If having a baby can feel as though someone has pulled the rug out from under your life, then postpartum depression is experiencing that but with all the lights turned off.
Even the sun is muted. Darkness rolls in and leaves you adrift in the chaos, feeling around for something–anything–familiar and comforting. For some, this season of motherhood is fleeting, perhaps lasting only days or weeks. For others, it can settle in, taking us out of one year and into the next.
My daughter’s birth wasn’t the unmedicated home water birth I’d prepared for, but instead an emergency c-section in hospital. The trauma of surgery combined with mourning the loss of a natural birth and severe sleep deprivation left me reeling. A combination of the c-section and subsequent birth trauma, mourning the loss of a natural birth, shock, and extreme exhaustion was the perfect recipe for postpartum depression.
The first night at home unfolded in a jumble and I remember only jagged parts of it. Trying to eat a slice of toast then standing at the back door gasping for air, because even that was too difficult to wrap my head around. Finally I was placed gently on the sofa by my husband, propped up by pillows and told to sleep. You must, he says. Sleep while the baby sleeps.
After that night I ached to feel “normal” but it felt as though my old life was slipping even faster through my fingers. Once loved foods tasted different; my clothes felt awkward on my body; while my daughter slept my mind raced and I lay awake for hours. I was desperate for rest and holding onto reality with the white knuckled fear of losing it. I was anxious all the time. My heart raced. I was fearful of my daughter waking up and even more so of her being asleep. My house smelt different. I would sit beside my husband on the sofa weeping for how much I missed him–and us.
At my lowest ebb I planned my escape. I had convinced myself that my daughter would be better off if I weren’t with her. At the time I told my husband these words: “I don’t want to leave her, but I want to leave.” Late night online searches found me an early morning train to Edinburgh. In my mind I rehearsed packing my bag, placing it in the wardrobe along with my breast pump and booking a taxi. For almost a week, these plans were all that kept me calm, knowing I would soon be gone.
My husband took me to the GP and within weeks I had a diagnosis and a prescription. I continued to ask for help and so any time a well-meaning health visitor, midwife, friend or relative gave me a piece of advice, I followed it without question.
I hired a lactation consultant and kept her plan next to me at all times, spending more time staring down at that dogeared piece of paper than at my beautiful girl as I nursed her. Our doula gave me a book–the third or fourth I’d read by this point–and I made us all miserable by obsessively following its schedule for days.
And yet, my baby remained her own little mystery. She came out a fully formed and unique person. Nothing was working. She was already a perfect version of herself.
Adrift in a sea of feeding and sleeping routines, I had simply lost my bearings. The waves of new motherhood crashed over me, leaving me feeling overwhelmed, frightened and alone. All I’d wanted was a map I could follow that would bring me safely back to shore, to my old life, and the me I was before.
Slowly and with the gentle help of my loved ones I was able to work through the postpartum depression and return (forever changed) to myself. I stayed on the tablets for one year and then gently weaned myself off them.
There are still hangovers from that time and I now find my emotions simmer much closer to the surface than they did before becoming a mother. My maternal rage manifests itself at bedtime and usually after a back to back run of bad nights, where my daughter has woken every hour and can’t/won’t be resettled by anyone but me.
The all-consuming and unconditional love she has for me begins to feel overwhelming and I want to claw my way out of my own skin. It is those evenings, when she’s finally asleep, that I feel ready to commit cold blooded murder. I am incandescent with fury. And that’s when I know–or have to be gently told by my husband–that I need a break.
I am just a mother, who needs to mother herself. Now I know, almost 18 months into this mothering journey, that suffering from postpartum depression takes a lifetime to recover from. But I’m also able to say to the mothers reading this, that your babies will grow and as they do that, so will you.
You’ll grow into the skin that you never thought would fit you. The days will get easier and the nights will eventually find their rhythm. Phases will come and go, you’ll watch them, no longer afraid but more curious to know what will be coming next.
You won’t have all the answers but you’ll find the ones you need. Ask for help and accept it where you can. Care for yourself.
Search the face of the one you hold in your arms, because that’s where the love burns for you as the brightest light. The one that will bring you home, to yourself – your mother self.
But more than anything else, know that you are not alone. All the other mother selves are right there with you. Turning on the lights when you can’t.
You are loved.