Over the past few months, I have spent hours reading essays about postpartum depression. The HerStories Project received 220 essay submissions for our upcoming anthology, Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience, which will be published next fall by She Writes Press. The process of selecting essays was agonizing; each one was so personal, powerful, and courageous. We selected just 35 essays, and today on our website, we are announcing the contributors to this collection. (The link to the contributor announcement is at the bottom of this post.)
As I mentioned, determining which essays to accept was gut-wrenching for me. There were dozens of amazing submissions that we were simply unable to fit into the book while sticking to our length requirement. I wished I could find a way to honor and share each of the beautiful essays we aren’t able to publish in the anthology. Today, I’m sharing just one. (Stay tuned: we hope to find a unique way to showcase other essays about postpartum depression within the next month!)
My guest post today comes from my real-life friend, Martha Woodard. Martha was one of my best friends and roommates during college, and I am so grateful to have her in my life now that we are both mothers. She lives about an hour away, and we see each other as often as we can. She is one of the most vibrant, strong, courageous women that I know. This is her story about her experience with postpartum depression.
Wake Me When She’s Five
“People tend to dwell more on negative things than on good things. So the mind then becomes obsessed with negative things, with judgments, guilt and anxiety produced by thoughts about the future and so on.”
During my pregnancy, I smiled and laughed and dreamed of how wonderful having a child would be. I was surrounded with adorable tiny pink outfits and cozy blankets. As I sat cross-legged on my bed viewing my naked belly in the mirror, my biggest fear was giving birth. “This baby has to come out. She can’t stay in, and you have to do it,” I repeated to myself while opening and closing my eyes and breathing in and out.
We attended the natural birthing classes and practiced the breathing and soothing techniques. We visited the hospital and created our birthing plan. Her labor and delivery went mostly as planned other than the three-and-a-half hours of pushing due to her cocked little head preventing progress. She nursed right away, and nothing mattered outside of those wide beautiful blue eyes staring into my soul. I love you Mom. I love you Daughter. I will be the best mother.
What have I done? This human, this blessing, this….IT!
It was a Sunday, exactly two weeks after my daughter’s birth. Something happened. The wise leaders of our birthing class and my gynecologist warned me about the possibility of experiencing postpartum depression, but I thought to myself: Of course I won’t get depressed. I’m beyond ready for this. I can’t wait to meet my daughter, nurture her and raise her. Postpartum depression won’t happen to me.
Although deep in the space of my mind, I feared my history of depression increased my risk and this experience may be inevitable. I knew depression well, and I succumbed to my fight against it in 2001 when I resolved to take an antidepressant. At the time of my pregnancy, my dosage was down to a minimum, and I was strong with the conviction I could manage my depressive episodes. My confidence shattered as I felt like I was drowning again, but this was different…deeper. I knew I would screw up being a mother. I wanted this, right? I did, but when reality set in, I didn’t want this. I was terrified, and I couldn’t tell anyone because then my secret would become a reality. Over and over I repeated to myself: I am the worst mother.
Having a child and being a mother was no longer a blessing; it was a disruption to my entire world. What do I do with it? Throughout the endless days I robotically endured, my mind was on a rapidly repeating record: I have to entertain it, teach it, feed it, bathe it, burp it, diaper it, play with it, and cuddle it. This will never end. My life is over. I’m suffocating. I can’t smile. I can’t laugh. I can’t eat. I can’t sleep. I can’t get warm. I can’t stop trembling. I can’t calm my mind. I can’t do this. I don’t want to do this. My mind is chaos while I fail at sleeping while it sleeps.
Make it STOP!!
I can cry. I can lay with my eyes wide open wondering how I can give it up for adoption until it’s five years old. When it’s five, it will go to school, and its teachers will do most of the parenting. I think this while trying to find peace in my bed, working to be comforted by my red 500 thread count sheets. I have the deepest desire to snuggle up in this space, pull the sheets over my head and sleep for five years. When I wake up, I have the strength to be her mother.
“Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what’s going on.”
Reality arrives snapping me back to the guilt of my cognition. Did I just think this horrible thought of wanting to give my daughter away? The one I bonded with in the womb? The one I couldn’t wait to meet? Yes, I did, and it sounds like a perfectly reasonable idea. My fantasy comes to life again. I will just disappear for five years, and when I come back, it will all be okay. I can handle okay. I cannot handle this fear, this sleep deprivation, this helplessness, hopelessness, powerlessness, and loss of a life I thought would be better with the intrusion of this baby. Yes, how can I just go away? I’m sure someone will take it. They say it is beautiful and precious and a blessing. It will be better off with those who can think and feel those things about it.
