I was always a prime candidate for postpartum depression. On February 11 this year, as close to Valentine’s Day as possible—a perfect day, we thought, for fixing broken hearts—my 4month old daughter was taken from my arms by a nurse and wrapped in warm, white hospital blankets. That morning at 7 am, she underwent a five-hour open heart surgery to fix a rare heart defect.
Her young life has been marked by awe-inspiring strength and recovery, and pain that she will never remember. For me, it has been marked by a fierce, full-body surge of boundless love, NICU stays with those blinking, beeping machines and alarms that every NICU mama knows, and an army of talented nurses and doctors whom I will never stop thanking. But my pain lingers.
The uncertainty, trauma and anxiety continue as we all navigate our lives under quarantine. The tools we use to support each other—hugs, playdates that are an excuse to eat cake and drink a glass of wine, a quick dinner out with my soul mate, family celebrations, my daughter’s christening—all gone. This environment magnifies the vulnerability of being pregnant, of giving birth and of motherhood. The conditions for containing the virus are the very conditions that allow depression to thrive.
Here is the thing about depression: that internal voice that talks to you? The one that says things you would never say to your worst enemy? It’s part of the disease. So too, is the inertia and reluctance to do everything or anything that will help ease the symptoms, such as sleep, or exercise or eat properly, or reach out to friends, or make a call, or send a message. And the particular cruelty of postpartum depression is that it is inextricably linked to our identities as mothers.
Think of these words as my emotional PPE (personal protective equipment) for postpartum depression. These are the things that have helped me at my lowest, darkest moments:
First of all, I call it by its name. I am not blue, I am not hormonal or emotional, I am not “a bit up-and-down” as I was once texting friends, or when I brushed over the topic on Zoom or WhatsApp or the phone: I have postpartum depression and it’s going to get better. Because named and shared, depression and anxiety lose some power. They thrive on secrecy and shame.
I have a therapist. Better yet, she is a therapist who is also a mother. There are therapists offering free services, therapists on Zoom or telemedicine apps. There have never been more mental health resources available online. I have a friend in New York talking to a therapist in Wyoming. Another in northern New York talking to one in Brooklyn.
I text my friends and ask them how they are. I didn’t stop asking about, and sharing in, their troubles. Having depression doesn’t make me a victim. It makes me empathetic. I can help. My close friend lives in London and I am in New York. Via text, we share almost every morning our nightly triumphs and failures of sleep training our babies. We feel closer than ever, yet 3,000 miles apart.
I prioritize sleep. Hilarious idea with small children, I know. But my doctor demanded it, and even the acceptance that I have a right to sleep has helped. I use earphones and meditate (calm.com is my go-to) to get to sleep. My husband soothes our beautiful baby at 4 am when she wakes. A week ago I slept the entire night without waking. It was the first night since February 2019 that I’d been able to do that. It was a huge step forward.
I “see” my friends when I can. A few weeks ago on a Zoom call with nine other moms, I knew my face said “I am depressed” before I even talked about it. I couldn’t believe how shattered I looked on the screen. But one friend was preparing dinner for her three children with a propped-up iPad on the kitchen counter. She wears “onion goggles” to chop onions and prevent the fumes from making her eyes water, and they are the ugliest contraption I have ever seen. She looked hilarious. We all laughed so hard, and without COVID-19 we would never have seen our glamorous friend in her goggles.
I write. Writing this is both my way of confronting postpartum health and my way of helping other mothers as so many mothers have helped me. I write in an online file that I can access from my phone—there is no time to sit at a desk. Writing therapy goes back centuries. It works. Write for yourself. Write to a friend. Write to me if you want to.
Am I still a great mother because I am sad? Yes, I am. And so are you.
I can still laugh, I can still feel moments of maternal joy. Those instants once felt like distant glints of sunshine, and I imagined grabbing them, holding onto them. Those fragments have appeared more frequently. They have become a lifeline back to feeling like myself again.