It is one thing to study postpartum depression as a professional and it is a whole different matter to experience it personally. As a counselor, I knew the signs of the disorder but while experiencing it, I was oblivious to their symptoms. Fortunately, I had a wonderful doctor who quickly and accurately assessed the different situations following the births of my three children.
Baby #1. I’ll never forget the moment I realized something was wrong. Our three week old baby woke me up out of a dead sleep with cries of hunger. In one dazed motion, done with almost no thought, the baby was picked up, my breast was exposed, and the feeding began. The tiny squirming was indication that my supply was insufficient probable due to lack of sleep. I cried, feeling like a failure, wondering if things would ever get better.
After six hours of sleep, divided in thirds and separated by an hour feeding routine, my supply was back in full force. Our baby was premature, with both the pregnancy and birth being traumatic. Nothing was “normal”. Our baby was attached to a computer sized heart monitor, had to be weighed before and after all feedings, and had a very the strict feeding routine. Despite the structure, our baby and I would go though at least five changes of clothing a day due to the projectile vomiting and my constantly leaking breasts.
All of the fantasies of a Norman Rockwell mother and baby moment were shattered and I was left feeling inadequate and defective. Having experienced only limited amounts of depression in the past, this constant sadness was shocking. I was ashamed, embarrassed, and too afraid to tell anyone my true emotions, so I faked it. Fortunately, my doctor didn’t believe the façade and upon seeing me, immediately prescribed some mild anti-depressant medication.
After two more weeks, I felt more like myself despite the continued routine and excessive doctor’s visits analyzing our baby’s progress. This gave us hope that things could be better the next time, so baby number two was born only 18 months later.
Baby #2. This pregnancy was still high risk with a different type of traumatic birth, although not as overwhelming as the first. As a naturally born optimist, I thought that this time would be better and there was no need for concern of postpartum depression. Because I knew what it was from before, I would just “will” it to be perfect and everything will be fine. After all, a little dose of positive self-talk can solve everything. Right?
Wrong. Once again woken up in the middle of the night with cries of hunger, I picked up baby number two. Before the feeding could begin, I started sobbing uncontrollably. I had thoughts that I was going to die and she was going to be abandoned by me. Then I was scared that she would die in her sleep and abandon me. Strangely enough, the harder I cried the quieter she became as if my tears were a sufficient replacement for food.
Once the tears started they would not stop. I cried in the shower, while chasing after baby #1, during TV commercials, and nearly every time I fed baby #2. No amount of “happy thoughts” worked. In fact they only turned on the water works even more. It was time for a visit to the doctor. As soon as he entered the room, the sobbing began yet again. I was unable to even get a single word out. In his compassion, he gave me a hug and wrote out a prescription for a slightly stronger anti-depressant.
A couple of weeks later, I was feeling better. So, naturally it follows that baby #3 would be born only 18 months later.
Baby #3. Unlike the other two pregnancies and births, this one was completely uneventful. In fact, I was shocked that the birthing room was not filled with 25 extra doctors and nurses. It seemed so strange and dangerous but I was told that this was “normal”. Having walked through my previous two postpartum depressions, my doctor was adamant that I not leave the hospital without a filled prescription for an anti-depressant. He gave me strict instructions to take the pills at the first sign of any tears.
I don’t know if having the pills on my nightstand provided some comfort or the lack of an intense birthing drama helped keep the depression away, but it was different. Despite the high energy of baby #1, having three kids ages 3 and under all in diapers, and a husband who was out of town most of the first month of baby #3’s life, I never got postpartum this time.
Here is what I learned from experience and not my counseling classes:
- Postpartum is a hormonal condition so some of the normal treatments of depression are highly ineffective and potentially could postpone the effective treatment of medication.
- Waiting to get help with postpartum is dangerous as it can and often does get worse. In some cases, a psychotic break can happen which is might be deadly to both mother and child.
- The symptoms of postpartum come in waves of emotional intensity. Sadness, feelings of overwhelm, lack of sleep, disinterest in care of self or child, withdraw from others, lack of child attachment (or clinging too tightly to the child), and uncontrollable outbursts are all indicators of postpartum.
- Since postpartum is not about the mother or the child, but rather is a hormonal issue, there is no shame in having it. It is not an indication of a being bad mother.
- The only danger to having postpartum is not being honest about having it and refusing to get treatment.
- Millions of women have this condition, so there is comfort in numbers. A person who has this is not alone in their struggle.
- Every pregnancy and birth is different and therefore postpartum should be assessed each time regardless of past history.
It is my hope that by sharing my personal journey with postpartum that others will be blessed and some will even be inspired to seek professional help.