving birth, and it can last for a couple of weeks. PPD is far more severe. It can last for months, even years. The symptoms might show themselves immediately after giving birth or might take months to appear. PPD can include all of the signs of the baby blues- inexplicable sadness, anxiety, irritability, trouble with appetite, trouble with sleep, uncontrollable tears- but the feelings are far more intense and last longer. PPD also can include feelings of anger, hopelessness, guilt, shame, panic attacks, withdrawal from normal life… the list is long and frightening. The irrational is somehow rational in the depressed mind. Many people don’t think PPD is real; they say that all new moms feel like that, nothing is worse for you, and make judgments about your weakness. They simply don’t understand because they haven’t experienced it.

Months before Morrison was due, I started researching the warning signs for postpartum depression. I talked with our doula about what to watch out for, knowing that with my recent life challenges, I could be a prime candidate. Some things can contribute to the likelihood of experiencing PPD, like major/traumatic life events during pregnancy or a lack of a strong local support system (check, check). I wanted to be prepared. I felt like if I was informed and kept my eyes open, I could recognize symptoms before they occurred and nip it in the bud. Well, that’s not really how it works. While there might be things that increase your chances of it, anyone can experience postpartum depression. It’s a common complication of pregnancy that doesn’t discriminate. I recently Googled “celebrities with postpartum depression” and the list was long. People who seem to have everything, the ones you would think have no reason to be depressed…they can suffer, too. And anyone who has been exposed to depression knows that it’s not always blatantly obvious, nor is it consistent or constant.

So I kept the information I’d learned in the back of my mind as we barreled into the holiday season, ticking off the days until Little Brother would change everything with his arrival. I did my best to keep the train rolling, to make the season magical for Oden and make happy memories for this unique time in our lives. And then Morrison arrived and we entered that confusing, incredible time of life that only a newborn baby can bring. Oh, the sweet newborn smells! The feeling of his perfect skin on my own. The challenges of breastfeeding. The spotty sleep and constant bloodshot eyes. The sounds of this new being, now breathing and wiggling outside of me, needing me completely. The tiny fingernails and toes that beg for nibbles. The memories of this time with newborn Oden came rushing back. There’s nothing like those first weeks with a brand new baby, and it goes by far too quickly.

Despite the wonder of that time period, I didn’t feel good, and not just because of the limitations during surgery recovery. Not just because it was the dead of winter. I felt like an alien in my own body. I snapped at loved ones constantly. I cried uncontrollably. I told myself it was the massive hormone overload. I told myself I was just really, really tired. But as the days and then weeks passed by, each blissful new-baby moment was tempered by some kind of negative thought or feeling about my life and my worth. I started to re-read the notes I’d taken during my research. I read the symptoms of postpartum depression. As I mentally checked the boxes, it became clear that what I was experiencing was, indeed, some form of PPD.

While that realization was somewhat reassuring and I could give a name to my confusing and scary feelings, it didn’t make them disappear. I was confused about why I felt this way after Morrison was born but not after Oden. With Oden, I certainly had moments of feeling like a failure at everything I attempted and broke down in exhausted tears on many occasion. Why was this time so intense? I struggled as a first-time mom with Oden, but this was not the same. Everyone’s experience can differ. For me, PPD reveals itself on some days more than others. I’ll have a series of great days, soaking in the joy of being a mom, facing toddler and newborn challenges with confidence and a sense of humor, letting go of the minor slip-ups or undone chores that don’t really matter. I can laugh at the chaos of this stage of life. I mostly feel like a tired version of myself (who could probably use a shower). Other days, I can almost tell before I get out of bed that something is off. Every tiny thing that goes wrong is somehow a devastating disaster. I’m irritable, impatient, angry, sad. I’m more exhausted than is probably normal for a new mom. I feel the weight of the world on my shoulders and every mistake I make reinforces the feeling of hopelessness in my gut. I feel like I need to drop everything, get in my car, and escape. I start to wonder if I’m losing my mind a little bit, knowing full well that a baby cries to communicate and toddlers are sometimes demanding and my husband can’t possibly do all of the house chores I’d like him to, but I can’t handle it.

