I walked a lot in the first months after my son was born because it was the only way Jack would sleep. I walked on fall days that were as crisp and colorful as a postcard, and into the winter when Portland, Oregon, is blanketed with heavy clouds. In early December, I stopped at a flower shop and bought two large poinsettias. I walked home with the baby nestled against my chest, his head on my heart, and one festive plant encircled in each of my arms. A man stopped and held his fingers out in the interlocking L’s as if framing an imaginary picture. “Super Mom,” he said.
I thought perhaps I should be offended by this man’s unsolicited attention and assumptions, but the truth was, I felt proud. At least from the outside, I looked like a good mom. I looked happy.
Depression has always been my grown-up version of the monster under the bed. While I couldn’t say for sure that I’d experienced it firsthand, I always sensed it was close. Fending off depression seemed to take constant vigilance, and I feared that after having a baby, I’d be tired and distracted and my tendency towards rumination and self-doubt would quickly spiral into full-blown despair.
Jack was not an easy baby. He cried constantly, not from colic but from a more general uncertainty about the world. If not being bounced rhythmically on our big green exercise ball, he would wail until his red face was frozen in a silent scream. He only slept if I held him. He also spit up constantly, not a milky dribble, but violent slingshots of vomit. Still, through all of it, I felt calm and present. This was hard, but everyone had said it would be. There was no room to think about anything except this small, furious being, and my brain welcomed a vacation from its own incessant chatter.
Jack’s first birthday was a stunning September day, and we celebrated in the park. In the photos, I’m smiling, holding him in one arm and the string of a balloon in the other. I was celebrating my own milestone as much as his: we’d made it through the tough first year. I felt certain it would only get easier from here on.
On the same day Jack turned one, I packed up the tubes and bottles from my breast pump into their black carry case and tucked it all away on the top shelf of my closet. While I still planned to nurse at bedtime, pumping at work was a nuisance and I was ready to stop.
Soon after, fatigue hit me like a tidal wave. My whole body felt heavy; my brain seemed waterlogged, soggy, and slow. I gained weight and lost motivation to exercise. It became difficult to focus at work. The glossy sheen of new motherhood had worn off and left behind a duller version of myself.
Jack walked and then ran, said his first words and then his first sentences. I watched him trot around the playground, with his doughy cheeks and mullet of shaggy curls, and I felt lucky as a heads-up penny. But as my joy at being a parent grew, my joy at being a person withered.
A few months later, I cut out nighttime breast feedings. The fatigue and fogginess began to feel more like hopelessness. My husband and I bickered constantly. I cried in the mornings before leaving my son for work. I knew that when I picked him up at the end of the day, I’d feel fuzzy-brained and unaccomplished. I began to wake up in the middle of the night gripped by some large but unnameable fear.
The phrase, “I’m dying inside,” ran through head like a screensaver on my otherwise blotted-out mind. Once, when the words escaped the trap of my brain and passed through my lips, my husband overheard and stared back at me with a mix of horror and concern.
It didn’t occur to me that my depression might be related to weaning, until one day when I was pulling on a pair of jeans that I’d bought just a few months ago. Now I couldn’t pull them up over my hips. My body had seen tremendous ups and downs over the past year. I gained over fifty pounds during pregnancy, and then, with the help of a ravenously nursing baby, shrunk down to a size I hadn’t been since my wedding day. After weaning, my weight crept up again.
Was it possible that my body wasn’t the only part of me experiencing new highs and lows? Didn’t it make sense that my mind and my body were riding this roller coaster side-by-side, squeezing each other’s hands? I did an internet search for depression and weaning, and found a plethora of blog posts and comments from mothers who’d experienced it, but little scientific research. The closest I got to science were a few quotes from doctors acknowledging that there is very little research on the topic.
However, it all seemed to make sense: the less I breastfed, the more miserable I became. While breastfeeding, my brain had been marinating in hormones designed to keep me feeling calm and content. In the absence of those hormones, the depression I’d always feared lurked somewhere close began to show its head.
It’s likely there were other factors involved too. Perhaps my mood change was a result of sheer exhaustion, after returning to work full-time and with a baby who at one still didn’t sleep through the night. Perhaps it was due to my dawning realization that the physical and mental freedom I’d had before parenthood was gone, not just for a year, but for the foreseeable future.
Still, I wondered, if depression was even a small risk after weaning, why had nobody warned me? I’d been screened for postpartum depression at every prenatal visit and even Jack’s early pediatrician appointments, but I’d never been told that I might not experience the symptoms until much later. If I’d known, I may not have avoided it, but I could have at least prepared myself and my family for the possibility.
My descent had been a fast drop, but climbing out was a slow chug. Reading articles urging moms to “take ten minutes a day for yourself” felt like an insult, as if needing more than ten minutes for myself marked me as weaker or needier than the leagues of other working moms out there who could fulfill their own needs in less time than it took to cook a frozen pizza.
So I adopted a more intensive self-care approach. I deleted facebook from my phone to minimize the time spent admiring other people’s pretty lives instead of focusing on my own. I found a therapist I liked, and I actually went back week after week. I took vitamins and sat in front of a “happy lamp” while I worked. I journaled and jogged and drank more tea and less wine and fed my body as well as I knew how. And every night, before whispering goodnight and slipping out of Jack’s dark room, I spent a few minutes sitting beside him with my eyes closed, just breathing.
In time, my energy returned, slowly and surely as color to a near-frostbitten limb. My brain cleared, decisions came more easily, and so did laughter. I remembered who my friends were and why they might actually like me. I ran in the park, and felt grateful for the strength and utility of my own limbs.
Jack turned two and we celebrated with family gathered around our dining room table for pizza and a bus-shaped ice cream cake. I tied a balloon to the arm of a chair, and Jack sat in his booster seat at the head of the table. He drank milk from a sippy cup and clapped heartily as we finished a warbling rendition of “Happy Birthday.” As I watched him attempt to sputter out his three candles, I felt light, hopeful, and alive. I leaned over and together we blew out the last flickering flame. We both need one to grow on, after all.