I sit on my couch with this baby staring at the television In between two hour nursing sessions it sleeps in my arms while I watch TLC for eight hours straight—A Baby Story, A Wedding Story—trying to feel something other than emptiness. Who are these people experiencing so much happiness? How can they feel cheery with something so demanding, loud, and ungrateful consuming their every minute? Why can’t I be one of them? What is wrong with me? I’m crazy! Feeling nothing would be better.
I analyze my every move questioning and doubting myself. I should keep it awake for a bit after feedings like suggested in the books, but it finally got full and will now be quiet so I can sit silently in my misery. Get it on a schedule and provide the stimulation recommended for optimal development, the experts say, but I don’t feel like it. I stare at the T.V. feeling disgust for these perfect people in their perfect-no-stress-everlasting-energetic lives. I should eat, but thinking about eating makes me want to vomit. I should take the baby out for a walk, but then I’d have to move. I should take a shower, but what do I do with it then? I shouldn’t wake it. I don’t want to take care of it. Make it go away. This is the lowest, scariest place I have been, and there is no ladder. I wanted this, so I’m a horrible person. I want to crawl in a hole. I am ashamed and guilt-ridden that I don’t know how to feel love and joy for this baby.
I hold it tight so I don’t throw it. I put it down, so I don’t squeeze it too tight. Someone stay with me while I bathe it so I won’t break one of its innocent limbs. I’m desperate to get out! There is no way out. My thoughts will never be realities because I know they are wrong. I have to find a way to survive this. But dying is an option that creeps in. Will that bring light to the dark?
I stand at my bed with the weight of daily chores upon me. My mother is there across the bed from me. As we fold the laundry, I choke out the words, “I’ve been having thoughts of killing myself.” “Oh no,” she says, “You can’t do that.” I don’t really want to die, but please understand my desperate plea for someone to hear my pain. Don’t tell me not to do it. Tell me it’s normal to feel this, that it will go away, and I will learn to love this thing I brought into the world. That I will learn not only to love it but to be a good mother to it and not have impulses to hurt it. I want the pain to go away. I must get help.
I’m sitting on the paper covered exam table staring at the sterile white walls. My doctor comes in with a smile; her face drops as she observes my sadness. My tears won’t stop. “You aren’t okay,” she says. I shake my head, no. I tell her I want back on birth control right away because I will not ever have another baby. We aren’t surprised at my experience of postpartum depression because I have had depressive episodes before. I’ve had to work hard at happiness and esteem, but I thought arriving at this time of motherhood would defeat this struggle, not catalyze it to its ultimate depth! Still, somehow, I have the skills to seek help, to accept help, to be aware of my despair.
With this awareness, I fill my prescriptions and plan my strategies to stay safe, to keep my baby safe, and to find the sun among the clouds. My new mantra, “one minute at a time,” as I observe my body go through the motions of nurturing my baby. I still don’t feel the joy, but I am gaining competence in providing for its needs. My secret pain is out now. My friends and family know my struggle. While I am embarrassed and feel worthless, they are my strength.
“The best kind of people are the ones in your life who help you see the sun where once you just saw clouds, the people who believe in you and help you see your worth so you start to believe that you are valuable, as well.”
I breathe a bit easier now. Although the dark is still inside me, I experience glimpses of hope. I learn one of my dear friends has experienced this pain. She lets me know I am not alone. I hold on to the words of friends and family: You will survive this. This will end. Take it one moment at a time. You are doing a great job. My girl says, “Plan something to look forward to everyday. Take a shower. Go for a walk. Listen to music you like. Watch a T.V. show you enjoy. We are bringing you lunch, and we’re not leaving until you eat.” I don’t want to let go of their hugs.
The medication is kicking in; it calms my thoughts and helps me to sleep some. I continue to experience a loss of appetite. I am so blessed with my friends who plan my treatment—listening to me, sharing encouraging words, bringing me healthy meals, rallying me for outings, and teaching me how to care for my child. As I hand “it” over, I desperately wonder out loud, “Will I ever love it?” I’m learning that the baby is responding to my uncertainty and fear, so I must breathe deeply and find soothing so she will calm.