And that brings the guilt. For me, the guilt is the most damaging part. WHY? Why am I so horrible? Where has my gratitude gone? I have a spacious home, a husband who has time to be present in his children’s lives, more than one caregiver…why should I be depressed? Why am I taking on a victim role? Why can’t I manage this? Why can’t I search for the bright side, like I preach on this website? Don’t I have everything I ever dreamed of? Why can’t I snap out of it? It’s a dangerous spiral; I act in a way that I don’t like, I’m aware that I’m doing it, I feel horribly guilty about what a bad mom/wife/friend/human I am, which sends me deeper into a pit of despair. I look at my beautiful boys and think to myself that I’m failing them completely. I’ll go to bed with Mo, physically and emotionally drained from the day but knowing I won’t get much sleep overnight, praying that God will give me more strength and patience and joy tomorrow.

I visited my OB for my 6-week postpartum checkup and casually mentioned that I might be experiencing some baby blues. Let me tell you, they hopped right onto that train. Postpartum depression can be very serious and can sometimes stick around without treatment. The nurse had me take a survey (Do you think about harming yourself? Do you think about harming your baby?). Despite the fact that we all agree I’m not a risk to myself or my family, my doctor recommended a temporary anti-depressant to help get me through this challenging phase. I said I’d think about it and picked up the prescription to have on hand, just in case things got worse. I wasn’t on board with medication for multiple reasons: it takes a couple of weeks to kick in, it can be challenging to wean yourself off of it, and I know this is a situational depression. Also, my doctor explained that while it would bring my low points UP, it would bring my high points DOWN. Honestly, I need those high points right now! I don’t want to mute the emotions of this fleeting time in my life with small, amazing children. I talked to John about the option. He knew something was wrong, but listened as I described how I’d really been feeling. I reminded him that I’d been through a painful and depressing divorce, one of the worst times in my life. Back then, I’d found my love for hiking and visited my therapist every week for 2 years; somehow I’d avoided medication to get through that. He pointed out the obvious differences- regular exercise and therapy. We decided together that I’d try that formula first before trying the medication.

Did it work? Well, that remains to be seen! As any mom with young kids can attest to, it can be challenging to find time to invest in yourself. I’m taking it day by day. Most days are normal, with hard moments and precious moments. Some days are not. In addition to raising these two boys I’ve been blessed with, I’m trying hard to focus on doing things that I enjoy, like reviving this website, spending time writing, and breathing fresh air outside on the trails. I recently committed to a one-day therapy and self-love themed event with 20 other women and felt a sense of community I need. I also learned some tools I can use in the moment to help me re-focus on the good. I’ve scheduled appointments with my therapist to talk through my feelings. As I’ve discussed here before, I’m a huge believer in therapy; sometimes that objective voice showing you a different perspective can really make a difference. I pray a lot. And last, I’ve taken the vulnerable step of sharing this publicly with readers. PPD feels in some way like battling infertility- it’s surprisingly common but strangely isolating because there’s a sense of shame that comes along with it. I want people to know that I am unendingly grateful for my life and my children, and spend most days thanking God for these gifts. Even now, having a good day with a sweet, sleeping nugget strapped to my chest, I question sharing the words I’m typing. But I think it’s important for people to know that postpartum depression is common and that it’s real. Maybe by sharing my experience, someone else will feel better, knowing that they aren’t crazy and that people care. Maybe by sharing my experience, I’ll feel better, knowing that I’m not crazy and people care about me.

If you suspect someone you know is dealing with something difficult, even if they haven’t mentioned it, check in with them. Check in again. Even that small gesture says that they matter to you and can make a world of difference!

“Life isn’t about waiting for the storms to pass…it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” – Vivian Greene

For more information about postpartum depression, try here or here.

For more about my experiences with professional therapy, read this or this.

5 Comments

  1. I truly love your column and love seeing your family grow. Hang in there it will get better. Kudos to you for sharing your story. Much love and prayers coming your way.

  2. Amber,
    Thank you for these words of truth; for being open, vulnerable and honest about what many women go through. You are brave and strong even when you feel you’re not. I often say silently to myself, “you don’t have to be perfect as a mom/wife, just love enough”. I pray it gets easier for you sooner than later. I’m glad you are thinking about antidepressants as a last resort. You rock momma! ps… your home looks beautiful!

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