Although the sky appears gray and the clouds loom overhead (despite the clear sky and sunshine), I force myself to take her outside and walk her. The movement helps, and I am pleased with myself for taking these steps. The belief that I can do this and that I will come to remember myself and even feel happiness becomes a possibility.
My milk is sparse. She is on my body constantly seeking fullness. A wonderful friend gave me the permission to use formula. Hesitantly, I did. I was in awe at her satisfaction. I will no longer have to survive her being attached to me! I can have my body to myself again. I haven’t been able to nourish myself, so regretfully and after much deliberation I guiltily completely give up nursing. She is seven weeks old, and we are driving ten hours to his closest friend’s wedding. As my breasts turn to stone, every painful bounce of the road reminds me that I have failed at breastfeeding. I cannot bring my friends and their treatment plan with me on this trip. I have to implement it on my own, and my doubt is seeping in.
We arrive and my masquerade begins. Everyone is so cheerful and giggly. Maybe this will rub off like osmosis. We are at the pool with our children, and I wonder if his friends could understand me because these masks are exhausting. As we attempt to relax in the hot tub, one asks me how I am, and I spew it out: my reality. She shares her story. She knows! I’m not alone. I cling to her because she KNOWS! Thank you. I have a friend here.
Unexpectedly and suddenly, I awake in the morning shivering and trembling not wanting to let go of him. It’s happening again. I relapse. The light I found is out of reach. The fear is an ocean wave crashing into me. I see a knife next to the fruit tray and I beg for someone to hide it so I won’t think about slitting my wrists. She says, you need to call your doctor. I accept guidance from the one in control and make the phone call. My doctor asks me if I am still on my birth control and I explain that it is the week of the sugar pills. She directs me to get back on the estrogen pills immediately. I tell her I’ve been taking the antidepressants religiously, but this time feels different. It is not so much sadness, but madness. I feel crazier and unpredictable. She says, “This is anxiety; I am writing a prescription for Xanax and you can have it filled at a pharmacy near you in Ohio.” We finalize the details, and those two hours waiting for the ability to receive it have me shaking with anticipation.
Finally, I received my prescription and swiftly ingested the magic pill. Within an hour the relief was immediate. I expected the drug to make me drowsy and faded, but it balanced me back to normal (my normal). This is what I was waiting for, relief. I’m awake, and she’s not yet five. I have energy. I look at my daughter and I see her beauty. I LOVE her, and I want her. I hold her warmth against my chest and cuddle her into my neck. I dance with her. I smile and laugh effortlessly. I join the conversation with ease as I sip my drink and touch the light.
The road through the darkness wasn’t free of speed bumps. The drugs took the edge off so I could do the work necessary to recover. Going back to work at 10 weeks (earlier than my planned 12 weeks) was a wise decision. I was able to dig into work, reminding myself that my baby does not define me, but I am an individual gifted in a significant career as well.
Of course, some days were harder than others. Some days I put one foot in front of the other effortlessly, and on other days, my feet felt like bricks that required more than my own strength to move. On those days, I leaned on my friends and family seeking their validation and relying on their belief in me to believe in myself. I found my internal source of strength; I tapped into the resiliency I have dug up several times before. When the despair, worry and fear crept in, I breathed deeply and challenged those filthy thoughts and rose into my fierce womanhood. I told myself that I would not break. Drowning was no longer an option.
While it took a full year for the clouds to completely lift, I survived. I survived due to my external supports of friends, family, and medication combined with my internal strength and courageous commitment to overcome.
“There are moments when troubles enter our lives and we can do nothing to avoid them. But they are there for a reason. Only when we have overcome them will we understand why they were there.”
My daughter is now six years old. I made it to five and beyond without letting her go. She is reading to me and teaches me daily how to love her and be the best mother to her. Even though I wish I had happier memories of her first year, I am grateful I found the ability to nurture her. She is thriving. Now, when I look at her, especially when she doesn’t know I’m watching, I am in awe of her precocious and tenacious personality. She is beautiful.
Martha Woodard is a full time single mother of her precious six-year-old daughter. She also works full time as a high school school social worker. She hold her license as a clinical social worker and has enjoyed this career for 13 years. She achieved her Bachelor’s degree in teaching English due to her interest in writing and literature; however, her interest in helping others more intimately led her to the achievement of her Master Degree in Social Work.
You can meet the 35 contributors to Mothering Through the Darkness at The HerStories Project’s website! To receive updates on the book, subscribe to my email list!